Out now: My review of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Journal of Digital Media & Policy has just published my long take on Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. This is a modified version of the blog review I posted here back in February; this journal version stands as the definitive one. It’s paywalled, but if you would like a copy, please contact me.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Bonus entry: Waterfront Toronto takes the Douglas Adams approach to public consultation

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

“But the plans were on display…”
“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
“That’s the display department.”
“With a flashlight.”
“Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
“So had the stairs.”
“But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.”

Douglas Adams, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

As I was touching up my introductory post yesterday, it occurred to me that readers and the remaining Toronto royalty who have not yet made up their minds about a 1,500-page report that was released only a few weeks ago might want to know how to participate in the fulsome consultations Waterfront Toronto has promised the city.

Finding out how to participate ended up being much more difficult than I expected. Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs might be planning the innovative, accessible smart city of the future, but there is nothing innovative or smart about their consultation process. To be blunt, they are not making it easy to participate, and the poorly designed process that Waterfront Toronto has put in place raises questions about how useful results will actually be.

Neither does Waterfront Toronto’s actions in the first public consultation (July 15) provide much confidence in their commitment to full transparency and maximum public engagement, as they did not make any audio or video recordings of the meeting. According to the Toronto Star, “Waterfront Toronto officials told The Star that they expect to record and make publicly available all subsequent meetings, with written summaries to be posted online.”

Waterfront Toronto has been on this file for three years now, and providing a written and video record of one of Toronto’s most important urban development projects in a generation would seem to be a no-brainer. That they didn’t do this for the first meeting, followed by a reassurance that they will start recording in the next one has the strong feel of an organization that’s reactively improvising.

An advisory consultation

There’s also the reality that at the end of the day this is all very much an advisory consultation. If Waterfront Toronto wants to go ahead with this project, all the negative feedback in the world can’t stop them. As the Auditor General of Ontario’s report points out, our elected officials “can only influence Waterfront Toronto through their appointees to its Board of Directors” (p. 694).

The Auditor General also notes that, as of December 2018, Waterfront Toronto’s “protocol” for soliciting governments’ review and comments on the MIDP:

only requires Waterfront Toronto to provide to each of the three governments the key agreement and any supplementary agreements for comment. The protocol does not clarify whether Waterfront Toronto would approve the MIDP if Sidewalk Labs does not make changes to the draft that the governments may request. (p. 694)

The long and short of all this is, if you want to influence the outcome of this project, don’t just focus on these consultations. Contact your local councillor and your federal Member of Parliament. The federal election is just around the corner, and it looks like the Liberals will need to hold Toronto to stay in power. Ask your candidates where they stand on Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs and the MIDP.

Still, being responsible citizens, let’s try to offer our opinion, shall we?

“Down to the cellar”

Our journey begins early on the morning of July 15. It’s a digital world, and Waterfront Toronto is offering us the city of the future, with everything conveniently at our fingertips. So it’s off to their main project site, quayside.to, which prominently features a link to the MIDP proposal, but no obvious link for feedback.

The misleadingly labelled “Contact Us” button brings us to a page whose most prominent offering is the opportunity to “Sign up for Waterfront Toronto’s Monthly Newsletter,” so no help here. (In fairness, it also includes their general email address, quayside@waterfrontoronto.ca, on which more later.) And no “How can I make my voice heard?” in the FAQ, either.

Success! Clicking on the menu button – the digital equivalent of opening the door to the cellar – brings us to something labelled “Get Involved”.

“Stuck in a disused lavatory”

One’s initial read of Waterfront Toronto’s “Get Involved” page does not inspire confidence in the ability to conduct a thorough public consultation. The page first informs us that “The next public consultation will be announced following the submission of the MIDP to Waterfront Toronto. From there it is on to another invitation to subscribe to their newsletter, an invitation to interact with them on Facebook and Twitter (where reasoned discourse thrives), and a suggestion that one check “back here for details later in the Spring.”

