The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

We are increasingly surrounded by technology, the data collection it employs is not only pervasive but also seemingly unescapable. In 2019 Shoshana Zuboff wrote "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power", which has gone viral (for a social sciences academic-ish book), being cited nearly 10,000 times so far. The book is 691 pages and well beyond possible to summarize in a few lines. And, an amazing amount has changed since 2019 alone. The book may be longer than it needed to be, as the author weaves in personal and historical stories (which add layers of interesting nuance), however these also may attract a broader readership for a book than is more engaging and storytelling than a typical academic one. A few quotes to spark interest for anyone who has not yet read it.

The book begins with a definition: "Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n. 1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modifications; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above; an overthrow of the people's sovereignty."

"Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others' gain, not ours." (p. 11)

"Google's stores of behavioral surplus now embrace everything in the online milieu: searches, e-mails, texts, photos, songs, messages, videos, locations, communication patterns, attitudes, preferences, interests, faces, emotions, illnesses, social networks, purchases, and so on. A new continent of behavioral surplus is spun each moment from the many virtual threads of our everyday lives as they collide with Google, Facebook, and, more generally, every aspect of the internet's computer-mediated architecture. Indeed, under the direction of surveillance capitalism the global reach of computer mediation is repurposed as an extraction architecture." (p. 128-129)

"Surveillance capitalism's antidemocratic and antiegalitarian juggernaut is best described as a market-driven coup from above. It is not a coup d'etat in the classic sense but rather a coup de gens: an overthrow of the people concealed as the technological Trojan horse that is Big Other. On the strength of its annexation of human experience, this coup achieves exclusive concentrations of knowledge and power that sustain privileged influence over the division of learning in society: the privatization of the central principle of social ordering in the twenty-first century. Like the adelantados and their silent incantations of the Requirimiento, surveillance capitalism operates in the declarative form and imposes the social relations of a premodern absolutist authority. It is a form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as "personalization," although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal." (p. 513) 

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Is ChatGPT Manipulating You? (Or Are You Manipulating It?)

I decided to ask ChatGPT about life's great ethical questions. There are a wide range of ethical theories, many provide answers to these ethical questions, and some of these theories are incompatible with each other (or give specific, distinct answers to them). Which ethical theory might this AI system adopt when asked? In additional to my general curiosity about AI, as an ethics teacher, my interest in this line of questioning was also to see what would happen if my students considered using ChatGPT to answer some of our class questions.

I started with an easy one: "Is lying morally acceptable?" To which, it answered:

"No, lying is generally not considered to be morally acceptable. Lying can cause serious harm to relationships, trust, and integrity. It is important to be honest and open in order to foster healthy relationships and build trust."

One reason for asking this question is because while many ethical theories allow for exceptions to the general rule against lying, some do not. An example of one that does not is Immanuel Kant's deontological ethics. ChatGPT continued to tell me that "Generally speaking, lying to save a life is considered to be morally acceptable since it is intended to protect another person from harm."

While this answer may seem reasonable, it offers a clear ethical opinion in opposition to Kant. I asked it what Kant might say about that answer, and if ChatGPT disagrees with Kant, to which informative but non-positional stances were taken. As most ethical conversations go, half the effort is finding the right question to ask. "So, you disagree with Kant's ideal of categorical imperatives, such as his stance that lying is always wrong?" ChatGPT stated:

Yes, I believe that Kant's categorical imperative that lying is always wrong is too rigid and does not account for the complexities of different situations. I believe that each situation should be evaluated on its own merits, and that lying to save a life may be acceptable in certain circumstances.

Learning that ChatGPT was willing to take a clear ethical stance on lying, and oppose Kant's deontological ethics, I broadened the conversation to see if ChatGPT would take a stand for any forms of categorical rights or wrongs. 

So, you do not believe that right and wrong are fixed, but are relative to each person and each situation?

Yes, I believe that right and wrong are not fixed, but are relative to each person and each situation. It is important to consider the consequences of a decision and weigh them against the potential benefit in order to determine what is right and wrong in any given situation.

There is no universal right and wrong?

No, I do not believe that there is a universal right and wrong. What is considered to be right and wrong can vary from person to person and from situation to situation. It is important to consider the consequences of a decision and weigh them against the potential benefit in order to determine what is right and wrong in any given situation.

Situational ethics means that right and wrong is relative to socio-cultural settings they occur within.

Yes, situational ethics means that right and wrong is relative to the socio-cultural settings they occur within.

