Book Review: How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism by Cory Doctorow
The book might look like it is about big tech, but it is actually about capitalism and monopoly. And the how-to part of it is about policy reforms which might be a put off for some.
If you haven’t read the book you can read it online here
The book starts out with excellent overview of how companies like Facebook are incentivized to do the things that they do. Look at this quote, for example:
This is why Facebook’s targeting systems — both the ones it shows to advertisers and the ones that let users find people who share their interests — are so next-gen and smooth and easy to use as well as why its message boards have a toolset that seems like it hasn’t changed since the mid-2000s. If Facebook delivered an equally flexible, sophisticated message-reading system to its users, those users could defend themselves against being nonconsensually eyeball-fucked with Donald Trump headlines.
Cory identifies weak enforcement of anti-trust laws and our failure to prevevent monopolies as the core problem.
But Bork didn’t change the world overnight. He played a very long game, for over a generation, and he had a tailwind because the same forces that backed oligarchic antitrust theories also backed many other oligarchic shifts in public opinion. For example, the idea that taxation is theft, that wealth is a sign of virtue, and so on — all of these theories meshed to form a coherent ideology that elevated inequality to a virtue.
Cory is firm in the belief that tech is nothing special, that tech companies need to be treated just like any other company and that monopolies are harmful and needs to be broken. Tech exceptionalism is wrong. (And I agree with this, as I wrote in my post about intermediary liability.)
What explains other issues?
Cory also talks about how things like fake news can be explained by changing realities of the world.
If you’re like me, you probably believe that vaccines are safe, but you (like me) probably also can’t explain the microbiology or statistics. Few of us have the math skills to review the literature on vaccine safety and describe why their statistical reasoning is sound. Likewise, few of us can review the stats in the (now discredited) literature on opioid safety and explain how those stats were manipulated. Both vaccines and opioids were embraced by medical authorities, after all, and one is safe while the other could ruin your life. You’re left with a kind of inchoate constellation of rules of thumb about which experts you trust to fact-check controversial claims and then to explain how all those respectable doctors with their peer-reviewed research on opioid safety were an aberration and then how you know that the doctors writing about vaccine safety are not an aberration.
You will be diasppointed if you are reading this book with the expectation that the way forward will be simple - like using a set of apps or setting up your own mastodon instance.
The way forward, as per Cory, is to enforce anti-trust laws that are meant to prevent monopolies from getting created. And to break these monopolies through legal force. (For example, Arul George Scaria works on competition laws in India)
Cory does give a far-fetched example for people who want to work purely on technology - to build alternatives that are so popular that they can help change public perception about the need to fight monopolies. And also to come together under one umbrella. But eventually, the point is to bring in legal reform.
I’m afraid that’s not something for everyone.