Could Bitcoin mean the end of surveillance capitalism?

Last year, Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard economist, told us that we were living in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — the title of her influential book. Its subtitle was The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Her complaint was about how big tech businesses sell behavioural data collected from their users in return for their ‘free’ services.

Zuboff says that the tech companies pay nothing for our data but make their fortunes by analysing and selling it — in the great capitalist tradition of “taking things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities.”

In the same interview with The Guardian, she says that “once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free.” It’s a powerful argument, and Zuboff is not the first to make this kind of point.

So could Bitcoin ‘fix’ surveillance capitalism? Well, maybe. By making possible small peer-to-peer transactions, it allows the monetization of things that weren’t big enough to be worth anything in the past, unless aggregated into huge numbers by the surveillance capitalists. What value could be put on my ‘liking’ your tweet? Until now, nothing to me, but something to a business that make me a data point in its monitoring of the kind of things I ‘like’ or the kind of people that have ‘liked’ that tweet.

Already Twetch has established a Twitter-like social media platform on which individual interactions have a value, not to some big business but to the individuals themselves. You’re not going to make a fortune (at least not until the BSV ecosystem brings a much larger population to its apps), but the principle of being rewarded for your contributions may be one that quickly feels natural and then almost like a right that we should always have had. We may start to wonder why we never noticed that we didn’t have it. After all, this isn’t just “data”: it’s our creativity, our human thoughts and feelings. As Zuboff’s subtitle puts it, this is a “fight for a human future.”

One of the most eloquent advocates of the idea of reclaiming the value that we have given the tech giants is Jaron Lanier, whose books talk about the ‘Siren servers’ (named after the Sirens in Greek mythology, beautiful creatures, half woman, half bird, whose singing lured sailors to their deaths). Lanier means that the big data-collecting platforms — not just Google and Facebook but also, in different ways, Instagram, Twitter, Foursquare, Amazon, Medium and others — all exert a perilous attraction, maybe even addiction, that draws us to them, to our cost.

Facebook has suffered data crises, raising awareness about the way in which the surveillance economy works. If you’re inclined to think that Facebook’s problems have been overblown, take a look at The Great Hack, a timely Netflix documentary about Cambridge Analytica and its impact on the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum and other elections around the world.

Even with the evidence in front of us, it’s still easy to dismiss worries about our personal data by thinking “I have nothing to hide.” If you take the time to enjoy Zuboff’s brilliant, readable (but long) book, you’ll find it harder to shrug off concerns that you are being exploited.

‘Digital native’ used to be a phrase with which older people flattered those who were younger and more tech-savvy than they were. But Zuboff has given it a new and more sinister meaning. Today’s natives are being exploited by the tech giants in the same way that native peoples were exploited by colonists, taking from them without asking, commodities that they had never previously thought to own or sell.

Once we realise our data has value, the next step is to find how Bitcoin allows us to fight back, to reclaim the rewards we could be earning for our communications, creativity and humanity. Look out for a new ecosystem of BSV-powered services that offer the chance to do just that.