Peter Bloom: Monitored. Business and Surveillance in a Time of Big Data. Pluto Press 2019.
von Flavia Giglio, Den Haag
In 2016, the data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica digitally collected data from over 50 million Facebook profiles in order to individually influence US voters in view of perhaps one for the most significant elections of the recent history. Notably, the CEO of Trump’s campaign exploited his position in the company to use for political gain the messaging tactics usually reserved for geopolitical conflicts. Taking this crucial event as a starting point, Peter Bloom, Professor of Management at the University of Essex, explores how the contemporary historical period, economically marked by what may be defined as a neoliberalist ideology, is deeply influenced by the massive phenomenon of surveillance by means of collecting and analysing big data. Bloom argues that, while surveillance has turned into what has more properly to be called monitoring, due to the spreading culture of personal accountability derived from the practice of constantly observing and judging the digital selves we create on the Internet, the use we make of social media and personally create and manage our personal data feeds a capitalistic system which remains substantially unaccountable from the negative impact it has to society as a whole.
Corporate and political elites are indeed a narrow minority which possesses the needed sources to operate an intrusive and widespread activity of mass surveillance not anymore limited to merely know personal preferences of people to accordingly address market decisions, but also and above all to influence and shape human behaviours in order to let the citizens take an active part in the unchallenged rise of data capitalism. The book states that the same privileged minority turns away from the radar of this monitoring activity, thus remaining unobserved and, ultimately, unaccountable. Neoliberalism is strongly characterized by the affirmation of the principle of individualistic and entrepreneurial freedom as a means of liberation from an oppressive and inefficient State. Free market represents the essential condition for the concrete realization of such a principle, along with the abstract myth of a constant race to progress and the spreading of a “smart utopia” based on the belief that a correct and productive usage of social media and Internet – namely, the one suggested by dictates of aggressive capitalistic economies – may lead us through a process of self-improvement and self-management aimed to successful, winning self-made human beings capable of reaching any goal we pose to ourselves.
While the first chapter of the book introduces the concepts of neoliberalism and capitalism, giving an explanation about how digital technologies and big data became a crucial part of such ideologies, the second one provocatively states that “data is the new oil”, outlining which social factors – namely, a voyeuristic culture, a willingness to know more about ourselves, a need for lost ontological security – favour big data to be the elected means by which people become accomplices to the capitalistic system. The third chapter is specifically dedicated to the concept of “smart identity”: it is aimed to show how people, driven by a need of building a valuable and profitable neoliberal self and scared by the possibility of being left behind by a pervasive capitalistic system which does not allow alternative ways of self-development, become the ones who constantly monitor themselves, in response to a pressing need of validation and verification from a society who never stop asking for accountability of life-style as a whole. Ultimately, they are the first creators of personal data that capitalism craves for. The fourth chapter argues that people tend to perceive themselves as part of a networked community whose scenario is the new social reality of cyberspace; the perception of an limitless space where profit opportunities and marketable realities never end the increasingly blurred distinction between public and private sphere which characterized the way people make use of social media in shaping their digital selves leads to a colonization by neoliberalism of any possible expression of human life. The fifth chapter address the issue of what is the so-called fantasy of digital salvation: Bloom highlights how, in the aftermath of the economic crash of 2008, an increasing attention has been given by digital world to the need of people for a spiritual well-being. The diffusion of soul-tracking apps aimed to meditation training, to self-regulation and a new form of self-improvement gave rise to a massive collection of the so-called “deeper data”, thus allowing a capitalisation of the most intimates human desires and thoughts based on the illusion of using technology to improve quality of life. The sixth chapter how the human willingness to write their own digital history to feed an illusion of control and free choice on the future and a search for objective truth about ourselves ends up in being primary means by which building predictive algorithms which anticipate citizens’ choices for economic gains. The seventh chapter illustrates how the social credit systems designed by some firms and governments are leading to enforcement of existing discriminations and asymmetric distribution of power and are promoting the rise of a new form of totalitarianism based on the claim of monopoly of truth and the affirmation of monitoring as a social need by the aforementioned firms and governments. The eighth chapter expresses the conclusions Bloom reaches: he underlines how “the bigger the data, the smaller our ability to monitor, hold accountable and ultimately transform the status quo”. The unaccountability of elites controlling big data and capitalistic system as a whole he aimed to show in the book results in inability of the many to reorient monitoring and evade the golden cage of the neoliberal narrative. The solution proposed is a process of democratisation of big data by means of a greater public supervision and regulation, a development of the idea of “digital citizenship” and the use of modern technologies to pursue alternative and more sustainable economic models – specifically, social media, which have the potential to be a powerful tool in the so-called cyber-activism.
The declared purpose of the book is to detect how, in a digital society based on the concept of personal accountability of a monitored majority, an elite minority takes advantage of this monitoring activity and escapes judgment and accountability for it. As a consequence, such an unaccountability reflects on the capitalistic system as a whole. Nevertheless, the major merit of Bloom’s work is rather to focus on which intimate human needs and pushes lead us to embrace this new form of digital capitalism and to lose our critical view on the system. We are nowadays used to develop our personality in alignment to the current neoliberal ideology and without any external and objective perspective of how our use of technology contributes to support it. Bloom provides a comprehensive explanation of what makes the system so seductive to all of us.
The weaponization of big data has long been a matter of interest and a proven fact for academic studies on international relations, with the consequence of an increasing hyper-personalization of war which requires an adaptation of the law of war to the current realities. Rise of big data represents an epistemic challenge of many levels: the risks big data may pose range from the ideologically motivated attacks to endorsement of existing racial discrimination. In light of the changeable field of big data, the current legislation is insufficient and the need for new policy and legal approaches require a deep cognizance of the anthropological factors playing a role in spreading the culture of monitoring. “Monitored” sometimes runs the risk of becoming repetitive in elaborating certain recurrent concepts, and the solutions that Bloom outlines in the last chapter would require further development to give an effective contribution to the resolvent stage of the debate. Nevertheless, the book provides a good explanation of how we’re meant to be at the same time victims and accomplices of the misuse of big data. Being aware of which human weaknesses the capitalist system exploits in order to make our digital identities part of a purely profit-aimed economy is an essential step in developing adequate policies and legislation to respond to the new technologic challenges and preserve our free will in spite of the mostly invisible homogenizing forces which act undisturbed on the Internet.
- Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., The Hyper-Personalization of War. Cyber, Big Data, and the Changing Face of Conflict, in Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 2014, pp. 108-118
- Andrej Zwitter, Big Data and International Relations, in Ethics & International Affairs 29, no. 4, 2015, pp. 377-89, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679415000362
Flavia Giglio, Den Haag