Evaluating scholarship, or why I won’t be teaching Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

I’ve been trying to sort out my opinion about The Age of Surveillance Capitalism since I read it almost a month ago. While I am predisposed to agree with Shoshana Zuboff’s worries about an … apocalyptic isn’t too strong a word … surveillance capitalist dystopia, I found much of the book problematic, almost on a molecular level. The way that Zuboff presented her argument, particularly her seeming neglect of whole swaths of relevant literature, all spoke of a book that was much more flawed than the rave comparisons to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century would suggest. It was as if we’re reading completely different books.

Which is why I was quite happy to see Evgney Morozov’s masterful, epically long review of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which gets to the heart of some of the book’s substantive issues.

In his review, which is a wonder of careful thinking and contextualization, Morozov performs a couple of useful services. First, he highlights the extent to which Zuboff’s argument about how surveillance capitalism works rests on a tautology – “surveillance capitalists engage in surveillance capitalism because this is what the imperatives of surveillance capitalism demand” – that leaves they why of the matter unexamined. Second, he places her squarely within an intellectual tradition of “managerial capitalism” and a wider functionalist tradition in sociology associated with Talcott Parsons. Morozov argues that partly as a result of this (unacknowledged) mindset, Zuboff fails to understand the extent to which her critique of surveillance capitalism is actually a critique of capitalism, full stop. This inability to see anything outside the mindset of capitalism accounts for the way the book just kind of finishes without suggesting any real possible paths forward other than, we need a new social movement, and surveillance capitalism must be destroyed and replaced with a better form of (digital?) capitalism.

I hadn’t made those exact connections, and Morozov’s review does a great job in concisely summing up these intellectual frameworks. And if you didn’t know anything about managerial capitalism and Alfred Chandler, or the Italian Autonomists, you could also be forgiven for not making those connections either. I knew very little about managerial capitalism, nothing of Alfred Chandler. I am familiar with Parsons and my only exposure to the Italian Autonomists was by reading Hardt and Negri’s Empire during my PhD, which was enough to convince me that I wanted nothing to do with them.

Morozov’s final conclusion is both persuasive and damning from an academic perspective. The book, he says, could be politically powerful because it is a sharp broadside against two companies – Google and Facebook – that represent a clear and present danger to society. However, it “is a step backward in our understanding of the dynamics of the digital economy.”

I think that’s about right.

I am also pretty sure that, despite the acclaim it’s getting in non-Baffler circles, I’m not going to be teaching The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in my Global Political Economy of Knowledge course, but not because I disagree with Zuboff’s argument or feel threatened by her analysis. To the contrary, she’s pretty much telling me exactly what I want to hear. Or more to the point, what I want to believe.

I’m not going to be teaching it because as an academic work, it falls far short of the standards to which we should hold ourselves. It may be a politically effective polemic, but as scholarship that advances our understanding of the world, it is sorely lacking.

Academic writing works on a formula. There are a certain number of things you have to do in order to prove that your work is legitimate and worthy of attention. You have to show how you connect with the larger, ongoing conversation in your area of interest. You have to present your evidence carefully. You have to show the framework you used to conduct your analysis. Missing these steps is a signal that there are very likely problems with the work in question, but the steps are also important in their own right: they’re necessary in order to construct a sound argument, and not just a lawyer’s brief.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has problems on all three accounts. Taken together, they help to explain, or maybe contextualize, the blind spots that Morozov noted in his essay.

Before beginning, I should note that my background is in political science and International Political Economy, with a current research agenda focused on the political economy of knowledge. While I’m acutely sensitive to how this book – which is all about political economy – doesn’t really engage with the political economy literature, my biggest issues with The Age of Surveillance Capitalism aren’t really about disciplinary differences. After all, different disciplines will attack problems in different ways. Rather, they’re grounded in the basic expectations we should have of any researcher working on this very important issue, at a very consequential time.

(And students! What follows doubles as a list of things to avoid when writing your own essays, and what to look for when assessing someone else’s work.)

Four tells of poor academic scholarship

1. Exaggerated claims to novelty

My very first academic assignment as a journalism undergrad was to observe people at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa and write down what I saw. I think it was about encouraging an eye for detail, but the professor or TA also had us go to the library (this was back before everything was online, kids), and do some small research on the psychology of observation. Or something – I’m going back almost 30 years for this gripping tale. Anyways, I got my one or two academic sources and used them to report back that there was not a lot of research on this particular topic. No, my TA pointed out, it’s not that there’s no existing work; it’s that I didn’t do enough research.

Lesson learned: There is almost always a precedent. The easiest way to convince yourself that you’re doing something unprecedented is to limit your reading.

And so, when Zuboff claims on page 17 that hers is “an initial mapping of a terra incognita, a first foray that I hope will pave the way for more explorers,” all my alarm bells went off. In this case I know for a fact that the ground she is tilling has been well-prepared for her. As Morozov notes, even her catchphrase, “surveillance capitalism,” was first used “by the Marxists at the Monthly Review … and in a far more critical manner.” To give only one other example, Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism, which predates Zuboff’s by about two years, is playing in the same ballpark, but Zuboff doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s on the field.

Almost always, the novelty of an academic’s contribution is in her or his twist on or extension of existing knowledge. As I was taught in my second-year political philosophy class, Marx’s theory was a riff on Hegel. Keynes built on Marshall. In this case, Zuboff’s most important contribution (and it is important) is the clarity with which she lays out the business model for surveillance capitalism. But bringing clarity is not the same as tilling a terra incognita. Claiming that it is has important negative consequences, as we will see below.

2. Absence of relevant literatures

One of the first steps an academic has to take when embarking on a new project is to “situate oneself in the literature.” Scholarship is a conversation, so who are you responding to? How do you relate to their work?

Now, pretty much any issue can be tackled from a million different perspectives. If you’re interested in Facebook and Google’s monkeyshines, you can take a legalistic perspective, in which case you might be interested in how different legal frameworks might affect their behavior. You could also analyze their cultural effects, or their workplace environments: all different approaches, and all with something to say about our big, crazy world. But, your particular angle dictates in large part the scholars – the literatures – with which you have to engage, if only to make sure that you’re not just repeating someone else.

So. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a study of the messy interactions between economic and social imperatives. (Actually, I’d argue it’s really two linked business case studies of Facebook and Google that wants to be a study of a larger system, but that’s another matter entirely.) This means that it is a study of political economy. Which means it has to engage with the political economy literature on surveillance (a specialized literature, but it does exist) and capitalism (its entire raison d’être). I expect it to engage with particular sources, like Srnicek, like Shawn Powers and Michael Jablonski’s The Real Cyber War. With, in other words, the books that can provide context and support for, and pushback against, its argument.

And if you’re talking about big trends in capitalism and society from a critical perspective, Hannah Arendt is not your go-to. You also need to go beyond the social-science founders – Durkheim, Marx, Weber. You need to engage with the likes of Susan Strange. Or Robert Cox. Or Michael Mann, people who are interested in exactly the same issues that you are dealing with. Karl Polanyi is great, and Zuboff grabs just the right concepts from him. But He. Is. Not. Enough.

(Polanyi was also much more than an “historian,” as Zuboff identifies him. As his Wikipedia entry makes clear, he was an “economic historian, economic anthropologist, economic sociologist, political economist, historical sociologist and social philosopher. Then again, the phrase “political economy” appears only four times in this book, and exclusively in the titles of cited books and articles in the endnotes.)

Finally, if one is talking about the dangers involved in a form of power that “knows and shapes human behaviour toward others’ ends” (page 8) and Antonio Gramsci’s conception of hegemony doesn’t rate a mention, I don’t even know. Especially if it’s presented as a completely new idea (in this case “instrumentarian power” – see: Exaggerated claims of novelty). The Gramscian concept of hegemony is all about how the powerful can get other groups to buy into ideologies that may not be in their best interests.

Much of the book is about how surveillance capitalists are working to change human nature so that human thinking more closely resembles that of machine learning. Absolutely correct, but not only is this not the first time that the powers that be have worked to reshape what we think of as human nature, it’s also kind of what it means to rule a society, any society. That’s what the whole concept of hegemony is all about, as any student of Gramscian thought could tell you. Or what someone like Susan Strange or Robert Cox (the two thinkers I’m using in my own work on these very subjects) would note. Knowing that this type of activity is simply how power works in human society puts a different spin on what Zuboff is arguing. It’s not so much that surveillance capitalists are rewiring human nature, but that their ideology is antithetical to a particular type of human nature, namely one in the liberal-democratic vein. Actually engaging with the voluminous work on hegemony and the social construction of knowledge, however, would have challenged Zuboff’s argument that the knowing and shaping of “human behavior toward others’ ends” is unique to surveillance capitalism.

(Maybe the problem is with capitalism itself? As Morozov noted in a follow-up tweet, “My critique of Zuboff’s new book boils down to a paraphrase of Horkheimer: ‘If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you’d better keep quiet about surveillance capitalism’.”)

