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Authoritarian Tech

Surveillance is a form of information warfare, says Shoshana Zuboff

At Coda, we try to “connect the dots” between the issues we cover, but our two channels — disinformation and authoritarian tech — have always seemed distinct.

When we think of disinformation and information warfare, we usually think of government-sponsored deception; but Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, describes it differently.

“Information warfare originates in epistemic inequality — information dominance,” she said to a packed Berlin auditorium on Wednesday. Zuboff, who looks like she is from the 1980s, has been at the forefront of the techlash which has made her 600-page tome a bestseller.

Of course, she’s right: information warfare depends on knowing more than the victim. When a troll factory creates memes and impersonates American voters, it relies partly on ignorance on the part of those who then consume and spread these memes.

But there is another situation where somebody knows something you don’t, and that is the advertising-supported business model of large tech companies. Facebook knows things about you that you’re not aware of yourself, and uses that information to make money. What’s interesting is that Zuboff called this a form of information warfare as well.

Surveillance capitalism, she said, “is the normalization and institutionalization of information warfare for profit.”

This notion helps tie together our twin interests here at Coda — disinformation and authoritarian tech. In Zuboff’s view, both rely on preying on vulnerable populations through the acquisition, creation, and manipulation of information, whether it’s your browsing history of a fake Trump rally staged in Philadelphia.

Zuboff has been touring for months, and though she offers dire warnings about surveillance capitalism, claiming it has robbed us of agency and privacy, she ultimately has a hopeful message.

“Anything that humans make can be unmade,” she said.

But some audience members didn’t buy her commitment. When the Q&A session was conducted using an online submission form for questions, a man rose in protest.

“We don’t need technology to have a conversation!” he shouted.

“I second this man!” said another who had just risen from his seat.

The two men exited the room with some fanfare before the discussion could continue.

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