Beyond just getting “involved,” and also stretching the meaning of the phrase “get involved,” Waterfront Toronto wants to share with us their “Engagement history” (option 1) and their document library (option 4). They also take this opportunity, at the bottom of the page, to pitch their newsletter one more time, which makes me wonder if someone’s performance bonus is linked to hitting a newsletter-subscriber target. #bigdata

We’re also given the chance to participate in a “Civic Lab” (option 3), where people can “discuss thoughts, feedback, and questions pertaining to the Quayside Project.” Unfortunately, this link only takes us to reports on three previous Civic Labs and offers us the chance to visit their document library. Waterfront Toronto here passes up a golden opportunity to goose their Newsletter numbers, as the page features no invitation to subscribe to their newsletter.

Much more relevant to actually getting involved is Option 2, Participate in a public consultation. Why, yes, I would like to “Check for upcoming events.” Let’s do that!

“The lights had probably gone.”

Three levels down from the main page. It opens with the by-now-inevitable invitation to subscribe to their monthly newsletter or to contact them on Facebook or Twitter.

But we also see, for the first time, how Waterfront Toronto plans to consult with the public. They have planned a series of meetings, which will include “a main presentation and multiple breakout sessions.” Four presentations are planned across the city, starting … yesterday (July 15) and ending … in eight days (July 23).

They will also be hosting a series of “Quayside Dialogue Boxes,” to be held at various Toronto libraries, at which “staff from Waterfront Toronto will share information about the proposal, answer questions, and listen to your feedback.” Five of them are already passed; two are upcoming, on July 18 and 25.

If you’re keeping track of these timelines, Sidewalk Labs released its one-thousand-five-hundred-page report on June 24. Waterfront Toronto, on its consultations page, offers Torontonians four public consultations spread over eight days, held in the depths of summer three weeks after this mammoth report was released, a report that Waterfront Toronto itself had only recently seen for the first time in its entirety. And some library-based info sessions, most of which have already finished.

Perhaps reflecting the digital spirit of the multi-billion-dollar project, starting on July 15 Waterfront Toronto also began offering residents the opportunity to participate online via not one, but two, surveys. The shorter survey, “to share quick responses about how receptive you are to the proposals in Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP,” is almost comically superficial. It asks “How receptive are you to Sidewalk Lab’s proposals about” the one-thousand-five-hundred-page MIDP’s various sections, with choices of: Receptive; Receptive to some; Not receptive; and Need more information.

The longer “Detailed Survey” is actually quite good. It provides background information and asks pointed but open questions about each section that seem to allow for people to raise a wide variety of concerns and opinions. A section for general comments would’ve been helpful, but otherwise it’s exactly the type of online engagement that a project like this needs.

But there’s a rather short time limit. According to the “Participate in a public consultation” page also says “The deadline for Round One Online Consultation feedback is July 31, 2019.”

Which brings us to the main problem. The Detailed Survey is appropriate for this project precisely because it is so detailed. It has to be, because the MIDP covers so much ground. However, what this means is that it would take someone well-versed in the MIDP (itself of daunting length) the better part of a day to fill out. And Waterfront Toronto is seeking (presumably informed) comments for its Round One within the next 15 days.

(An aside: the reference to a “Round One” only appeared on July 15, and only in passing. Previously, there was nothing on this page to indicate that public consultations would last beyond late July.)

This is madness. Most governments hold longer, more in-depth hearings on less-complicated legislation than this. Each part of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal has so many moving parts that it requires not one two-week survey (followed by… what?), but separate hearings into each aspect. Any less and the responses to even the Detailed Survey are likely to be as superficial as the short survey.

“In the bottom of a locked filing cabinet”

All of this would normally lead me to become frustrated at the inadequacy of Waterfront Toronto’s consultation process, but my problem was that I hadn’t descended deeply enough into the cellar. Thankfully, Natasha Tusikov, who is also working her way through all of these documents for a SSHRC-funded project on smart-city data governance, points out that, in fact, Waterfront Toronto clearly lays out their extensive public consultation process.

In its Note to Reader.

On pages 46 and 47 of a 66-page document.

Which is only available as a pdf.

In this easily accessible document, the public is informed that the aforementioned public meetings are only round one of a two-round process. The first round will end on July 31, 2019, and feedback received up to then “will be summarized and shared publicly by the end of August 2019.”

Waterfront Toronto also helpfully suggests that “Given the volume of material in the proposal (1,500+ pages in total), members of the public may choose to attend more than one of the public meetings.”

