One phrase that Chris Gilliard used in the Leading Lines podcast that really stuck out to me, presumably because I had never heard it before, was his use of the term “surveillance capitalism.” In the podcast he was using it to compare how colleges and universities have borrowed, in his words, “some of the worst practices” of companies that collect data. There was never a term in my vocabulary to describe what I have witnessed, as I’m sure most people have, corporations like Amazon or Facebook doing—collecting and analyzing the data of everyday people to somehow profit off of this knowledge. “Surveillance capitalism” sums it up perfectly.
When I think of any big leap forward in human history—usually it is associated with a term like the “agricultural revolution” or “industrial revolution.” These terms connote a grand change, typically a positive one, in the quality of life for humans and the organization of society, and they are always associated with the way humans exchange goods—in a sense, the progression of man to fully capitalist societies. In the Western world we live in, capitalism is good, it connotes democracy and liberty and laisse faire. But where do we draw the line on the progress of capitalism? When does it go too far? It’s not a nuanced issued. It’s one that we have seen time and time again in the policy making of the United States.
So back to “surveillance capitalism”…Are we in the midst of a surveillance revolution? Definitely. But what we are seeing these days might just be the beginnings of a surveillance Gilded Age—when companies are creating monopolies just like the robber barons of the 1920s (Cornelius Vanderbilt, anyone??), except now those monopolies are being created on the collection of our whereabouts, tastes, online activities and transactions—when looked at in a connected web, essentially our identities. When companies are allowed to buy and sell a person’s digital (and often physical) history—where will we draw the line?