And it’s just a bit odd that Michel Foucault doesn’t get so much as a mention beyond a reference in a footnoted title about neoliberalism. In a book that’s all about the relationship between power and knowledge.

Strange shows us how it should be done

In terms of how to situate yourself in the academic literature in a book like this, it’s useful to see how Susan Strange dealt with the same issue. One of the reasons I was underwhelmed by The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is that I have spent the last several years researching and publishing about knowledge governance, with Strange’s work as my primary guide. Everything in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is easily modelled within Strange’s “structural power” framework, which emphasizes the ability of non-state actors to exert power so as to shape society’s foundations, the importance of knowledge creators and producers, and the importance of knowledge production itself.

Strange – an absolute giant in International Political Economy and in academia generally – was a committed materialist who nonetheless placed the creation and legitimation of (immaterial) knowledge at the very heart of her theory of the international political economy. Unsurprisingly, she’s nowhere to be found in this book.

Here’s part of what Strange wrote about the control of knowledge in her book States and Markets:

Well aware of my own limitations, I have made no reference in the course of this brief survey of the knowledge structures of the international political economy to the active debates conducted by philosophers, especially in Europe, on the nature of knowledge, or the relation between power and communication systems or on the role of ideology in defining the goals of knowledge and thus determining in some degree the findings of social ‘science’. Such debates are not on the whole conducted in a language easily understood by me or, I imagine, by most of my readers. They are debates with roots going back at least to Nietzsche, Hegel and Weber, and some would say to Plato and Aristotle. The most influential modern contributions have been Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Karl Popper and Georg Lukacs. They are also debates that remain largely unresolved.

The footnote to this paragraph reads:

Some selected titles are: J. Habermas, Communications and the Evolution of Society, 1979; R. Barthes, Mythologies, 1973; J. Baudrillard, for a critique of the political economy of the Sign, 1986; R. Williams, Communications, 1976; A. Smith, The Geopolitics of Information. How Western Culture Dominates the World, 1980; R. Hoggart, An Idea and its Servants: UNESCO from Within, 1978; M. Mulkay, Science and the Sociology of Knowledge, 1979; K. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, 1960; M. C. Gordon (ed.) Power/Knowledge, 1980; M. Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language, 1972; K. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication, 1953; J.I. Gershuny and I.D. Miles, The New Service Economy, 1983; (see bibliography for details).

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, meanwhile, does not even include a reference list or bibliography, relying instead on hard-to-assess endnotes.

Note the modesty in Strange’s words. Now, Strange’s oeuvre is not marked by any particular humility. States and Markets – really, her whole career – boil down to a claim that everyone else is wrong about how the international political economy works. In the pages preceding this quote, she lays out her own theory about the relationship between power and knowledge. She could have left it at that, secure in the knowledge that many IPE scholars are terrified of Continental European philosophy and wouldn’t delve too deeply into the issue.

Instead, Strange pointed readers toward thinkers who would probably have some very sharp disagreements with her argument, laying the groundwork for someone else to adapt and surpass, or invalidate, her theory. Because the point of academic writing is not just to win arguments, but to build knowledge. To do that, we have to recognize that our analyses are only ever partial, that someone else may have the correct answer, and that we might be wrong.

3. Unclear framework

I’ve long thought that the only major difference between academics and journalists is that academics are required to foreground the scaffolding that they use to construct their arguments (disclosure: my first post-university job was as a reporter). In contrast, journalists build their argument from the ground up, via observation. Their theoretical frameworks – the assumptions underlying their worldviews – operate in the background. The best academic writing makes its assumptions clear, not to pre-empt arguments, but to clarify the terms of engagement, to make arguments more productive. They make it easier to figure out why you disagree with the author. In other words, if you’re an academic, you’ve got to show your work.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff does not show her work. Much of Morozov’s 16,500-word review is devoted to puzzling out her analytical framework and figuring out her thesis. I’ve already noted Morzov’s comments about her analytical framework and the fact that it goes largely unacknowledged in her book. As for her theses, Morozov argues that while she claims only to have one – she merely wants to name and describe surveillance capitalism – he identifies two more: that “data extraction and behavior modification [are] not occasional consequences of capitalist competition, but … the underlying causes that propel the emergence of the new economic order, while its imperatives, in turn, come to overpower those of capitalism itself”; and that “surveillance capitalists engage in surveillance capitalism because this is what the imperatives of surveillance capitalism demand.”

The best parts of the review involve Morozov’s use of analytical philosophy to slice these to bits, but if Zuboff had been clear about her argument a) she could have avoided this messiness; and b) I wouldn’t have had to spend two full hours the other morning reading Morozov’s Baffler review.

4. Use of hyperbole: These go to eleven

 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a polemic: it argues a single side of a case forcefully with every means at its disposal. I would go so far as to say that any success it enjoys will be due almost completely to Zuboff’s use of compelling metaphors to illustrate the data extractivism practiced by surveillance capitalists. Check out her description of how people fit into surveillance capitalism, which just floored me:

I think of elephants, the most majestic of all mammals: Big Other poaches our behaviour for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains, and our beating hearts, not unlike the monstrous slaughter of elephants for ivory. Forget the cliché that if it’s free, ‘You are the product.’ You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life (page 377).

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is designed to elicit maximum revulsion. Comparing Facebook users to abandoned elephant carcasses highlights the extent to which Zuboff is playing on our emotions to make her point. At its best, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism succeeds better than anything else I’ve read at getting across the threat posed by surveillance capitalism.

Using vivid language is a perfectly appropriate means to make a point. It becomes problematic, however, when it shades into hyperbole. When that happens, one’s argument stops relying so much on reason, logic and evidence – the foundation of an academic’s authority – and begins relying on how it makes the reader feel. Good academic writing uses strong writing to make a point; polemical academic writing obliterates the potential for argument and cares more about scoring emotional points than about accuracy.

Return to the disturbingly pungent image of the elephant carcass. It gets at a certain part of the reality of what it means to be a social-media user: we are the natural resource being harvested. But is that all we are? Some reviewers have taken Zuboff to task for neglecting the benefits that people get from using Facebook et al. This is an important point, because it suggests that many people are, in fact, comfortable with the social media-for-data tradeoff. Of course, as Zuboff points out in Chapter 16 (which I’ll get to momentarily), there is likely an element of addiction at play here. However, the failure to think through the fact that people derive value from these platforms means that Zuboff misses a much more helpful, if less immediate, way of representing the problem. That is, social media use/data extractivism as an activity that produces negative externalities – when an individual’s action, while having a positive outcome for them, negatively affects the well-being of others. As it happens, there is a well-worn economic solution for this long-recognized problem: tax or regulate the activity.

Unfortunately, the reality that people have a complex relationship with social media, and are not merely elephant carcasses is buried under the weight of Zuboff’s metaphor, and with it some of the nuance needed to think through how to deal with these issues. As a result, the challenge of regulating data extractivism is transformed from a solvable, if politically challenging, regulatory problem into an existential crisis the likes of which the world has never seen.

Since the dawn of time…

Beyond rotting elephant carcasses, I was also surprised to discover that one of the reasons everyone missed the threat of surveillance capitalism was that we were so focused on the potential for tyranny from the state that nobody thought that the market could become our master:

over the centuries we have imagined threat in the form of state power. This left us wholly unprepared to defend ourselves from new companies with imaginative names run by young geniuses that seemed able to provide us with exactly what we yearn for at little or no cost (page 53; emphasis added).

If by “we,” Zuboff means “libertarians, US politicians and certain American academics,” then, maybe? But huge swaths of globalization studies and International Political Economy, to say nothing of scholars with a Marxian bent, the most dogmatic of whom believe that the state merely represents the interests of capital, have been highlighting the rising influence of companies since before disco was king. Susan Strange explicitly argued in the 1980s that we can understand IPE as a contest between the market and authority (the state), and that the market in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be getting the upper hand.

(You know who else focused on the power of corporations to shape things? Noted IPE scholar Chuck Palahniuk, in his IPE treatise Fight Club (1996).)

“Unprecedented”

In order to make its point, everything in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is amped up to 11. Zuboff’s goal is to sound the alarm about the coming “seventh extinction” (page 516). There is an “unprecedented” (114 appearances in the book’s text, or once every 4.6 pages) concentration of power and authority in market hands, a potential “tyranny” (page 518). “Surveillance capitalism … exceed[s] the historical norms of capitalist ambitions, claiming dominion over human, societal, and political territories that range far beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm or the market” (page 21). (Except, as Polanyi himself noted, market capitalism left unchecked will claim domination over all society, destroying it in the process.)

How bleak is the picture? This bleak:

Every avenue of connectivity serves to bolster private power’s need to seize behaviour for profit. Where is the hammer of democracy now, when the threat comes from your phone, your digital assistant, your Facebook login? Who will stand for freedom now, when Facebook threatens to retreat into the shadows if we dare to be the friction that disrupts economies of action that have been carefully, elaborately, and expensively constructed to exploit our natural empathy, elude our awareness, and circumvent our prospects for self-determination? If we fail to take notice now, how long before we are numb to this incursion and to all the incursions? How long until we notice nothing at all? How long before we forget who we were before the owned us, bent over the old texts of self-determination in the dim light, the shawl around our shoulders, magnifying glass in hand, as if deciphering ancient hieroglyphs? (page 327)

“By any and all means”

This constant hyping takes its toll. Does your house need cleaning? Cuz this book is here to do some sweeping:

With the demise of the fascist and socialist threats, neoliberal ideology cunningly succeeded in redefining the modern democratic state as a fresh source of collectivism to be resisted by any and all means (page 505; emphasis added).