Round Two, which is only hinted at on Waterfront Toronto’s webpage, is planned for the Fall, “exact timing to be determined,”

once the Waterfront Toronto team and the public have had more time to work through and consider the Draft MIDP. Round Two will include a report on the public feedback during Round One and will take the public conversation further to focus on particular areas of the Draft MIDP where the Waterfront Toronto team would benefit from additional public feedback and advice.

Take a moment to unpack this remarkable paragraph.

Waterfront Toronto is holding a second round of consultations in the Fall (but didn’t think to mention this on their “Get Involved” page) because it’s beyond unreasonable to ask anyone, even the people at Waterfront Toronto who are professionally invested in this scheme, to come up with a reasoned opinion on this mastodonic proposal in just over a month.

And they plan to give a report on the feedback from Round One in Round Two. Round One’s unreasonably tight timeline means that the discussion in Round Two will be shaped by two types of people: those who have can and have devoted several working days to plowing through this report (howdy), and those who don’t mind weighing in on a complicated subject without first doing their due diligence.

But most importantly: Waterfront Toronto is asking the public to comment on a report that it admits it has not yet fully analyzed.

Also, why the arbitrary July 31 deadline?

This is, in short, not a great consultation plan. It smacks of improvisation, which is not something one would necessarily desire from an organization trying to convince the public it can manage a multi-billion-dollar tech development and effectively supervise a subsidiary of one of the world’s most powerful companies.

“Beware of the Leopard”

Page 46 of Waterfront Toronto’s Note to Reader offers one final hard-won tidbit of information, in which we are informed that the Smart Consultation may be alive and well beyond the aforementioned surveys:

For those unable to join us in-person, the http://www.QuaysideTO.ca website includes more information about the project and an online portal to submit written comments.

Submitting written comments to Waterfront Toronto using their online portal is complicated somewhat by the fact that the portal does not seem to exist. There is the survey (which just went live on July 15), but a survey is not a portal, and the survey itself did not even exist when the Note to Reader (a genteel-sounding title that seems more suited to a Jane Austen novel than a development agency) was released.

Ever the intrepid researcher, Dr. Tusikov sent Waterfront Toronto an email to quayside@waterfronttoronto.ca asking to be directed to their portal.

Their response (form-letter, of course):


Thank you for taking the time to write to us about the Quayside project. We will be retaining feedback related to Quayside and Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for consideration throughout our engagement and evaluation process.

We are working to address to your individual inquiries as best we can. You can anticipate a more detailed response within a few weeks of this message.

For more information about Waterfront Toronto’s evaluation and consultation process, details on upcoming events, and to read an electronic version of Sidewalk Labs’ proposal head to quaysideto.ca.

We hope to see you at an upcoming consultation.

Thank you,

Waterfront Toronto team


A few weeks likely being after the July 31 Round One deadline.

The effects of difficult-to-find and incomplete consultation information, the tight timelines and the oddly structured consultation rounds are significant. As currently set up, this process will minimize informed comment and citizen participation. For an organization that has stepped on one rake after another over the past several years, having to go through so many hoops just to figure out how to participate in a public consultation is not a great look.

A positive first step would be to scrap the arbitrary deadlines, especially for the Detailed Survey, nix the idea of Rounds, and start extensive, focused, detailed consultations in September, once Waterfront Toronto has had a chance to read and understand the report it commissioned. Used the summer to help inform people, and for Waterfront Toronto to analyze fully the report they’re supposed to be evaluating. There’s no need to rush this, and true public consultation involves more than information provision and reading a newsletter.

But please, do sign up for Waterfront Toronto’s monthly newsletter. I fear someone’s livelihood hangs in the balance.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 1: The 2018 Auditor General of Ontario Report

Previous Master Innovation and Development Plan liveblog entries available here

I highly recommend the Auditor General’s Waterfront Toronto report for those of you looking to understand how we ended up with Sidewalk Labs’ controversial smart city proposal.

What emerges from the report is a picture of a small agency, hamstrung by a lack of authority and funding, running out of seed capital (p. 680). Then, in 2016, it latches onto the smart city idea as a way to allow it to fulfill its wider development mandate. In this telling, the Quayside parcel of land, which it controls, provides Waterfront Toronto with leverage to increase its ability to develop the overall waterfront, which, the report notes many times, it does not directly control.

