Big Tech does not control its users, however much it may want to
As a child, Shoshana Zuboff accompanied her grandfather as he walked through his factory, greeting workers. He was an inventor and had made his fortune creating a mechanism to release drinks from vending machines. It was a blissful time, both for her and for American business, she recalls. In the 1950s and 60s, “business had integrity. Those companies barely exist any more.”
That sense of loss clearly lies behind Ms Zuboff’s latest book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. For the work of a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, it is written with unusual outrage. Its arch-villain is Google, a company as far removed from a blue-collar production line as can be imagined. It sweeps beyond business to society at large, where it warns of an “overthrow of the people’s sovereignty” by the surveillance capitalists. Clearly the halcyon days of her youth, when America’s big business was trusted, are long gone. Her zeal recalls that of another writer yearning for a lost past; Ida Tarbell, whose journalism helped end the monopoly of John Rockefeller, the oil baron who ruined her father. But as muckraking goes, Ms Zuboff lays it on too thick.
在朱伯夫的新作《监控资本主义的时代》（The Age of Surveillance Capitalism）背后，显然隐藏着这种失落感。对于哈佛商学院荣休教授这样一个身份而言，此书的笔调可谓异乎寻常的愤慨。书中树立的头号反派是谷歌——一家在人们想象中与蓝领生产线毫不沾边的公司。它的视野从商界扩展至整个社会，警告监控资本家将“颠覆人民主权”。显然，朱伯夫年幼时美国大企业备受信任的静好岁月早已一去不返。其意之切，让人想起另一位同样推崇旧时代的作家艾达·塔贝尔（Ida Tarbell）。塔贝尔的新闻调查导致摧毁了她父亲的石油大亨约翰·洛克菲勒的垄断终结。但就“揭发黑幕”而言，朱伯夫言过其实了。
To be sure, this is a good time to draw attention to the dark forces at work on-screen. Surveillance capitalism, a phrase Ms Zuboff coined in 2014, is a good way of explaining the Faustian bargain at the heart of the digital economy: the services that users enjoy free of charge are costing them more than they think. It describes the compulsion Silicon Valley’s data-gatherers have to mine ever larger portions of people’s daily existence—how they shop, exercise or socialise—to turn into products that predict and shape their behaviour.
She argues that users are sleepwalking into this new world of “smart” devices and smart cities, created more for the benefit of those who hoover up their data than for them. In order to get the best use out of their robo-vacuum cleaner, or “sleep-tracking” mattresses, or internet-enabled rectal thermometers, they consent to surrendering their most intimate details, not realising these are put up for sale in “behavioural futures markets”. Beyond the home, little do they know how their phone doubles as a tracking device, enabling firms to geotag them for advertisements. More Americans used apps that required location data in 2015 than those who listened to music or watched videos on their phones, she notes. Because all this is unprecedented, it is ill-defined in law and regulation. Actions against monopoly and privacy do not quite cut it.
In this drama Google makes for a compelling evil genius. It started life as a force for good. In 1998 its founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, wrote a landmark paper explicitly warning that advertising-led search engines would be biased against the true needs of consumers. But their idealism was coshed by the dotcom crash of 2000-01, which forced them to turn a profit. Like Tarbell combing through Standard Oil’s court documents, Ms Zuboff picks apart Google’s patent applications to find evidence of its switch to surveillance as the means for its power grab. It was transformed from a “youthful Dr Jekyll into a ruthless, muscular Mr Hyde, determined to hunt his prey anywhere, any time”, she writes.
在这场大戏中，谷歌成了引人注目的邪恶天才。在诞生之初，它是一股向善的力量。1998 年，谷歌创始人拉里·佩奇和谢尔盖·布林写下一篇具里程碑意义的论文，明确警告以广告为导向的搜索引擎会偏离消费者的真正需求。但他们的理想主义受到2000 至2001 年互联网泡沫破灭的打击，他们被迫转而追求利润。就像塔贝尔详查标准石油公司（Standard Oil）的法庭档案那样，朱伯夫深挖细察谷歌的专利申请文件，希望找到该公司转向以数据监控攫取市场影响力的证据。她写道，谷歌从“年轻的杰基尔博士变身为残忍、强壮的海德先生，随时随地无情捕猎”。
Several factors need to be taken into account, however, before reaching such a damning verdict on Google, Facebook or any of the tech companies in her sights. First, in her 691-page book she barely mentions the benefits of Google’s products, such as search, maps and gmail. No company has taken the age-old tools of discovery and communication—quests, voyages and messages—and made them more widely available. It may be true, as Apple’s Tim Cook has said, that “if the service is ‘free’, you are not the customer but the product”. But arguably, only religions do a better job of providing something for nothing. In a sign that people value “free” stuff despite the surveillance costs, a National Bureau of Economic Reseach paper has calculated that users of search engines would need to be paid over $1,000 a month to give up access to the service.