Okay. Yes, neoliberalism – a term that has pretty much lost any consensual and analytical meaning– redefines the line between state and market in favour of the market. The related declining faith in government has created loads of problems, very much including a reluctance to regulate the internet giants. At least in the United States: this extreme reluctance to regulate is very much a US and UK phenomenon (see: the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation – is the GDPR, with its roots in EU data-protection regulations going back to the mid-1990s – part of the neoliberal agenda?). As a German-Canadian colleague once reminded me, neoliberalism in Europe is different from neoliberalism in North America.

The unequal balance between state and market is definitely an important factor in the rise of surveillance capitalism. But the very existence of two different approaches to neoliberalism suggests that the un-nunaced invocations of “neoliberalism” and “by any and all means” are overkill. “By any and all means” suggests that there are literally no limits to what a “neoliberal” would do to resist “the modern democratic state.” No limit? In any situation? Nor does it take into account what actually existing neoliberals themselves believe. For example, UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong self-identifies as a neoliberal, and I’m pretty sure he’s okay with a democratic state, including some collective activities.

(Maybe the real challenges with regulating surveillance capitalism emerge from the United States’ particular ideological dysfunctions, and not with a global neoliberal project?)

Making the story fit the argument

And how far is too far to go to make a point? How important is the devotion to accuracy that we usually demand of our great thinkers? How small a detail is too small to care about its accurate representation? Take Chapter 16, the won’t someone think of the children! chapter. Zuboff’s choices to illustrate how social media affects people at the beginning of this chapter are designed for maximum emotional devastation:

“I felt so lonely … I could not sleep well without sharing or connecting to others,” a Chinese girl recalled. “Emptiness,” an Argentine boy moaned. A Ugandan teenager muttered, “I felt like there was a problem with me,” and an American college student whimpered, “I went into an absolute panic mode.” These are but a few of the lamentations plucked from one thousand student participants in an international study of media use that spanned ten countries and five continents (page 445; emphasis added).

These reactions, of students who were asked to give up social media for a day, are incredibly affecting; I was shaken after reading it. Even absent any descriptors, the quotes themselves, cited by Zuboff to the website The World Unplugged, are enough to convince anyone that social media addiction is a thing.

But why keep the feels at ten when they can go to eleven? The website cited by Zuboff does not report how the students responded. The words moaned, muttered, and whimpered appear nowhere on the site. These verbs imply that the students spoke their responses. However, having done some digging, including referring to the journal article written by the project organizers, a few things became clear. The students wrote their responses. While the researchers coded the students’ (written) reports by emotion, they used terms like “boredom,” “confusion,” and “distress,” not the emotionally loaded descriptors reported by Zuboff. Their journal article was, in fact, scrupulous in not imputing any particular characteristics to the students’ comments, using appropriately neutral words like “said” and “reported.”

That’s not the only problem with this paragraph. Does it matter that all the participants were not just students, but university students, whom we usually don’t refer to as “boy” or “girl,” and some of whom were almost certainly over the age of 18, and thus not “teenagers”? Or that the researchers did not make available research linking quotes to gender or – going to the point about teenagers – age? (Which leaves open the possibility that Zuboff had access to their raw data that would have allowed her to make this age-gender link, although this seems unlikely, and is not what the citation claims in any case.) This paragraph, designed to heighten the reader’s sense of the harm from social media, reduces students who were either adults or on the brink of adulthood to the status of (vulnerable) “children.”

It’s also worth noting that the Ugandan student actually wrote, “I missed communicating to my friends through daily social networks and they also felt like there was a problem with me” (emphasis added). The error introduced into the text echoes the previous quotes, solidifying Zuboff’s argument that social media are destroying children’s interior lives. The actual quote places the focus on the student’s friends, not the student’s interior life. These changes make what is still a scathing indictment of social media fit that much more cleanly with the previous quotes.

Zuboff’s version may not be accurate, and it’s certainly not backed up by the reference provided. But it sure does adhere to a smooth narrative that hammers home the point that social media are destroying our children.

A possible defence is that these added words and imputed genders and exaggerations are merely a form of creative license, that it gets at an emotional truth. I’m not buying it (would you buy that argument from one of your students?). Hyperbole is an argumentative style that, I would argue, stands opposed to the careful presentation of evidence required if you want to claim authority as a social scientist. It is possible to write powerfully while still reflecting reality and the truth of others’ words; that’s our job as academics.

People are comparing this book to Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but that book earned its authority through the careful collection and presentation of evidence, not via emotional manipulation. I’ve read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’ve taught Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The day I heard about Capital in the Twenty-First Century I drove 100 km to a bookstore so I wouldn’t have to wait two days to have it delivered. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is no Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The final verdict: No go

To be honest, before reading Morozov’s critique, watching the glowing reviews come in, I started questioning my judgment. Sure, there were flaws in the book, some of which I would have called out immediately if committed by an undergraduate, but how much did they really matter?

Part of me, I’m embarrassed to say, was swayed by the identity of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s author. A professor emerita. From Harvard. Who had done important previous work in the field. Even though I know better, I got inside my own head, internalizing the academic class system that places certain schools and scholars above others. The “important voices” whose work is guaranteed a respectful hearing merely by virtue of their pedigree or institution.

The saddest thing is, my receptiveness to this argument from authority says as much about where I see myself in the academic food chain as it does about a Harvard professor. Even though I have witnessed the most idiotic arguments and proposals made by scholars from top-ranked universities, endured recycled banalities from leading lights with nothing to say, and read the most embarrassing articles by celebrated Ivy-league academics. Even though I will put my Canadian Carleton University education up against anyone’s from Oxford or Yale or Harvard. I know this.

And yet, there was that part of me, whispering, But look at who she is. She’s an Authority. Look at all the praise she’s getting, the panels she’s on. Maybe you’re just being judgmental. Maybe you’re being too critical. Maybe you’re wrong.

Well, maybe I am wrong, but a failure to produce an honest critique because of our respective places in the academic food chain is the absolutely worst reason not to make the critique. One of my proudest moments as a teacher was when I heard that a second-year student had written a fantastic, well-researched and impeccably argued paper about how I’d been wrong about something I’d claimed in my Introduction to International Relations class. (And she was right.) We should expect all academics to live up to the same standards we set for our students.

So, no. After spending an entire work week reading this book, after taking over 100 pages of notes and thinking about it constantly for far too long afterwards, I do not believe that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a good piece of scholarship. It is not careful in its presentation of evidence. It chooses hyperbole over accuracy. It fails to engage with the relevant literatures and critical voices that would challenge what ends up being a one-sided, almost existentially bleak argument.

Its lack of engagement with the relevant literatures makes possible the blind spots, trenchantly catalogued by Morozov, regarding surveillance capitalism’s relationship to capitalism, as well as those regarding the role of the state as something more than a bit player in this epic story. These impair the book’s value in terms of its analysis and, as Morozov’s comments about Zuboff’s failure to consider the “capitalism” part of “surveillance capitalism” suggest, its prescriptions. Why the book concluded with a call for new social movements instead of the decommodification of data and internet platforms – the whole point of a Polanyian “double movement” – is beyond me.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s greatest value lies in its presentation of the mechanics of surveillance capitalism, itself a special case of a more general knowledge-driven economy and society characterized by an emphasis on the commodification of knowledge. Zuboff’s “six declarations” of Google (page 179) is a concise summary of the surveillance capitalist worldview. Her discussion of BF Skinner and behaviorism is fascinating.

As a polemic, the power of much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism‘s imagery is impressive. As Morozov suggests, it could provide a much-needed public vocabulary (albeit partly borrowed from the Marxists) to reign in our rampaging tech overlords, even if the book is overlong – an editor could easily have cut 200 pages without harming the underlying argument.

But, to paraphrase Cox paraphrasing Marx, “The point is not just to change the world, but to understand it.” As academics, we’re constantly being told that we need to make our work relevant, that we need to write in a way that ordinary people understand. Our work should have an impact on the world.

Sure, but the drive for accessibility and impact must be tempered with a commitment to accuracy and careful research, because that’s what gives us academics our authority. We’re here to build knowledge. Careful research and writing are good scholarship, and they’re as necessary as ever. We should not be satisfied with anything less.

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Facebook hires privacy critics: What’s the opposite of “cautious optimism”?

It’s been fascinating to watch American digital-rights activists react to Facebook’s hiring of three prominent privacy-focused lawyers, particularly the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Nate Cardozo (the other hires were Open Technology Institute’s Robyn Greene and Nathan White from Access Now). Overall, reactions seem to be mostly optimistic, praising the new Facebook employees’ personal integrity and commitment to privacy rights.