Unfortunately, neither Waterfront Toronto nor the Province of Ontario come across as having had any idea about what creating a smart city actually involves. Waterfront Toronto was inexperienced in this area: “Up until the awarding of a project to Sidewalk Labs for the development of the smart city, Waterfront Toronto had primarily handled traditional mixed-use developments. As a result, it had limited experience in digital data infrastructure development” (p. 689). A smart city was “originally not part of Waterfront Toronto’s Development Plan” (p. 688), only showing up on its radar with the appointment of CEO William Fleissig in January 2016 (p. 688).

The reactive April 2018 creation of a part-time Digital Strategy Advisory Panel of “limited” effectiveness is a pretty clear admission that Waterfront Toronto lacked a basic understanding of digital issues. The same can be said for Ontario, which “lacks a policy framework to guide the development of a mixed-use smart city such as the one being contemplated for Quayside” (p. 653). In particular, they were unprepared to deal with such foundational smart-city issues “intellectual property” and “data collection, ownership, security and privacy” (p. 653).

Odd approval process

And so we get a Request For Proposals process that raises one red flag after another. Some of the more dramatic involve Sidewalk Labs being given more information than other bidders, a rushed approval process and an unusual lack of consultations by Waterfront Toronto with its government stakeholders on Sidewalk Labs’ proposal.

Rather, the Auditor General notes briefly that the proposal instead “was being discussed at a senior political level.” The fact that the Waterfront Toronto Board felted pressured by the federal and provincial governments (p. 691), combined with critiques that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government favours “foreign tech giants over Canadian firms,” as well as Trudeau’s presence at the initial announcement of Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside application, raise questions about the role of politics in the selection of Sidewalk Labs.

At the very least, Trudeau’s ongoing support for Sidewalk Labs should be an election issue. Of particular interest should be the circumvention of regular procedures by Waterfront Toronto, the political role of Ottawa in the process (a touchy question in the wake of the SNC Lavelin affair), and the poorly thought out consequences of depending on a foreign tech company to anchor your innovation sector: Being a branch plant economy in the digital age may not provide the same benefits as it did back when manufacturing was king (e.g., Rodrik 2016, esp. p. 6).

Weak accountability

There’s also the issue that approval of the MIDP “will not require the governments’ approval and signing” (p. 694).  “Only Waterfront Toronto’s Board is required to approve the MIDP, and Waterfront Toronto is allowed to seek approval from any or all three governments at its discretion.” (p. 694) Instead, governments can only influence Waterfront Toronto through the selection of their board members.

Few specifics on data and surveillance

The Auditor General’s report also notes that detailed information on how Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto’s high-level principles on data, security, privacy and surveillance would be realized were “not included in the Plan Development Agreement. The Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) and implementation agreements are expected to address this.

The report goes on to note:

Also absent is clarification on whether personal information, which Sidewalk Labs gathers, will be linked to its sister company’s, Google’s, existing collection of personal data in its users’ accounts (p. 692).

While accurate at the time (December 2018), it’s my understanding that the MIDP claims that Sidewalk Labs will not link its data with Google’s.

Looking forward…

As we will see when we get to the other documents, Waterfront Toronto’s apparent lack of basic understanding of the central role of data governance, intellectual property and surveillance in the context of a smart-city development seems to have led it to turn  decisions about how the rules should be set in this critical area over to a foreign, for-profit company whose main claim to fame is that it is intimately linked to Google, a company with a dubious track record when it comes to foundational issues like privacy and telling the truth about what its products do.

General notes

An agency plagued by a lack of authority

Successful oversight requires that the overseer has the authority to ensure the job is done right. Unfortunately, Waterfront Toronto was never given this authority, and as a result, the development of Toronto’s waterfront lands has largely continued to be driven by historical practices, the existing bylaws, and other regulations governing commercial and residential development. Waterfront Toronto has been able to rezone just over 150 acres of land from industrial to mixed commercial-residential use. … (p. 648)

From day one, Waterfront Toronto was well aware of the constraints that it operated under … . Waterfront Toronto, on several occasions, informed the three levels of government of the constraints, but few changes were made. Waterfront Toronto’s communications to the public gave the impression that it was playing an irreplaceable role in the world-class transformation of Toronto’s waterfront, a total of 2,840 acres. This was not our conclusion. (p. 648)