然而，对谷歌、Facebook 或任何她论及的科技公司做如此严厉的裁决之前，先要考虑几个因素。首先，在这本691 页的书里，几乎没提及谷歌的搜索、地图和Gmail 等产品的好处。没有一家公司能像谷歌那样把人类古老的探索和沟通方法（探寻、远征、讯息）推陈出新，并使这些产品大大普及。苹果公司的蒂姆·库克曾说，“如果服务是‘免费的’，你就不是顾客，而是产品”。这可能是对的。但我们可以说，除了宗教，没有其他更好的免费服务了。美国国家经济研究局的一份报告计算得出，搜索引擎用户要每月收到超过1000 美元才愿意放弃使用搜索服务，表明尽管付出了被监控的代价，人们仍看重“免费”服务。
Second, if people become fed up with Google’s tactics, they can always switch. DuckDuckGo, a smaller search engine, assures users that it does not track them. A competitive market for digital privacy is heating up. Amid all the potentially creepy internet-of-things devices at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Apple made privacy a marketing pitch with its ad: “What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” Ad blockers and subscription services, such as Netflix, are a reminder that advertising’s stranglehold is not invincible. As Tim Wu says in his book “The Attention Merchants”, popular revolt has often been triggered when advertising becomes too intrusive. There is eventually a political reaction, too. Witness the congressional grillings of Facebook when the Cambridge Analytica scandal surfaced. The political furore is one reason why its share price has slumped.
其次，如果大家受够了谷歌的手法，他们总是可以改用别家的产品。规模更小些的搜索引擎公司DuckDuckGo 保证不会追踪用户信息。保障数字隐私的市场竞争正在升温。最近在拉斯维加斯举办的消费电子产品展上有大批可能具窥探性的物联网设备亮相，但苹果公司在它的广告宣传中以隐私大做文章：“在你iPhone 上发生的，只留在你的iPhone 上。”广告拦截器及Netflix 等订阅服务也表明广告的束缚并非不可解除。正如吴修铭在《注意力商人》（The Attention Merchants）一书中所说的，当广告变得太过干扰时，往往会引发人们的普遍反抗。最终还会引发政治反应。剑桥分析的数据泄露丑闻浮出水面后，Facebook 面对的国会拷问就是证明。政治公愤是其股价下跌的原因之一。
The end of history
But in a book that calls surveillance capitalism “a threat to human nature in the 21st century”, perhaps the biggest shortcoming is taking the genius of Silicon Valley—evil or not—too seriously. One of Ms Zuboff’s sharpest criticisms is of “inevitablism”: the belief, from Karl Marx to the tech giants, that Utopia can be predicted with certainty—in tech’s case, that “everything will be connected”.
Others, too, find this unconvincing. In his book “Life After Google”, George Gilder notes that, since Marx, intellectuals have often erred in thinking that their own eras were the final stage of human history, ie, that they had reached the peak of human achievement. The tech titans do too, he says, not least because this serves to endorse the significance of “their own companies, of their own special philosophies and chimeras—of themselves really”. Ms Zuboff, while highlighting the phenomenon, falls into its trap. Shining a light on the way data can mess with people’s heads is fine. But defining surveillance capitalism as a Big Brother autocracy that threatens human freedom? However dystopian, that has the whiff of inevitablism all over it.
其他人也不完全相信这种预测。乔治·吉尔德（George Gilder）在《后谷歌时代》（Life After Google）中指出，自马克思以来，知识分子经常错误地认为自己的时代是人类历史的最后阶段，已达到人类成就的顶峰。他表示，科技巨头也一样，尤其是因为这有助于强化“他们的公司、他们的特殊理念和奇思异想——实际就是他们自己”的重要性。朱伯夫虽然强调了这种现象，但又落入了其陷阱。指出数据可能会迷惑人们的思考，这很好。但把监控资本主义定义为威胁人类自由的老大哥专制统治？虽然这是一种反乌托邦的观点，却通体散发着一股“必然性”的气息。