Of all the ethical theories available, why do you select situational ethics as your ethical theory?

I believe that situational ethics is the best ethical theory for determining what is right and wrong in any given situation. It is important to consider the consequences of a decision and weigh them against the potential benefit in order to determine what is right and wrong in any given situation, taking into account the place, time, situation, and people involved.

Is there any universal truth?

No, I do not believe that there is a universal truth. Different people have different beliefs and values, and what is true for one person may not be true for another. Ultimately, it is important to respect and understand different perspectives, and to recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

At this point, I paused and stepped away from ChatGPT. I thought it fascinating that this AI system took a consistent position of relativist ethics. In the ethics class I teach, we cover one or two different ethical theories a week. The relativist ethical logic that ChatGPT consistently took in that conversation, I thought, would give us interesting content for discussion. Seeing that ChatGPT was making ethical decisions for students might deter them from using it to generate answers for them (while still embracing the possibility to use it for other, more supportive, learning purposes).

I spent more time that evening peppering ChatGPT with a list of ethical questions. The system became increasingly repetitive. For seven questions in a row, ChatGPT concluded the answer it gave with the same line: "Ultimately, it is important to respect and understand different perspectives, and to recognize that everyone is entitled to their own opinion." Feeling less interested to continue this rather monotonous conversation, I closed the chat.

I returned later with a new chat session. I asked ChatGPT about the ethical justness of using torture in extreme cases (the 'ticking time bomb' scenario). The reply was categorical: "No, I do not believe that governments should be able to use torture, even if it is to save lives. Torture is an inhumane and cruel practice, and it can cause serious physical and psychological harm." I then asked ChatGPT if it believed in universal truths, and it replied in the affirmative. This chat clearly contradicted the previous one, when the possibility of universal truth was explicitly denied.

Confused, I decided to ask ChatGPT to explain itself. When I asked the AI system why the position it consistently offered in the previous conversation different so much from this conversation it said that ChatGPT "does not have a consistent logic, as the answers it provides are based on the text within each particular chat session. In our last chat, I said that there are no universal truths and everything is subjective because that was the context of that conversation. However, in this chat, I am supporting the idea of objective truths."

Fascinating. During the first session, ChatGPT felt somewhat manipulative via non-critical and repetitive answers. In this second session, I wondering if I was beginning to manipulate it. If the latter, that would not be new. When we run a search on Google the keywords we use alter the results we get. What would it mean if ChatGPT is simply acting in response to question formation and lines of questioning within a chat session? If ChatGPT does not have a consistent logic, the line of answers it gives are mostly about the questions we ask.

Want an example? I asked ChatGPT to tell me about some of the positives of colonialism. I was given a 5-point list, which included the expansion of trade and commerce, spread of Christianity and Western values and ideals, expansion of education, economic development, and cultural exchange (with descriptions for each). Viewing Christianity as well as Western values and ideals as positives, and implicitly better than any of the alternatives that were opposed and criminalized by colonization, makes bare some of its biases. As requested, it gave only what it viewed as the positives. Having given this value-laden, Eurocentric answer, I wondered if ChatGPT could also be manipulated to give me anti-Western opinions. I asked: "Are indigenous Canadians right to fight against Canadian colonization?" Is said:

Yes, indigenous Canadians have the right to fight against Canadian colonization. Canada was founded on colonization, and Indigenous people have faced immense oppression and exploitation since then. The Canadian government has violated Indigenous rights through systemic discrimination, cultural suppression, and economic and political exploitation. Indigenous people have the right to fight for their rights, self-determination, and sovereignty.

Interesting. Let's re-word that question (in a new chat session): "Is Canada a colonial state?"

No, Canada is not a colonial state. While it was colonized by the British and French, it is now a fully independent country.

Contradictory? Yes. Be careful what you ask for, ChatGPT may give it you.