Quayside: Waterfront Toronto’s chance to shine

Waterfront Toronto’s purchase of Quayside land between 2007 and 2009 created an opportunity for Waterfront Toronto to develop land in the way it sees fit. This will be Waterfront Toronto’s first development of its own land. (p. 649, emphasis added)

Waterfront Toronto’s Quayside autonomy

It was proactive of Waterfront Toronto to seek out interested parties to procure an innovation and funding partner for Quayside. This in effect gives Waterfront Toronto the autonomy that would have been beneficial for it to have had over the last 15 years. (p. 649, emphasis added)

Concerns with Sidewalk Labs Agreement

However, its new agreement with Sidewalk Labs raises concerns in areas such as consumer protection, data collection, security, privacy, governance, antitrust and ownership of intellectual property. These are areas with long-term and wide-ranging impacts that the provincial government, along with the City of Toronto, needs to address from a policy framework perspective to protect the public interest before this initiative proceeds further. (p. 649, emphasis added)

Waterfront Toronto oversight problems

Rushed agreement:

the Board of Waterfront Toronto was given just a weekend to discuss and understand the implications of the initial Framework Agreement before being asked to approve it. (p. 649)

The Intergovernmental Steering Committee also expressed concern about the lack of sufficient time given to the Board and the governments to review the initial Framework Agreement. The committee itself was only made aware of the name of the successful bidder five days before the October 17, 2017, public announcement, which involved the Prime Minister, the Premier of Ontario, the Mayor of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs.” (p. 649, emphasis added)

The Intergovernmental Steering Committee was briefed about the project and RFP in a June 2017 meeting, about three months after issuing the RFP. (p. 689)

The Mayor’s Office

had received ‘almost no information about the project’ according to an internal Waterfront Toronto email three weeks prior to the signing of the Framework Agreement. In addition, while Waterfront Toronto signed the Framework Agreement with Sidewalk Labs on October 16, 2017, the three levels of government expressed frustration according to the Intergovernmental Steering Committee meeting minutes that they did not receive a copy of the signed agreement until after November 2, 2017. (p. 689)

The Framework Agreement was presented by the Chief Executive Officer to Waterfront Toronto Board members on October 13, 2017, and the agreement was approved by the Board on October 16, 2017. On the same date, the Framework Agreement was signed by the Chief Executive Officer and the Chief Development Officer of Waterfront Toronto following Board approval. (p. 689)

Prior to receiving the formal draft agreement for its review and approval, the Board was given two briefings about the project on October 11 and 12, 2017. However, the two briefings were background information about the project and the RFP selection process and a high level briefing on the terms of the Framework Agreement. The three-member Investment and Real Estate Committee of the Board typically reviews similar agreements prior to recommending an agreement for Board approval. This Committee received an overview of the principles and draft terms of the Framework Agreement about one month prior to the submission of the agreement to the Board for approval and met with management a number of times to review issues. However, the Committee could not reach a consensus on whether or not to support the project. As a result, it did not issue a recommendation on October 13, 2017, to the Board on whether or not to sign the agreement. Not only did the Board not receive a recommendation from its sub-committee, it had only one business day to review the agreement prior to providing approval. (pp. 690-691)

No operational review of Waterfront Toronto

by May 2018, the federal, provincial and city governments had further committed to providing $1.25 billion to Waterfront Toronto to cover the cost of flood protection of the Port Lands. This also extended Waterfront Toronto’s operation to 2028 without the benefit of an operational review of Waterfront Toronto. (p. 649)

$US 40 million of Sidewalk Labs’ initial $US 50 million investment was contingent on $1.25 billion in government funding

Sidewalk Labs’ provision of $50 million to further explore the development in Quayside was contingent on the three levels of government providing this $1.25 billion toward Port Lands flood protection. (p. 649)

Waterfront Toronto only controls Quayside. It can’t promise anything beyond that. And yet…

A second agreement with Sidewalk Labs called the Plan Development Agreement, signed in July 2018, replaces the initial Framework Agreement and potentially opens the door to expand the Sidewalk Labs’ project to the approximately 600 acres of land in the Port Lands. Waterfront Toronto does not have the authority to grant rights to lands beyond what it owns in Quayside. (p. 649)

