You Are the Object of a Secret Extraction Operation

The brilliant Shoshana Zuboff wrote an essay published by the New York Times the other day, You Are the Object of A Secret Extraction Operation. It is worth reading and hopefully my “gift” link will allow you to read it on the NY Times website without being blocked by a pay wall. The essay begins:

Facebook is not just any corporation. It reached trillion-dollar status in a single decade by applying the logic of what I call surveillance capitalism — an economic system built on the secret extraction and manipulation of human data — to its vision of connecting the entire world. Facebook and other leading surveillance capitalist corporations now control information flows and communication infrastructures across the world.

These infrastructures are critical to the possibility of a democratic society, yet our democracies have allowed these companies to own, operate and mediate our information spaces unconstrained by public law. The result has been a hidden revolution in how information is produced, circulated and acted upon. A parade of revelations since 2016, amplified by the whistle-blower Frances Haugen’s documentation and personal testimony, bears witness to the consequences of this revolution.

The world’s liberal democracies now confront a tragedy of the “un-commons.” Information spaces that people assume to be public are strictly ruled by private commercial interests for maximum profit. The internet as a self-regulating market has been revealed as a failed experiment. Surveillance capitalism leaves a trail of social wreckage in its wake: the wholesale destruction of privacy, the intensification of social inequality, the poisoning of social discourse with defactualized information, the demolition of social norms and the weakening of democratic institutions.

These social harms are not random. They are tightly coupled effects of evolving economic operations. Each harm paves the way for the next and is dependent on what went before.

There is no way to escape the machine systems that surveil us, whether we are shopping, driving or walking in the park. All roads to economic and social participation now lead through surveillance capitalism’s profit-maximizing institutional terrain, a condition that has intensified during nearly two years of global plague.

Will Facebook’s digital violence finally trigger our commitment to take back the “un-commons”? Will we confront the fundamental but long ignored questions of an information civilization: How should we organize and govern the information and communication spaces of the digital century in ways that sustain and advance democratic values and principles?


Corporate lawyers like John Roberts (in his previous corporate gig) made formerly voidable one-sided “contracts of adhesion” (take it or leave it, chump) as good as gold in all contracts between individuals and the corporations who require our agreement to their terms of service before we may use those services. It works even for expensive products we buy, like $1,000 smart phones, our use of our own property is dictated by terms that advantage only the corporations providing these miraculous services. As Roberts clairvoyantly saw in crafting his innovative, popular, now standard arbitration clause (by clicking this button you agree to waive the right to sue us in court, no matter what, and consent to pay 50% of the cost of binding arbitration) in the contest for profits, every bit of deference must go to the canny corporation and let the unsophisticated, dumb-ass buyer beware.

As Zuboff shows, in her groundbreaking The Age of Surveillance Capitalism; The Fight for a Human Future At the New Frontier of Power, and again in this essay, the escalating worldwide harm done by the new keepers of the public commons, social media giants, must be mitigated and regulated by democratic lawmakers to protect democracy from the wild, self-regulated pursuit of vast personal fortunes at the expense of all non-market based values.

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, two poster children for profit over everything (profit uber alles) constantly defend their right to regulate themselves and make as much money as possible while doing so. It is not their job to judge the credulous stupidity of the public when making business decisions. After all, who in their right mind would turn down a fifty million dollar ad buy, even if it was an ad to spread an incendiary lie about a stolen election, a calculated lie debunked in dozens of lawsuits, and one that would predictably lead to outrage and possibly violence? That’s strictly a business decision, something to which the Court has always granted great deference, it’s simply The Business Judgement Rule — courts won’t interfere in corporate business decisions if there is any theoretically plausible money making rationale for them.

Zuckerberg told his executives, prior to the 2016 election (when Hillary was making noises about regulating giants like Facebook) that any government attempt to regulate Facebook would be such an “existential threat” that you have to stand on principle, you “go to the mat”, you go to the fucking mat to defend your right to double and triple your hundred billion dollar personal fortune, sue the government, do whatever needs to be done. The principle? Nothing wrong with greed, you judgmental fucking losers.

Perhaps Zuckerberg is right. 99% of the world is a bunch of crying, bitter, jealous, judgmental fucking losers, doomed to die inglorious asshole deaths after wasted lives spent envying people like him. It’s people like him, the true outliers, visionaries, men of the future, who should, by force of meritocracy and the will of the Free Market, decide what is best for the world. Who would know better than a maladjusted nerd who had become, at a precocious age, one of the richest men in human history?

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