Which is funny, because I had precisely the opposite reaction when I heard the news. Not only is it impossible in 2019 to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt on privacy, that after an eternity of treating their users as “dumb fucks” they now want to get serious about privacy, this hiring has the potential to destroy the EFF’s (and those of the other groups) credibility as grassroots, rights-oriented organizations that are not Silicon Valley lobbyists.

Even more importantly, these hires and the positive reaction to them raise serious questions about the distance between the American digital-rights community and the very companies that, as Shoshana Zuboff argues persuasively in her latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, pose a threat to liberal democracy every bit as severe as the threat posed by state surveillance.

EFF and regulatory capture

Rather than focusing on the personal integrity of the individuals in question, the best way to understand what’s going on and how it’s likely to play out is to think of EFF as the government and Facebook as the company it is trying to regulate. This analogy isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. EFF has consistently expressed concern about overly onerous government oversight over the tech industry, often for reasons of protecting freedom of expression. Instead, it has thrown much of its energy into drafting voluntary principles, such as the Santa Clara Principles on Transparency and Accountability of Content Moderation Practices.

In EFF’s ideal political economy, civil-society groups play a central role in holding companies like Facebook to account, with government regulation coming into play only if absolutely necessary (they also see competition as an important restraint on companies, but I don’t see any competition heading Facebook’s way even in the medium term). Governments can use coercion to enforce its rules while non-governmental organizations like EFF must use persuasion, but the goal is the same: the implementation of rules that companies like Facebook will follow.

When it comes to actual governments, “regulatory capture” and the “revolving door” between industry and regulators are long-recognized problems. I would argue that Facebook’s hires are strongly suggestive of regulatory capture and have the potential to further weaken the independence of American digital-rights groups, many of which (it should be noted) already take money from the organizations they wish to influence.

A revolving door between the regulator and the regulated signals a baseline level of comfort with the industry status quo: while the industry in question may have problems, they are not so severe as to shock the consciences of the regulators.

Here’s what I mean. Can you imagine a nuclear-disarmament activist going to work for the Pentagon under any circumstances? Or think about any government regulator or administration staffer and ask yourself what your reaction would be if you heard that they were now going to be working for the company that just a day earlier they had been responsible for overseeing in the public interest.

Back to the matter at hand, how would the American digital-rights community have reacted if Cardozo had announced he would be working for the National Security Agency to try to make its surveillance protocols fairer and somewhat less intrusive? Would they have given him the benefit of the doubt, and argue that maybe the NSA, after an eternity of spying on the world, has finally gotten the message on surveillance? Maybe, but I would not be at all surprised if they saw it instead as a betrayal of fundamental values, because the problem with government surveillance is government surveillance.

And yet, moving from the activist side to Facebook – a company implicated in a genocide and the global rise of authoritarian populism – for some reason has not generated a similarly negative reaction. This is the same company that, on the same day that these hires were announced was revealed to be paying “users as young as 13 to install an app that gave the company access to everything their phone sent or received over the internet.”

The positive reaction itself suggests that the relationship between Silicon Valley and the American digital-rights community is far too cozy, particularly if groups like EFF are serious about being de facto public-interest watchdogs/regulators of this sector.

New incentives for EFF and privacy activists to pull their punches

These hirings potentially pose an additional credibility problem for those activists at EFF who truly are committed to improving privacy rights (I should note that I’m focusing on EFF because they are the United States’ most prominent digital-rights group). Cardozo’s move to Facebook effectively opens up a new career path for young activists. I don’t know what either EFF or Facebook pay, but I do know that activism is a young person’s game, these aren’t lifetime jobs, and the money is usually much better in corporate America. Knowing that this employment path exists and that people in the privacy-activist community are cool with it, EFF’s new hires might well temper their criticisms of companies like Facebook lest they endanger future employment prospects. And even if they don’t, they won’t be able to escape that perception.

It’s also getting much harder to ignore the argument that while EFF and similar groups are outspoken on government surveillance, they are much less concerned with the regulation of its corporate cousin, what Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. This was the whole point of April Glaser’s Slate article last April, which called out groups like EFF for their relatively weak activism when the Facebook shit started to hit the fan. Glaser’s article came to mind immediately when I heard about these hires; her critique continues to resonate.

The problem isn’t privacy; it’s the business model

What’s more, the argument about changing the system from the inside, implicit in all the talk about personal integrity, is fundamentally misguided. As Siva Vaidhyanathan points out in his recent book, “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.” The issue isn’t that Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (the “Typhoid Mary” of surveillance capitalism, in Zuboff’s words) hate privacy; it’s that their fundamental business model depends on constant, expanding, ubiquitous surveillance.

Unless Cardozo and his fellow hires can convince Zuckerberg and Sandberg to give up the model that has made them billions, all their efforts will almost certainly amount to no more than a Band-Aid on a gaping chest wound. At worst, prevented by Facebook from talking to the media, they will be deployed as human shields against criticisms that Facebook isn’t taking privacy seriously.

It would be great if instead of treating Facebook’s hires as just another job announcement, American digital-rights activists took this moment as an opportunity to reconsider their relationship with surveillance capitalists like Facebook, and surveillance capitalism in general. For everyone else, trying to deal with the damage caused by the business model used by companies like Facebook and Google, at least it’s helpful to know where everyone stands.

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Want to understand current Canada-US relations? Look at the 1930s

One of the reasons it’s hard for Canadians to understand fully the threat posed by Trump and deeper currents in US politics is that Trump has ripped up the rulebook that has governed the Canada-U.S. relationship for over seventy years. There’s just no equivalent to anything that’s happened in most of our lifespans. Certainly nobody in power has ever dealt with a U.S. that’s as belligerent and counterproductively self-interested as the US is under Trump (and, lest we forget Iraq, was under Dubya).

But as those of us who study North American politics will recall, we have been here before, back in the 1930s, a much different time in the Canada-US relationship.

A quick Google Scholar search on historical Canada-US trade wars led me back to John Herd Thompson and Stephen J. Randall’s foundational book, Canada and the United States: Ambivalent Allies. And, well, the parallels between the Canada-U.S. relationship then and now are … illuminating.

US xenophobia and implementation of self-harming economic policies? Check.

“As a response to the deepening Depression, the same Congress that shut the border to Canadian migrants effectively closed it to Canadian potatoes, beef, butter, and poultry exports with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930, the highest duties in US history.”

Canadian (failed) efforts to remind the US how much we mean to them? Check.

“Prime Minister Mackenzie King quietly sent a series of emissaries to warn President Hoover of Smoot-Hawley’s serious economic and diplomatic effects. The Literary Digest and The Nation made the same case to the American public: Canada was the ‘best customer of the U.S.A.,’ two-way trade was the highest between any two nations in the world, and Canada bought one-third more from the United States than it sold to that country. Why jeopardize this with a tariff war?”

American attempt to strike a deal are botched by a president’s incompetence? Check.

“The president offered the prime minister an exchange: he would exempt Canada from the new tariffs in return for a Canadian promise to cooperate in one of Hoover’s pet projects, a St. Lawrence Seaway to open the Great Lakes to oceangoing ships. … But Hoover doomed the deal by leaking the offer to the press.”

Canadians get their backs up, guaranteeing a trade war? Check.

“Trading a seaway for a tariff exemption would mean yielding to U.S. pressure before a binational audience, and the prime minister understood that it was time to cater to his country’s psychic need to stand up to Uncle Sam. King rejected Hoover’s proposal to link the seaway and trade issues and retaliated for Smoot-Hawley with countervailing tariff increases and additional levies on steel and on fruits and vegetables. Canada had fired the second shot in the North American theater of the international trade ware that exacerbated the Great Depression.”

Although the past isn’t necessarily prologue, Thompson and Randall’s history lesson also holds some possible lessons for the future.

Lesson 1: There’s going to be lots of political hay to be made by appealing to anti-American sentiment.

“This counterattack did not save King’s Liberals from defeat in the Canadian election of July 1930. As in 1911, the opposition Conservatives played the card of anti-U.S. chauvanism with consummate skill. … Once in office, the new government’s first actions were to pass a five-page list of tariff increases and to slam Canada’s doors and to slam Canada’s door against immigrants.”

[Note: Would a federal Conservative government be so stridently anti-immigrant in a now-multicultural country? Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government will provide an early indication.]

Lesson 2: Politicians should tamp down the expectation that trade diversification will protect Canada. We’re stuck with the United States

“Prime Minister Bennett proposed to replace vanished trade with the United States with expanded trade within the British Empire. He had scant success, however, in his attempts to reach reciprocal tariff agreements with Britain and the other Dominions. A much-publicized Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa in 1932 aroused U.S. fears of a British Empire trading bloc, but its practical results were few. The United States never need have worried that its economic influence on Canada would diminish: even as tariff warfare and the Depression cut the total volume of Canadian-U.S. trade in half in the early 1930s, the Canadian economy intertwined with the American. …”

Lesson 3: Personalities matter, but circumstances matter more

“Hoover’s ignorance of and indifference to Canada contributed a dimension of difficulty to U.S.-Canada relations, as did Bennett’s abrasive personal manner, but long-standing circumstances, not personalities, were at the root of bilateral problems. …”

[Note: And as I’ve argued elsewhere, our current circumstances do not favour a return to the status quo.]