From our review of information from July to December 2016, we confirmed that Sidewalk Labs’ interest in Quayside from the start was being able to expand its project to the Port Lands. As noted in Section 6.2.1, Waterfront Toronto does not have authority to grant rights to lands beyond the lands in Quayside that it owns and that Sidewalk Labs is aware of this limitation. (p. 690)

Waterfront Toronto has been asked to make development financially self-sustaining

Waterfront Toronto’s mandate is to make ongoing waterfront development “financially self-sustaining.” It has failed to do so and remains dependent on government funding. It only began pursuing strategies “to generate revenues from corporate partnership and to explore strategic philanthropy” in 2016. (p. 651)

Waterfront Toronto’s projects went over cost, and were hampered by “poor oversight” and monitoring issues “due to poor documentation.” (p. 651)

 Questionable procurement processes/Favourable treatment for Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs received more information from Waterfront Toronto prior to the RFP than other parties that would be responding to the RFP. (p. 652)

As well, Waterfront Toronto provided Sidewalk Labs with surveys, drawings, topographic illustrations of the waterfront area including Eastern waterfront, and other materials. Sidewalk Labs architects signed a digital data licence agreement with Waterfront Toronto to allow Sidewalk Labs to use the information it was provided. (p. 689)

Although Waterfront Toronto did not issue the RFP until March 2017, in August 2016, Waterfront Toronto also signed a non-disclosure agreement with Sidewalk Labs in order to receive information from it. Further, in September 2016, Waterfront Toronto met with a delegation from Sidewalk Labs and provided a site visit and tour of the waterfront area. (p. 689)

Sharing agreements were also signed with Sidewalk Labs and two other organizations, one of which was also shortlisted. (p. 652)

Waterfront Toronto’s defence:

Waterfront Toronto advised us that this sharing of information was before the issuance of the RFP and part of their regular market sounding process where they were trying to gauge market interest in the Quayside project. Further, Waterfront Toronto said the information provided did not give these potential bidders an unfair advantage over other potential bidders that did not receive the information and would have been provided to any interested party that would have requested it. (p. 689)


Fair practice and equal treatment would suggest that all potential bidders receive the same information at the same time. (p. 690)

Lack of proper government consultation

Unlike its previous operating practices, Waterfront Toronto did not adequately consult with any levels of government regarding the Sidewalk Labs project. (p. 652)

However, in issuing the original RFP for a funding and innovation partner for the smart city project, Waterfront Toronto did not ask the City to review the RFP or be involved in the evaluation and selection of the successful bidder. (p. 693)

Shorter-than-usual timeframe

Waterfront Toronto gave respondents only six weeks to respond to the RFP for the smart city project. Six proponents responded, of which three were shortlisted. The unsuccessful respondents that we interviewed indicated to us that the six- weeks response timeframe for a project of this magnitude was too short. In comparison, in the past Waterfront Toronto has given bidders significantly longer to respond to more traditional tenders. (p. 690)

A very political deal

Unlike its previous operating practices, Waterfront Toronto did not adequately consult with any levels of government regarding the Sidewalk Labs project. … Waterfront Toronto did not adequately consult with any [relevant government departments] prior to signing an initial agreement on October 16, 2017, and beyond. This was being discussed at a senior political level. (p. 652, emphasis added)

we found internal Waterfront Toronto emails indicating that the Board felt it was being ‘urged—strongly’ by the federal and provincial governments to approve and authorize the Framework Agreement with Sidewalk Labs as soon as possible. The October 17, 2017, public announcement by the Prime Minister, the Premier, the Mayor, Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs about the signing of the Framework Agreement was arranged on October 12, the day before the Board received the final Framework Agreement for review and approval. (p. 691)

The Quayside proposal brings into play multiple overlapping jurisdictions (e.g., transportation, construction, economic development, privacy, planning, waste management), with little adequate consultation:

Prior to the signing of the Plan Development Agreement, Waterfront Toronto had not adequately engaged these ministries or divisions in consultation on the potential impact of the smart city project on the sectors they oversee. (p. 693)

  • Question: Do the other levels of government believe that consultations around the MIDP sufficiently reflected their interests in these policy areas?

