18 April 2021


'Caveat Usor: Surveillance Capitalism as Epistemic Inequality' by Shoshana Zuboff in Kevin Werbach (ed) After the Digital Tornado (Cambridge University Press, 2020) comments 

 Epistemic rights are the cause of which privacy is the effect. The wholesale destruction of privacy during the first two decades of the digital century is the consequence of the unilateral nullification of elemental epistemic rights, as the leading surveillance capitalist corporations established unrivaled dominance over the totality of the world’s information now rendered in digital format. This political and human rights contest has been obfuscated to the point of invisibility, despite the fact that its outcome will define the moral and political milieu of our information civilization. 

The distribution of epistemic rights determines the degree of epistemic inequality, defined as unequal access to learning imposed by hidden mechanisms of information capture, production, analysis, and control. It is best exemplified in the fast-growing abyss between what people can know and what can be known about them. This new axis of social inequality does not reflect what we can earn but rather what we can learn. It represents a focal shift in social ordering from ownership of “the means of production” to ownership of “the production of meaning,” from the division of labor to the division of learning. 

Asymmetries of knowledge feed the progress of instrumentarian power as exclusive knowledge is translated through the networked layer of digital instrumentation to produce new capabilities of behavioral actuation at scale – influencing, tuning, herding, and modifying human behavior toward others’ commercial -- and political-- ends. The division of learning is both the ascendant principle of social order in the twenty-first century and already hostage to surveillance capital’s privileged position, empowered by its self-authorized ownership of human-generated data and its exclusive command of analysis and prediction capabilities. The result: Caveat usor. 

These conditions are best understood as the unauthorized privatization of the division of learning in society. Just as Durkheim warned of the subversion of the division of labor by the powerful forces of industrial capital a century ago, today’s successful prosecution of information warfare by surveillance capital against citizen-users exerts private power over the definitive principle of social order in our time. Epistemic inequality is the signature deformation of this epoch, as the pathologies of the division of learning infect society and undermine democracy. 

How do surveillance capitalists defend their dominance? What responses are required? Finally, the citizens’ paradox: Democracy is the ultimate target of this epistemic poison and its only antidote.