Liberal restraints won't fix surveillance capitalism

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As our lives move increasingly online, we must pause and reflect on how we work, play and communicate on the internet. This year, Ronald J. Deibert will deliver the 2020 CBC Massey Lectures on this very topic. In his latest book, Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society Deibert outlines the dangerous impacts of our current "communications ecosystem on civil society." Deibert is well-suited to do this work; he is a professor of political science and the founder and director of the Citizen Lab, a digital security research group housed in the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. The book begins with a stark assessment of costs of the internet and social media, before pinnacling at Deibert's recommended course of action for our current situation.

The first four chapters of Reset present a chilling portrait of our current communications infrastructure, with each addressing a different facet of this story. The first two chapters discuss the relentless, growing demand for data and the ways state actors and nefarious organizations encroach on individual privacy.  Recounting the role of data surveillance in the infamous murder of Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Deibert outlines the cost of this privacy breach at both the individual and national levels. He argues that we are living in an age of  "surveillance capitalism" (a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff), a new form of capitalism that tries to "predict and modify human behaviour as a means to produce revenue and market control." In this new extractive economy, data is the resource of choice. 

On the topic of resource extraction and the ecological costs of social media, Deibert is extremely compelling. Reading through his chapter "Burning Data" made this reader want to abolish, once and for all, every e-signature that brags, "This email is green!" Deibert shows how dirty the production of our technologies is, both in the process of capturing raw materials for smart technology and in the staggering amount of CO2 emissions generated from data streaming (the chapter is full of helpful comparisons that depict this usage, such as "Sending 65 emails is roughly equivalent to driving one kilometre in a car." Yet the average user is blithely unaware of the pressures our devices place on the natural world. "Much of the materiality of social media is either hidden from view or difficult for the average person to experience first-hand," Deibert writes.

Deibert succeeds at bringing this hidden world into view in the book's first four chapters by putting the platforms and devices that we use daily in a new light. In the book's final chapter, Deibert returns us to the familiar, pitching "restraint" as a viable guiding principle to the profound challenges we face with communications technology. We're all familiar with the idea of restraint, Deibert tells us, but what he means is something very specific: "[restraint] is most intimately connected to that broad family of political thought that for most of us is so entrenched in our habits and dispositions…I'm talking of course about liberalism."

Deibert's alignment with liberalism should not come as a shock. He evokes civil society and the figure of the citizen as the site of politics before the book even begins in earnest. Yet his proposition still took me for surprise, in particular because one of liberalism's chief weaknesses is its inability to theorize power. In practice, the liberal-republicanism Deibert describes has often existed in societies organized around profound inequality and exclusion, with rigid parameters around who could partake in civic life.

In modern times, Deibert tells us, the vestiges of liberal-republicanism's limitations on power exists in bodies like the EU or the UN. But what would the power structure of a UN of the internet look like? Who would restrain the restrainers? Deibert proposes that universities might take up this mantle, referencing his own work at the Citizen Lab. He admits that the conditions under which universities operate would have to radically change for this to take place: more public funding, increased investment for the arts and humanities, and the right to exercise academic freedom on external grants.

I wholeheartedly agree with these recommendations, but what will actually get us these new conditions? The book offers little to no discussion of labour politics as drivers of change in the university or technology sectors. Deibert's social unit of power is civil society, not class, and this is why he locates this authority in institutions (universities, legal systems, impartial third-party watchdogs). Yet historically speaking, labour power and collective action have been one convincing answer to the question: why would a corporation yield to a limitation or restraint?

While liberal-republicanism might be a way of placing limits on power, it is also the same logic that governs private ownership, free-market expansion, and individual autonomy over communal good. All of these features, no doubt, have driven the internet conundrum we are in -- it would be as reasonable to suggest that a particular version of liberal-capitalism has been the source of much of the ecological, political, and personal crises that Deibert outlines. It is and has been, in other words, well-suited to the needs of a capitalist economy.

After hearing about a litany of struggles generated by our internet age -- and watching from their screens because of an ongoing global pandemic -- listeners of Deibert's Massey lectures may be relieved by the familiar solution Deibert presents. Similar works in this genre express uncertainty about how we might transform our communications ecosystem (Nick Srnicek's Platform Capitalism, Richard Seymour's The Twittering Machine, and Nick Dyer-Witheford and Svitlana Matviyenko's Cyberwar and Revolution come to mind).

Perhaps a good conversation will come out of the lecture and some intrepid listener will bring the labour question to the fore: "we have nothing to lose but our restraints" could be a fine mantra, after all.

Cristina D'Amico is a curriculum developer at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation at the University of Toronto and a member of USW local 1998. She completed her PhD at the University of Toronto in the department of English.

Image: Taylor Vick/Unsplash

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