The first step to avoid repeating history is to recognize what history you’re in danger of repeating. In order to craft a realistic strategy for dealing with the post-NAFTA era, those charts showing how much Canada trades with all the U.S. states aren’t going to do much good. Time to dust off those old history books.

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Memo: The long-term Canadian response to the Trump presidency

I wrote this memo in November-December 2016 and circulated it to a few people in and around government. Sadly, I think it’s held up quite well. Posting it here for posterity. For me, one of the key takeaways is that it’s been clear since the beginning that Trump poses an existential threat to the liberal-international order and to Canadian security and prosperity. Or at least it’s been clear to those of us who study North American politics and the international political economy.

Almost two years’ on, it seems people are slowly starting to realize exactly how dangerous the situation is for Canada, and I’m still not sure of the extent to which the Canadian government and politicians of all stripes are facing some of the hard questions I raise below.

December 5, 2016

SUMMARY

The election of Donald Trump potentially presents an existential crisis for Canada of a type previously unimaginable in the post-World War II period. There is a non-zero (and growing) possibility that Trump’s election will accelerate the decline of the US-underwritten liberal international order, ushering us into to a world of power politics that is unfamiliar to the current generation of Canadian policymakers. In this scenario, it is questionable whether the current public Canadian policy of reminding Trump of Canada’s economic value to the United States would be an effective way to preserve Canadian prosperity, let alone autonomy.

By taking a more self-interested, transactional approach to international relations, the United States could fundamentally alter the decades-old international system that has provided the context for all of Canada’s domestic and international economic, political and military activities. Should this come to pass, the fundamental assumptions underlying the Canadian economy – open, free-trade-based – and Canadian foreign policy – multilateral, Canada as the United States’ helpful fixer – would have to be rethought in the context of its relationship with a more-antagonistic United States. Given the extreme downsides to this possible outcome, the Canadian Government should begin preparing contingency plans that will allow the country to deal proactively with this worst-case scenario.

RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. The Government should work pre-emptively to depoliticize Canada-US relations by creating a Cabinet committee on Canada-US relations with representation from the main opposition parties.
  2. The Government should allocate resources across all departments to begin planning for the “post-US” world order. Key topics should include: the optimal structure of the Canadian economy in a world of “hard” regions; negotiating with a belligerent United States; reassessing the extent of Canadian-US military and security cooperation; the status of the North; maintaining the United Nations’ relevance in a world of region-based realpolitik.

THE PROBLEM

The Canada-US relationship affects every single aspect of Canadian society. Currently, the Government’s publicly expressed approach to the incoming Trump administration seems to be based on the assumption that, while perhaps distasteful, Trump represents relative continuity with previous Republican administrations. This is a very dangerous assumption to make and is belied by almost every one of Trump’s actions in his presidential campaign and since becoming president-elect (e.g., igniting an international incident with China via a phone call with the president of Taiwan). It is also belied by the extent to which the Republican establishment has embraced him, of which the courting of former Trump critic Mitt Romney is only the most recent example. While it is possible that Republican free-trade ideology and the traditional US support (however reluctant) of international institutions will carry the day, there is a strong possibility that the US consensus on the importance of a liberal economic and political order internationally is about to be shattered.

Assuming these public pronouncements by Canadian officials represent the opinions of the Canadian Government, Canada faces the very serious possibility of being completely unprepared by the increasingly likely rewrite of the fundamental rules of the global political and economic system by the Trump administration, as well as the eventual, long-term decline of US global dominance. A lack of planning for the worst-case scenarios (which, while perhaps unlikely, seem not as impossible as they did in October 2016) could lock the Government into a reactive stance that produces long-term damage to the Canadian economy and state.

BACKGROUND

The post-World War II period in Canada-US relations has been characterized by ever-deepening political, military and particularly economic integration, the latter of which reached its apex in the formal recognition of an integrated North American economy in the 1989 Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. In the 1970s, US political scientists Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye termed this relationship one of “complex interdependence,” reflective of societies that had become so intertwined that the obvious power asymmetries between the two countries were not reflected in policy outcomes. Rather, the relationship is characterized by respect for the norm of non-issue-linkage and restraint in the exercise of dominance.

Canada-US relations are embedded in a larger Western international society that emphasizes multilateralism, economic and political liberalism, and sovereignty. As noted by prominent political economist Susan Strange, among others, argue, this international society is underwritten by US hard and soft power, or “hegemony.” Hegemony is not just coercive, dependent on military and economic strength; it also depends on an element of consent – other states and peoples have to “buy in” to the dominant power’s ideas (e.g., free trade, democracy, human rights). US leadership has created what American political scientist Peter Katzenstein calls the “American imperium.” This system is characterized by “open regionalism”: increasingly integrated world regions (Asia, Europe, Africa, the Americas) that remain deeply interpenetrated by each other and, particularly, by the United States.

While all this has led to a globalized world in which transnational corporations span the globe and international organizations like the World Trade Organization and the United Nations structure economic and political activity, the United States remains the ultimate guarantor of this liberal international order.

Already, before the election of Trump, US hegemony was under challenge from within and without. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis has led many to question the wisdom of US-style economic liberalism; the 2003 invasion of Iraq raised serious questions about the United States’ commitment to the principles of sovereignty and human rights. In Asia, China’s antipathy toward the current system can be seen most directly in its promotion of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which the Obama administration correctly views as an attempt to gain influence for itself against the US-dominated institutions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In this view, Canada’s and others’ decision to join the AIIB represents a weakening of US hegemony.

In other areas, analysts have observed attempts by the United States, pre-Trump, to move away from its hegemonic role, for instance, in its lack of interest in intervening directly in Syria due to a lack of a direct perceived “national interest.”

The US exercise of global hegemony has always been complicated by its fractious domestic politics. In her 1987 article, “The Persistent Myth of Lost Hegemony,” Susan Strange remarked that international-institutional instability could be traced to parochial domestic US politics. This observation is even more accurate today, as we can see in the unravelling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP was, primarily, a geostrategic attempt by the United States to balance against China in the Asia-Pacific, cementing US economic, political and military primacy in the area against a rising power. While a smart strategic move, it was undone by US domestic politics. Attempts by US firms to cement their dominance in Asia through policies like strong intellectual property protection and investor-state dispute settlement that provide overwhelmingly one-sided benefits to US corporations were opposed worldwide, and ironically contributed to Trump’s unexpected electoral victory.

The election of Donald Trump is likely to vastly accelerate this already-ongoing process of the loss of US hegemony. Trump’s contribution to this long-run change is likely to come via his disregard (shared by many in the Republican party) for the rules and institutions that undergird the international system. To use Susan Strange’s terminology, while Trump has a keen appreciation for relational power – that is, the ability to dominate others – he does not seem to understand the importance of structural power – that is, the ability to set the rules and context within which other countries operate. He does not appreciate the extent to which the United States benefits from its ability to set the global rules (including promotion of “universal” norms). Instead, his entire campaign and his time as president-elect have been characterized by attacks on this system. Nor does he (or the Republican party at large) have a plan to replace the current system with something else; instead, the instinct will be to rely on relational power – including the world’s most powerful military and its (for now) most vibrant economy – to get what they want from other countries.

These long-term trends will likely lead to an eventual fracturing of US hegemony, and with it – in the absence of the unlikely rise of another liberal hegemonic power – the current liberal-international system. Global free trade (and also transnational production networks) as the foundation of the world economy cannot be assumed to continue forever. As the United States removes its sponsorship of a global liberal economy, it is very possible that a global world will transform into a world of “hard” regions, in which dominant countries shape the policies of the region’s smaller countries, with less emphasis on liberal economic policies and more on a mercantilist approach to trade and economic policy.

As a small, open state whose only border is with the United States, Canada will keenly feel the effects of these changes. Canada’s current economic policies are based on the existence of deep economic integration with the United States, (relatively) free trade and US restraint in the exercise of power. If the United States abandons its commitment to a liberal trading regime and adopts a more transactional relationship toward its partners, Canada will almost certainly be affected dramatically. While economic inertia is a powerful force, the current economic regime cannot be assumed to continue indefinitely if one partner takes an increasingly short-run, transactional approach to economic and political matters. Deep integration did not prevent the United States from imposing economically self-harming border measures post-9/11 to protect what it perceived as its national interest.

Politically and economically, there is no “us” in North America. The “complex interdependence” that has characterized the peaceful Canada-US relations of the postwar period is underwritten by economic factors and normative values. However, while US businesses may experience discomfort as transnational supply chains are interrupted, at the end of the day they respond to the political and economic structures created by the state. For this reason, it would be unwise to place disproportionate faith in the idea that Republican administrations are good for Canada-US trade, or that deep economic integration will necessarily protect Canadian economic interests. Although economists generally agree (with caveats) that free trade is a better economic policy than mercantilism, such a consensus is unlikely to prevent politicians from deciding to go all-in on mercantilism should they choose to do so. Sound economic policy does not always carry the political day.