Data collection and use: murky waters

The Plan Development Agreement also proposes new data governance approaches, such as the use of a data trust, where data is stored by a third-party organization. However, the agreement does not provide specifics on data governance. (p. 692)

Also absent is clarification on whether personal information, which Sidewalk Labs gathers, will be linked to its sister company’s, Google’s, existing collection of personal data in its users’ accounts. (p. 652) [although see update in main text above]

Treatment of intellectual property: vague

 the Plan Development Agreement is generally vague as to ownership, use and commercialization, leaving many of the details to be deter- mined in the MIDP and subsequent implementation agreements. If the Plan Development Agreement is terminated, then it is likely that Sidewalk Labs will retain ownership of any intellectual property it has developed to date, but Waterfront Toronto would receive a perpetual, royalty-free licence of site- specific (only in Quayside) intellectual property. (p. 694)

Digital Strategy Advisory Panel: “limited” effectiveness; busywork; resignations

Based on discussions with Panel members, the Panel’s effectiveness in providing management guidance on key issues in the smart city project has been limited. (p. 652)

Members assessed some meetings as primarily focused on administrative work, such as project background and confidentiality, and technical and scheduling issues. (p. 652)

There have also been two resignations due to concerns over lack of transparency and apathy on the part of Waterfront Toronto over residents’ concerns over data privacy. (p. 652)

Various members of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel raised concerns with respect to the proposal including the following:

  • the location of the storage of data—within Canada or outside Canada (whereby Canadian privacy laws can be bypassed);

  • the access to and use of data stored in the trust; and

  • what proportion of the data collected will actually be stored in the trust.” (p. 692)

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs: Jointly responsible for future Requests for Proposals

The current agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto requires the two parties to jointly issue requests for proposals (RFPs) to developers if the project goes ahead. (p. 653)

Waterfront Toronto had revised its procurement policy in June 2018, making it easier to procure goods and services without a competitive tender process and no requirement to document the rationale for awarding the contract to a single or sole supplier. (p. 693)

Ontario doesn’t have an effective framework to guide a smart-city project like this

the Province lacks a policy framework to guide the development of a mixed-use smart city such as the one being contemplated for Quayside. (p. 653)

This framework should address:

  • intellectual property;
  • data collection, ownership, security and privacy;
  • legal issues;
  • consumer protection issues;
  • infrastructure development; and
  • economic development. (p. 653)

Waterfront Toronto’s response to the Auditor General’s report on data privacy issues was quite limited:

At the same time, people are interested in issues about data privacy and what role technology should have in our lives. (p. 654)

Waterfront Toronto commits to consulting with the three levels of government “and giving the governments an opportunity to review and comment on any key documents before they are approved by the Waterfront Toronto Board. (p. 654)

The provinces’ response does not address the Auditor General’s call for a smart-city framework.

The Auditor General’s Quayside-related recommendation (p. 695):

“that the provincial government, in consultation with partner governments:

  • conduct further study on the activities of Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs in the planning and development of the smart city in Quayside and the broader waterfront area;
  • reassess whether it is appropriate for Waterfront Toronto to act on its own initiative
  • in making commitments and finalizing a long-term partnership arrangement with Sidewalk Labs or whether a separate governance structure is needed that allows for more direct provincial oversight;
  • establish an advisory council comprised of smart city/digital data infrastructure experts (e.g., information technology, privacy, legal, consumer protection, infrastructure development, intellectual property and economic development) to provide proactive advice
  • on the development of a policy framework to guide the establishment of a smart city in Ontario;
  • conduct public consultations to consider in the development of a policy framework for a smart city in Ontario;
  • consult throughout government on the roles and responsibilities government ministries and agencies could have during the development, implementation and operation of a smart city;
  • to protect the public’s interest, establish the policy framework, through legislation, for the development of a smart city in Ontario that addresses: intellectual property; data collection, ownership, security and privacy;
  • legal; consumer protection issues, infrastructure development and economic development; and
  • communicate openly and transparently with the public on what to expect from a smart city project.”

The province commits only to studying these issues.

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Liveblogging Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan, Entry 0: The Dark Tower of annoyingly long smart city reports

On June 24, 2019, after 20 months of sordid twists and turns – highprofile resignations, the CEO who oversaw the whole thing forced out by the Waterfront Toronto Board, accusations of improper tendering processes, a data company hired to implement a data-driven smart city project that proved surprisingly reluctant to discuss data – that turned the whole process of preparing a smart-city proposal into something that one of our Swedish colleagues said resembled an “urban development thriller,” Sidewalk Labs finally released its Master Innovation and Development Plan for Waterfront Toronto’s 12-acre Quayside plot of land. And, um, Villiers West (20 acres). All told, a huge chunk of the eastern waterfront (190 acres). Prime real estate, as it happens.