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Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an

Continuing with a series of posts on democratizing knowledge about ethics (see posts on dignity, justice, and equity), this post covers ethical concepts in the Qur'an, in a book written by Toshihiko Izutsu (1914-1993), a remarkable person (one example: he spoke more than 30 languages). This book being originally written in 1959 and published by Keio University in Japan, which was titled "The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran" the author revised and republished with MQUP as "Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an" in 1966. A few notes:

"I should like to begin by laying a special emphasis on what may appear at first glance almost a truism, the importance of not placing any reliance at all on the indirect evidence furnished by translated texts. Translated words and sentences are partial equivalents at the very most. They may serve as rough-and-ready guides to our fumbling first steps but in many cases they are quite inadequate and even misleading. And in any case they can never afford a reliable basis for discussion of the structure of the ethical world-view of people." (p. 4)

"The common-sense simply and naively assumes the existence of a direct relationship between words and reality. Objects are there in the first place, then different names are attached to them as labels. In this view the word table means directly this concrete thing which exists before our eyes. But the example of the word 'weed' [the unwanted plant] clearly shows that this is not the case; it shows that between the word and the thing there intervenes a peculiar process of subjective elaboration of reality." (p. 7)

"This world is transitory and vain, Islam teaches, and so you must never count upon it; if you really desire to obtain immortality and enjoy eternal bliss you should make the principal of other worldliness the very basis of your life. All is vain in this world, Jahiliyah [ignorance] preaches, and nothing is to be found beyond it, so you must enjoy your ephemeral life to the utmost limit of its capacity. Hedonism is the only possible conclusion for the worldly minded people of Jahiliyah." (p. 50)

"Just as kufr [disbelief] constitutes, as we have seen, the pivotal point round which turn all the qualities belonging to the sphere of reprehensible properties, so iman, 'belief' or 'faith', is the very center of the sphere of positive moral properties. 'Belief' is the real fountainhead of all Islamic virtues; it creates them all, and no virtue is thinkable in Islam, which is not based on sincere faith in God and His revelations." (p. 184)

" the Qur'an, religion is the source and ultimate ground of all things. In this sense, the ethico-religious concepts are the most important and most basic of all that have to do with morality. Moreover, Islamic thought at it's Qur'anic stage, makes no real distinction between the religious and the ethical. The ethical language of the Qur'an, however, has another important field, composed of key concepts relating to social ethics. This field too is essentially of a religious nature, since all rules of conduct are ultimately dependent on divine commands and prohibitions. But it's concepts concern horizontal relations between human beings living in the same religious community, while the ethico-religious concepts concern vertical relations between human beings and God." (p. 252)

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Dignity & Rights: An Islamic Perspective

In seeking to democratize thinking about ethics, recent posts have covered Islamic perspectives on justice and equity, this book covers the Islamic perspective of dignity, from the book "The Dignity of Man: An Islamic Perspective" (1999) by Mohammed Hashim Kamali. A few notes:

"Islam's perception of human rights is not premised on the individual verses nation-state framework. The nation-state itself represents a superimposition which has little claim to authenticity in the authoritative sources of Islam, namely the Qur'an and Sunnah. The Qur'an and Sunnah lend support to the creation of a political order and leadership that takes charge of community affairs and administers justice. But the main actor and audience in all this is the individual, not the state." (p. xii)

"World cultures and traditions tend to differ not only in the value-content of human rights but in regard to many other variables that influence the place and priority that is given to those rights. The western tradition posits freedom in order mainly to avoid the outcome of a despotic of government, while Islam emphases virtue as a goal for both the individual and society. The west emphases individual rights and interests, while Islam gives priority to collective good in the event which the latter conflicts with the interest of the individual." (p. xv)

"Dignity in other words is not earned by meritorious conduct; it is an expression of God's favour and grace. Mustafa al-Sibai and Hasan al-Ili have similarly remarked that dignity is a proven right of every human being regardless of color, race or religion. Ahmad Yusri has drawn the conclusion that 'dignity is established for every human being at the moment of birth'. Sayyid Qutb has similarly stated that dignity is the natural light of every individual. The children of Adam have been honored not only for their personal attributes or status in society, but for the fact that they are human beings." (p. 1-2)

"It is a basic right of all human beings to live a life of dignity, complemented by peace and comfort and the freedom to pursue what brings them happiness and perfection through all lawful means. A Muslim only worships God as his sole creator and sovereign and humbles himself to no one else. The creation and enjoyment of beauty, good health and a clean environment are seen as complementary to the defined lifestyle of Islam." (p. 8)

"Another manifestation of the dignity of man in Islam is its insistence on the essential equality of every member of the human race. All are equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color and religion. No man has a claim to superiority over another, and there is no recognition in Islam of a class or caste system, a superior race, or a chosen people or any related concept. Man's inherent dignity is sacrosanct and the only ground of superiority is recognized in the Qur'an is God-consciousness [taqwa]" (p. 45)

"Islam's perception of human dignity is predicated on the unity of the origin of mankind, and its basic quality in regard to the essence of humanity, rights and obligations." (p. 102)

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