This brief does not argue that the United States is becoming a less consequential actor, particularly in its relations with Canada. A world of transactional, relational power is not one in which US power is necessarily diminished, at least in relational terms. It is one in which rules are seen as less important by larger states, and one in which smaller states (like Canada) are much more vulnerable to great-power aggression and dominance than they are today. Dealing with a transactional United States would also raise important questions about the extent and wisdom of Canada-US military and intelligence interpenetration, or interoperability, and the desirability of a fully independent Canadian military and intelligence services.

Economically, while successive Canadian governments have assumed that Canada has economic alternatives to the United States (even if these have never worked out), realistically, Canada is trapped in North America. Historically, our geographic location has been an enormous benefit to Canada. However, in a world of “hard regions,” it may become a burden. Pursuing independent extra-North American relations may become increasingly difficult if the United States begins to see Canadian exports, say, of oil to China as a form of aid by one of “their” countries (i.e., Canada) to one of their rivals.

CONCLUSION

In normal times, advice that Canadians not panic over the election of an unsavoury US president, which seems to be the Government’s primary public message, would be sound; the deep economic, political, military and social connections between the two countries would constrain the incoming president and mitigate the damage he could cause to the Canada-US relationship.

These are not normal times. The Trump transition is showing no signs of maturing into a normal Republican administration.

The centrality of the Canada-US relationship to Canadians’ well-being means that managing the fallout from the Trump administration – to say nothing of ensuring that Trump-style populist sentiment does not gain a foothold in Canada – will be the Government’s most challenging file for the foreseeable future. Given the extreme potential downsides to fundamental changes in the relationship and the world order, the Government should a) work to create a united front in dealing with the United States by inviting the leaders of the main opposition parties to participate in crafting a grand strategy to confront these issues; and b) begin serious whole-of-government contingency planning for how Canada will navigate a world of “hard regions.” Even if Trump had lost the election, such planning would be prudent; his election makes it imperative.

Prepared by:
Blayne Haggart
Associate Professor, Department of Political Science
Brock University

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What is knowledge? Seven ground rules (and three helpful tips)

I wrote this brief note for my 4th-year Global Political Economy class as a way to bring them up to speed on the knowledge economy. Because it’s intangible, and because it can raise all sorts of questions we usually get into via drunken 3 a.m. dude, is-anything-even-real discussions, it can be difficult to understand what knowledge is in a political-economy sense. Those of you who live this stuff will note the influences of Foucault, Berger and Luckmann, and Bourdieu, among many others, such as Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism and Powers and Jablonski’s The Real Cyber War (in Rule 7).

At the end, I’ve also added three helpful tips for thinking through the political economy of knowledge that follow from these ground rules.

I’m aware that I’m using “knowledge” and “information” in slightly different ways than others, but this distinction works for me. Comments welcome, on this and the rest of the list.

The seven ground rules

Although we have supposedly been in the “information age,” or the “knowledge economy” since the mid-1990s, these terms, as well as related concepts such as “data” and “technology” tend to be used loosely to describe many different phenomena. It can all be a bit confusing. In order to make sense of our object of study, we will observe the following seven ground rules.

  1. “Knowledge” and “information” refer to two different things.

In our phrasing, information refers to phenomena that exists in the world independent of whether or not someone observes it.

Knowledge refers to whatever phenomena humans decide to observe. The act of deciding to observe something, and then observing it, transforms information into knowledge. Put another way, knowledge involves giving social meaning to phenomena.

From this perspective, forms of knowledge include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • Technology (recognized ways of doing things);
  • Intellectual property (including drug compounds, music, the Golden Arches, and so on);
  • Culture (stories, giving meaning to sounds or colours applied to physical materials); and
  • Data collected by your Fitbit.
  1. Deciding that some piece of information counts as knowledge is a conscious, political act.

The world is filled with information, but we must make a conscious decision, informed by politics, culture, economics, morality, and so on, to turn this information into data, or knowledge. In other words, political debates over how to treat data that do not question whether this information should be collected in the first place, that assume this “data” was just hanging around to be collected, already has a profound bias toward collection and use.

  1. Knowledge is intangible.

Unlike material goods, which serve as the economic foundation of a manufacturing economy, commodified forms of knowledge (such as intellectual property, or personal data) do not have a material manifestation. One of the consequences of this fact, as we will see, is that knowledge-based economies function very differently than do manufacturing-based ones. For example, it is very easy, under current laws, for transnational corporations to engage in tax arbitrage by moving the “value” attributed to knowledge across borders. Similarly, the nature of knowledge production means that they produce much different types and levels of employment than traditional manufacturing companies, and have different spillover effects into the local economy. To understand their economic effects, they must be studied on their own terms. Furthermore, the characteristics of knowledge mean that currently it is easy to absorb smaller companies’ knowledge/data and export its value. However,

  1. There are always rules governing knowledge. They always benefit some groups and practices, and impede others.

People tend to assume that knowledge, absent legal protections, can be used by anybody – in other words, that it is non-rivalrous. For example, if there were no copyright laws, anyone could download as much music as they wanted, and could remix that music in any way they pleased.

This is not exactly correct. In practice, the creation and use of knowledge is always and everywhere subject to rules, both formal and informal. These rules determine what knowledge can be used, and by whom. Put most bluntly, there is no such thing as free speech, in the sense of “speech unrestrained by rules.”

At the most trivial level, these rules (such as grammar) render coherent the communication of knowledge. Social taboos against the use of profanity or the discussion of politics at Thanksgiving regulate speech, or a stand-up comic mimicking another’s act. The most formal rules are those such as intellectual-property or hate-speech laws, or governmental freedom of information acts. Speech and data use can also be governed by companies’ terms of service – for example, Twitter’s (unevenly applied) rules against hate speech. Rules and norms may be more or less permissive, but they are always there.

These rules will always benefit some groups over others. A private company that collects data on road use but is forced to turn it over to the state loses the monopolistic benefits it might gain from selling that data even as the state benefits, and vice versa.

  1. New knowledge builds on existing knowledge.

The creation of new knowledge invariably builds on existing knowledge, be it a well-footnoted textbook or a patented algorithm. This reality explains why intellectual property laws are always limited in time and scope, as we will see in Week 3. Failure to include these safety valves would provide current owners of knowledge with a de facto monopoly over the creation of new knowledge. Following from this observation, we can conclude that:

  1. Those who control the definition, creation, and use of knowledge also control the future direction and development of knowledge.

As a result, the control of knowledge shapes not only the economic development of society (e.g., by determining what new technologies get produced), but also its social, cultural and ideological development (e.g., by shaping who gets to tell what stories, and what stories get told).

  1. A society based on the exploitation of knowledge requires constant surveillance in order to function properly and efficiently.

A data-driven economy implies that the activities from which data are being extracted must first be monitored. Non-monitoring results in a loss of efficiency. In a competitive environment, for example, companies seeking maximum efficiency will be driven to maximize their surveillance of workers and production processes lest their competitors get the upper hand via more-intensive monitoring, as we will see in Week 9. Similarly, with respect to intellectual property, any unauthorized uses of IP imply a potential loss for the IP owner, which explains the enduring interest by copyright and trademark owners in coercing internet intermediaries such as Google to surveil their users for IP infringement. This is not only an economic issue; even liberal-democratic states like Canada have engaged in ever-growing surveillance of their citizens. The logic in the security and economic cases is the same: in a knowledge economy, anything less than total surveillance is seen as a potential threat or economic loss.

Three helpful tips

  1. Knowledge is always partial.
  2. Data is never unbiased.
  3. Technology is not a substitute for politics. You can’t tech your way out of politics.
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Regulating Facebook: Radical change or the status quo?

(I’m currently travelling through Brazil interviewing people for a book project on knowledge governance, hence the untimeliness of this post. (What’s the opposite of the hot take? Cool reasoning?) But since I haven’t seen this opinion anywhere else, and because writing this helps me organize my own thinking, here it is.)

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about the disappointing backlash (as noted by David Murakami Wood and others) against April Glaser’s important and courageous article on why privacy advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation haven’t been more active in the policy debate over pervasive corporate surveillance. When activist firebrands like EFF and others, as Glaser notes, do not have “campaigns related to Facebook, or … proposals for any kind of legislation that would address the ways Facebook and other companies surveil your every mood – and which has been linked by the United Nations to genocide and by the New York Times to all degree of murderous unpleasantness around the world – something’s going on.

EFF and privacy activists play an important role in the debate over data and online regulation: they effectively set the boundaries for the limits of debate over these issues, a role that was first highlighted for me when I was interviewing people in DC for my dissertation on digital-copyright politics. So to have them warn against moving too quickly suggests to me that we should be thinking hard about what’s happening here.

