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How Google Discovered the Value of Surveillance

In 2002, still reeling from the dot-com crash, Google realized they’d been harvesting a very valuable raw material — your behavior.
Surveillance capitalism runs contrary to the early digital dream, consigning the Aware Home to ancient history. Instead, it strips away the illusion that the networked form has some kind of indigenous moral content, that being “connected” is somehow intrinsically pro-social, innately inclusive, or naturally tending toward the democratization of knowledge. Digital connection is now a means to others’ commercial ends. At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience. Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism. Google was the pioneer of surveillance capitalism in thought and practice, the deep pocket for research and development, and the trailblazer in experimentation and implementation, but it is no longer the only actor on this path. Surveillance capitalism quickly spread to Facebook and later to Microsoft. Evidence suggests that Amazon has veered in this direction, and it is a constant challenge to Apple, both as an external threat and as a source of internal debate and conflict.

As the pioneer of surveillance capitalism, Google launched an unprecedented market operation into the unmapped spaces of the internet, where it faced few impediments from law or competitors, like an invasive species in a landscape free of natural predators. Its leaders drove the systemic coherence of their businesses at a breakneck pace that neither public institutions nor individuals could follow. Google also benefited from historical events when a national security apparatus galvanized by the attacks of 9/11 was inclined to nurture, mimic, shelter, and appropriate surveillance capitalism’s emergent capabilities for the sake of total knowledge and its promise of certainty.

Surveillance capitalists quickly realized that they could do anything they wanted, and they did. They dressed in the fashions of advocacy and emancipation, appealing to and exploiting contemporary anxieties, while the real action was hidden offstage. Theirs was an invisibility cloak woven in equal measure to the rhetoric of the empowering web, the ability to move swiftly, the confidence of vast revenue streams, and the wild, undefended nature of the territory they would conquer and claim. They were protected by the inherent illegibility of the automated processes that they rule, the ignorance that these processes breed, and the sense of inevitability that they foster.
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