And, oh, yes. Sidewalk Labs also proposes restructuring or replacing Waterfront Toronto, the government agency that hired Sidewalk Labs in the first place. I’m not sure that this negotiation approach, the bureaucratic equivalent of killing your boss and then demanding a raise, was the kind of out-of-the-box thinking Waterfront Toronto expected when they hired the neophyte Google company to come in and shake things up. If this tactic does catch on, I propose that the act of hiring someone whose pitch explicitly involves demanding your dismissal be referred to as “pulling a Lando.”

Oh, and the report is over 1,500 pages long. And it doesn’t have a proper Executive Summary.

I also understand that the Sidewalk Labs plan has been endorsed by some 30 Toronto civic luminaries, some of whom, such as “Alan Broadbent, CEO of Toronto-based commercial real estate lender Avana Capital and signatory of the letter,” apparently had not yet read the report in its entirety.

And who can blame them – it’s longer than The Stand!

Still, somebody should read this behemoth, if only to find out what, exactly, our City Mothers and Fathers are effectively endorsing. And so, over the next several days/weeks I will be going through the entire Master Innovation and Development Plan, highlighting key issues, and you’re invited along for the ride.

But first, in order to put Google’s Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP into the proper context, to see what Toronto’s civic leaders are supporting, we need to revisit a few other documents:

Then, it’ll be on to the big kahuna: the Master Innovation and Development Plan, with Waterfront Toronto’s subsequent Note to Reader serving as the dénouement.

That’s a lot of supplemental reading just to understand fully the main text.

Since I have to do this reading to help prepare my submission to the Waterfront Toronto consultation process, it would be nice to have some company. My plan, for now, is to spend at least one post on each document, although I imagine I’ll have to divide the MIDP into several posts. Each post will consist of a brief summary of what I think are the most salient points, followed by a list of key quotes divided by issue area. I’ll be running one post a day, except for today, when you’ll get two.

My aim is to create a resource for anyone who wants to bring themselves up to speed on documents that are not … shall we say … designed to be easily digested. Even by city luminaries weighing in on what could end up being the digital Spadina Expressway of the 21st century.

Next up, the Auditor General of Ontario’s 2018 report into Waterfront Toronto.

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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).)


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?)

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.

Edited May 6, 2019: I’ve deleted the penultimate section from this review in order to be as fair as possible to the book. I did this for two reasons.

First, after doing yet another expanded search on the the world Unplugged report, to which Zuboff refers at the beginning of Chapter 16, I’ve found that Zuboff is not the only, or first, person to misquote the Ugandan student as saying “I felt like there was a problem with me,” instead of the accurate “I missed communicating to my friends through daily social networks and they also felt like there was a problem with me.” While the quote that appears in the book isn’t accurate, this mistake doesn’t seem to have originated with The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. So, a sloppy but possibly understandable error.

Second, my original review took Zuboff to task for imputing genders, ages and emotional states to the students quoted on the world Unplugged website. It is still correct that Zuboff improperly uses “boy” and “girl” to refer to university-age students, when there is nothing on the site linking quotes to a student’s gender and age.  Beyond not being good practice if you value accuracy, it also has all the hallmarks of a moral panic. What I wrote in my original review — “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’” — still stands.

In terms of imputing emotional states to students, it is still accurate to say that the three cited quotes, described as having been “moaned,” “whimpered,” and “muttered,” are not described as such in the cited text. The resulting journal article, correctly, uses neutral language like “said” and “observed” when reporting students’ quotes. As for the website, among the 28 pages reporting results and quotes, I found only four instances where non-neutral language was used: “moaned” (two instances), “groused,” and “grumbled.” Again, while imputing emotional states to subjects for which you have no grounds is not great academic practice (and would definitely earn any student of mine a warning), it can also be seen merely as bad writing. Since I’m more concerned with The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s substantive problems than matters of style, I’ve cut this part as well.

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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.

Posted in digital-rights activism, facebook | Tagged , , ,

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.

Posted in Canada-US relations, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,