To be clear, I don’t doubt that EFF and other privacy activists sincerely want to reform Facebook and the data-driven economy. And when it comes to state surveillance, you can’t really question their bonafides. It seems to me that a lot of the anger over Glaser’s (very fair and measured) article stems from the fact that in this instance – the debate over how to deal with corporate surveillance and the larger issue of the data-driven economy – EFF and other privacy activists/groups are acting like status quo actors when most people are used to thinking of them as principled (or radical, depending on where you sit) actors. They’re interested in tweaking the knowledge economy, not dealing with its underlying problems.

Here’s the political science. In a great 1993 article, Harvard political scientist Peter Hall argued that there are three types of policy changes. First-order policy changes are routinized and incremental – think adjustments to Facebook’s algorithm to fine-tune its results. Second-order changes involve a reordering of policy tools without changing the ultimate policy objectives. A good example here might be Zuckerberg’s recent announcement of changes to Facebook’s news feed to prioritize personal content. This category would also include calls for software designers and engineers to act more ethically when designing their products, or for Facebook to place a higher priority on individuals’ privacy. It’s a tweak to the system that leaves the system in place.

Third-order policy changes, finally, involve a wholesale reordering of ultimate policy objectives. This would be akin to banning targeted advertising, or forcing social networks to run as non-profits or some kind of heavily state-regulated utility. Or even nationalizing Facebook, perhaps.

An ideological debate

The nice thing about thinking in terms of second- and third-order changes is that it highlights clearly the policy debate at hand. It strongly suggests that the backlash against Glaser’s article is highly ideological and is centred on one of society’s most fundamental organizing principles: what is the appropriate relative balance between the state and the market in this area?

Glaser, I think, is arguing for third-order change, while EFF and others are calling for second-order change. Second-order change involves things such as data portability, strengthening individual consent, calling on engineers to act more ethically, and greater platform transparency.

These policy options are consistent with a suspicion of government regulation, an embrace of a minimally regulated free market, and an ideological belief that market competition will deliver the discipline necessary to sort out any privacy problems. In other words, the standard economic framework that’s been in vogue since the 1980s era of Reagan and Thatcher. You can’t get much more status quo than that.

Against this position, the argument that government does have a legitimate role to play in the regulation of the data-driven economy, and social networks, and that the market does not necessarily deliver optimal social results, is distinctly third-order. (I’d position myself here.) This position would note that there is a legitimate role for the state to act in cases of market failure, including dealing with monopoly power and negative externalities (such as contributing to genocide in the pursuit of profit.) In such cases, the market is incapable of working in a socially optimal manner.

This is the crux of the issue: which will deliver better results for society, the market or government regulation of a monopoly/imperfect competition situation?

Different societies, and different groups have different answers to this problem. As a Canadian, I’m very conscious that much of the commentary regarding how organizations like Facebook should be regulated reflect particular American notions on the appropriate state-market balance, and on what constitutes speech that do not necessarily hold in other countries or societies (or, indeed, amongst non-white, non-male US groups).

The big questions

What all this means is that there are two issues to consider. First, does this moment require second-order change, or is the situation serious enough to reconsider the fundamental nature of the data-driven economy and of social networks?

Second, the debate over how to regulate Facebook et al has no easy, technical solution. Setting the balance between the state and the market is one of the most fundamental choices a society must make. Not only does this type of debate not easily invite compromise, but such battles (think welfare state vs neoliberals) are intensely personal, vicious and – sorry, folks – political.

The debate over Facebook is inviting us to reconsider what type of society we want, not just with respect to novel hi tech data/surveillance problems, but also in more traditional terms. It’s actually kind of ironic that Silicon Valley, with its widespread belief that technology can render politics obsolete, may end up sparking a debate over the economic and social free-market consensus that has dominated US society (and the world) for the past four decades.

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The global political economy of knowledge: A reading list

…time to reactivate the blog…

For the past several years I’ve been teaching a 4th year/graduate seminar on the global political economy. In previous years I’ve taught it as a survey course, an advanced introduction to the various facets of the global economy: production, finance, knowledge/IP.

This year, however, I decided to repurpose it to focus on the global political economy of knowledge. As a political scientist/International Political Economy scholar, I’ve been very conscious that almost all of the action in this area is occurring in other disciplines: law, communication, STS and so on. As a result, not only have IPE and political science students been underexposed to what is arguably the dominant part of the global political economy, but the comparative advantages of Poli and IPE scholars have not been brought to bear fully on the knowledge economy/society/whatever. Most particularly, this includes a sensitivity to how issues like intellectual property, data governance and internet governance fit into the larger global political economy, and a particular sensitivity to the exercise of power of both state and non-state actors.

IPE scholars have an important role to play in the ongoing debate over issues such as the global role of knowledge-based companies and state surveillance. We’re trained to think about how it all fits together, on the links between politics and economics. But first we need to develop (or rediscover) theories that apply to a global political economy increasingly dominated by the control of knowledge.

Because there are so few courses on the global political economy of knowledge for students of IPE and political science, I thought it might be useful to share the syllabus, along with some thoughts on why I set it up the way I did.

Course design: Target audience

The course was an upper-year seminar course that includes 4th-year and Masters students. Only one out of 11 students (a Geography Masters student focusing on digital spaces) had any academic background in the issues covered in the course, although one student came from a prominent family of trademark lawyers, and another, a Brazilian MA student, had previously worked in branding.  That said, it’s safe to say that none of them had ever thought deeply about the control of knowledge, or even what knowledge was. To give you a better idea of where they stood at the beginning of the year, none of them could define what an algorithm was.

My goal for the course was to provide them with a theoretical framework for thinking through the economic and (especially) the political aspects of knowledge governance in its main forms. I wanted to highlight the role of human agency, contingency, and power underlying the technologies and rules they interact with every day.

The syllabus

In order to introduce them to the concept of knowledge governance, I structured the 12-week course to cover five issues: theory (weeks 1 and 2); intellectual property (weeks 3-5); internet governance and state surveillance (weeks 6-8); platform capitalism (week 9); and non-state internet governance (weeks 10-11). Week 12 was a wrap-up class in which students presented their papers in an academic-panel setting (I provided the coffee and doughnuts in order to make the simulation as real as possible).

With the exception of the theory weeks, each topic focused primarily on a key book that highlighted a specific part of what we referred to as the “knowledge structure.” While I didn’t exactly intend it, these books also exposed the students to a diverse set of ideological frameworks, from liberalism to Marxism. I’d never taught a books-only seminar before, and one of my worries had been that I wouldn’t expose students to enough conflicting approaches. I may have strong opinions on all of these topics, but I’m not interested in preaching to my students, beyond the idea that these issues are really, really important and worthy of study.

Some notes on pedagogy

Pedagogically, we turned the third week of the IP and data/surveillance sections into class debates, which was helped by the small size of the classes. It was a useful way to see if they had understood the key points covered by the books. Also, even though all of the books (obviously) have very distinct points of view, the students had no trouble arguing both sides of the questions.

Our Week 9 seminar, on Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, was originally scheduled to be a joint class with a graduate class on theory and technology taught by a political theory colleague. The idea was that we would both assign the books to our respective classes, and then merge them to see how a political theorist and an IPE scholar might approach the same material. We couldn’t make the timing work, so she made a guest appearance in my class, and I returned the favour later that day. Overall, I think the students in both classes found the change in perspective illuminating, with me highlighting the more mundane issues of power and economy, and her linking it back to how forms of economic and political organization affect the human condition. Fun stuff.

Finally, because all of the books built on each other, presented within a (more or less) unified theoretical framework, the class proved perfect for a two-question take-home exam: Describe the “knowledge structure” referring to all of the texts covered in class; and identify and discuss two policy issues raised by the readings and/or in class.

Results

I haven’t seen the actual course evaluations yet, but based on an hour-plus discussion in Week 11, the students seemed to find the class a very useful and engaging introduction to a part of the world they’d never thought of before. So that was nice.

The books and readings

Part 1: Theory

Week 1: Newspaper articles; Handout “What is knowledge? The seven ground rules” 

Week 2: Theorizing the knowledge structure (articles)

Blayne Haggart, “Incorporating the study of knowledge into the IPE mainstream, or, when does a trade agreement stop being a trade agreement?” Journal of Information Policy 7 (2017): 176-203. (open access) 

Blayne Haggart, “New economic models, new forms of state: The emergence of the “info-imperium” state,” Kritika, forthcoming.

Christopher May, “Strange fruit: Susan Strange’s theory of structural power in the international political economy,” Global Society 10, no. 2 (1996): 167-189.

My goal in the first week was to get them used to the idea that the regulation of knowledge – be it data, intellectual property, internet governance, or even cultural production – is inherently political, and that no matter how you structure the rules, you’re going to create winners and losers. The first week we discussed the question of cultural appropriation, centred around some newspaper articles that raised the questions of who should be allowed to use Indigenous symbols in art, and who should be able to view sacred art. I’d hoped to make a strong link to our own taken-for-granted notions about copyright and plagiarism, but overall I think I left the students more confused than enlightened. That said, in our review they mentioned that subsequent class discussions made clear the points I was trying to make. Overall verdict: good idea, execution and explanation needed work.

More successful in the first week was a handout setting out seven ground rules for understanding what knowledge is. This really helped set out the politics and economics of knowledge governance. You can read it here, but in short they are:

  1. “Knowledge” and “information” refer to two different things.
  2. Deciding that some piece of information count as knowledge is a conscious, political act.
  3. Knowledge is intangible.
  4. There are always rules governing knowledge. They always benefit some groups and practices, and impede others.
  5. New knowledge builds on existing knowledge.
  6. Those who control the definition, creation, and use of knowledge also control the future direction and development of knowledge.
  7. A society based on the exploitation of knowledge requires constant surveillance in order to function properly and efficiently.

In this class, we defined knowledge as including both data and intellectual property, partial, mediated representations of reality (which we referred to as “information”). Perhaps not the terminology used by everyone, but it worked for us.

In Week 2, I presented the theoretical framework we used in the class. The framework, which I have developed over a series of conference presentations and journal articles, melds the work of Susan Strange on structural power with Robert W. Cox’s emphasis on state-society complexes and historic blocs. I complemented it with Christopher May’s critique of Strange’s “knowledge structure,” pointing out several issues which I have attempted to fix via my own work (the article also suggests that a Cox-Strange melding could produce useful results; I wholeheartedly agree).

In a nutshell, Strange provides the ontology for thinking about the relationship of knowledge to other parts of the political economy, while Cox offers a mechanism for understanding how change happens. You can read the articles (I’ll link to the Kritika one when it’s released shortly), but the key points are:

  • The underlying rules and norms governing production, finance, security, and knowledge are key power resources in the global political economy.
  • None of these “structures” is a priori more important than the others, although the logic of one structure tends to dominate the others at a given time, and will shape how they operate.
  • We’re currently witnessing the ascension of the knowledge structure.
  • Control over these areas is a contest between state and non-state actors. The state is not necessarily always the main or dominant actor, so we also have to pay attention to private regulation and norm-setting.
  • The “knowledge structure” covers the legitimation of what is considered to be useful knowledge, as well regulations over its creation, dissemination/transmission and use. This means that data, intellectual property, internet governance, and state/commercial surveillance are not separate issues, but parts of a larger, coherent whole (i.e., a “knowledge structure”).
  • The main unit of analysis in global politics is the “state-society complex,” mutually reinforcing relationships between state actors (the state in this view is not a unitary entity) and groups in civil society (e.g., industries). They will tend to pass legislation and promote norms that favour their specific interests over others.

For the purposes of this class, this framework allows for us to cast a wide net, both in terms of substantive theory (it can fit with liberal or Marxist views of the world), as well as in terms of issue focus. It highlights the importance of rule-setting as opposed to relational power. Unlike most other approaches, which tend to consider, say, IP in terms of itself, it highlights its wider effects on everything from production to state security.

Weeks 3-5: Intellectual Property

Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite. Information Feudalism. Sterling: Earthscan, 2002. Available free as a pdf download.

This is, by far, the oldest book on the list, but it is incredibly useful in setting the stage for the rest of the class. Sixteen years later, it’s amazing how current it remains. It provides a very readable introduction to students about the political nature and effects of intellectual property rights, including its effects on access to drugs and access to knowledge in the developing and developed worlds. Drahos and Braithwaite’s framing of strong IP rights as creating a new form of feudalism clearly highlights the winner-take-all dynamics of an strong-IP-based economy. There is also a strong social-justice element to the book, which fits nicely with Strange’s famous research question, cui bono (who benefits)? Their democratic framework for assessing whether a particular IP law or treaty is just is also particularly useful.

The book also traces the emergence of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) as the most consequential development in global IP law in the past half-century. We live in a TRIPS world, and this volume is an excellent introduction to it.

The book’s one drawback is that it assumes a basic knowledge of the different types of intellectual property. This can be a problem given that IP law tends to intimidate even non-IP lawyers. To compensate, I gave a brief lecture on the mechanics of the main IP types, which seemed to do the trick.

Weeks 6-8: Shawn M. Powers and Michael Jablonski, The Real Cyber War: The Political Economy of Internet Freedom. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

This is an excellent book that I cannot recommend too highly. Powers and Jablonski inventively use a Realist (in the International Relations sense) framework – here called a geopolitical approach – to analyze the US conception of “Internet freedom.” In doing so, they highlight the extent to which seemingly neutral/positive ideas around online free speech, promoted by everyone from the US State Department to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also tend to reinforce the global economic strength of US telecoms and internet companies. They further note that this is nothing new: the US has been doing this in one form or another since the invention of the radio.

Their discussion of why internet freedom-internet censorship/balkanization is a false dichotomy is particularly important. They point out that all states, including today, have always controlled and limited communications that they perceive not to be in their interest. By bringing the state into the picture, and highlighting the tight relationship between Silicon Valley and the US state, they offer a useful corrective to analyses which are either state- or industry-focused. Their section on the influential CIA VC fund In-Q-Tel should be required reading for anyone who still thinks that corporate and state surveillance aren’t linked, and their analysis on multistakeholder governance is a convincing argument that MSG isn’t neutral, its politics and power are just more subtle.

They also develop the concept of the Information-Industrial Complex, arguing that Silicon Valley and its associated internet companies arose out of state programs related to the Cold War (the internet) and a post-9/11 security-based obsession with total surveillance.

They also have a great chapter on exactly what Google is and the life cycle of data that should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand what might otherwise be a daunting topic.

Oh, and their solution to dealing with the issue of privacy online, modelled on the international treaties governing privacy in regular mail, is genius. As the Facebook debacle continues, every day that this idea doesn’t gain traction is disappointing.

Of course, by emphasizing the state to the degree they do, they almost necessarily understate the society/business side of things. But given that pretty much everyone else is focused on the society part of the equation, that’s as much a feature as a bug.

Week 9: Nick Srnicek. Platform Capitalism. New York: Polity, 2017.

When I came across this short, masterful book a couple of weeks before I had to finalize my syllabus, I knew I had to cram it in here somehow. Srnicek, better and more compactly than anyone I’ve yet read, illustrates how the ascension of the knowledge structure affects the other structures. He clearly walks the reader through the various types of platforms, showing what happens when companies rely on the production and use of data, and what the troubling consequences are for income inequality, privacy and economic stability, to name only a few issues.

In many ways, Platform Capitalism is the mirror opposite of The Real Cyber War. Where Powers and Jablonski see the state as the ultimate mover in constructing our current online world, the state is almost completely absent from Platform Capitalism. Instead, Srnicek credits the rise of platform capitalism to the inner workings of capitalism itself and the ongoing search for profit in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. Each book undoubtedly contains elements of the truth, and they benefit from being read in rapid succession.

One other notable thing about Platform Capitalism is that Srnicek is very light on proposed answers to dealing with the myriad issues caused by this new form of economic organization. He canvasses the alternatives – status quo, regulation, non-profit competitors, public ownership – without sounding too enthusiastic about any of them. I have some thoughts about the issue, but in a classroom setting Srnicek’s open-endedness is a virtue, an invitation to discussion.

Weeks 10-11: Natasha Tusikov, Chokepoints: Global Private Regulation on the Internet. Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.

If The Real Cyber War is too state-centric, and Platform Capitalism too society-centric, Chokepoints hits the midpoint. That it deals with the very hot topic of whether and how large internet companies should regulate, or be forced to regulate, their users’ activities made it the perfect capstone for this course.

The book (disclosure: written by my partner, which meant I was able to convince her to guest lecture on the first week) highlights the tight, and often hidden, relationship between the state and what she calls “macrointermediaries” – your Googles, your PayPals, your GoDaddys, and so on – when it comes to regulating online behaviour. Her case study, regulation of online trademark infringement, highlighted the centralization that has emerged online: if you can convince the few key players controlling search, online payments, advertising, domain name registration and online marketplaces that they should regulate in your interest, then you can basically control what happens on the internet.

Most importantly, Tusikov reveals that the so-called “voluntary” agreements between rightsholders and these macrointermediaries are not at all voluntary: they are agreed to with a large degree of state coercion, in the form of threatened regulation, lawsuits under existing ambiguous laws, and the implicit threat of the withdrawal of government contracts. It names the United States as the key actor in this area, although the United Kingdom, European Union and China are also very active in the same way. She argues convincingly that these agreements have been used to subvert open policy and legislative debates (those of us who remember the very public SOPA fight will be dismayed to learn that companies have enacted much of SOPA through these informal agreements), while raising serious concerns related to due process.

Like Srnicek, Tusikov has no easy answers for dealing with this state of affairs beyond raising awareness that these agreements are actually happening. Judging from the shocked, surprised and angry reactions her book talks have received in many different settings, it’s a necessary first step.

That’s it

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading! As I wrote above, I found this mix of readings offered a nice, coherent and comprehensive introduction to the topic of the global knowledge politics. I’m looking forward to running the course again.

If you have any questions or comments, including other reading suggestions, please leave them below. Be nice.

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