Surveillance Capitalism – Shoshana Zuboff (3/3)

The Right to Sanctuary

Sanc-tu-ar-y:  A place of refuge or safety.

Surveillance Capitalism – Definition:

  1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales;
  2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification;
  3. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification;
  4. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecendeted in human history;
  5. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy;
  6. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth;
  7. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy;
  8. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty;
  9. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.

Image: UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Hardcover, 691 pages * Published: January 15th 2019 by Public Affairs (first published May 22nd 2018)

ISBN: 1610395697 (ISBN13: 9781610395694) * Edition Language: English

Public vs Private Spaces

I was flipping through a magazine the first time I learned about Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei and I came across his sunflower exhibit that caught my eye.  Now everyone knows about the love and affinity I had for the sunflower so it was no surprise that I would learn more about his work.

Ai Weiwei initially conceived ‘Sunflower Seeds’ for his Unilever Series commission at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, opening in October 2010. Ai Weiwei’s take on the large hall was simple and complex, poetic and disturbing at the same time: He filled the Turbine Hall with a thick layer of sunflower seeds handcrafted in porcelain, a total of 100.000.000 seeds, with a total weight of 150 tons.” [ ai weiwei]

[Source: Khan Academy]
I would come across Ai Weiwei’s work a second time recently in Toronto at his exhibition, ‘Unbroken‘ in the Gardner Museum.  I took my time, more time than I normally would when viewing artworks on display, to walk past every item in his collection of ceramics that were spread across three floors.  One section of the exhibition I especially enjoyed, challenged us to tell the difference between an antique ceramic and a ceramic recently produced of the same design using the same technique, and literally, I found it difficult to tell the difference.

“Ceramics are fascinating. I love the tradition, how people for generations have tried to make something happen with this basic language of communication besides its practical uses,” says Ai Weiwei


“Ai Weiwei: Unbroken explored the breaking of boundaries, both physical and symbolic, and considered how the artist’s ceramic works formed a basis for his ongoing exploration of social justice themes, including immigration and the repression of dissent. Provocative programming developed in collaboration with local partners drew connections between Ai’s formative ceramic works and urgent global issues.”

Ai Weiwei is a visual artist, filmmaker and human rights activists with a long list of accomplishments, therefore, the right person to feature for this next discussion about surveillance, believe me – with all he’s been through in helping people, observing them for his work and as a result being observed by authorities, Ai Weiwei definitely knows about surveillance, especially surveillance in public spaces.

Peeping Tom and the Right to be Forgotten

Remember in school we  used the term ‘peeping tom‘?  It was often referred to the bad little boys who’d bore holes in the adjacent wall to the girls bathroom or change room, or their sister’s bedroom that’s conveniently covered by a picture or a piece of furniture.  At will when their sister or the girl they liked was using the room to change they’d quietly remove the cover to peep through the wall.  A keyhole is often used as a mechanism for the same style of peeping. You’ll also find this metaphor in murder mystery movies where even the paintings on the wall miraculously have moving eyeballs.  Where did the term ‘peeping tom’ come from?  I’ll begin our discussion with the retelling of the story of Lady Godiva:

“In a far away place a long time ago in a land far away was a village or town run by an autocratic authoritarian man and his compassionate beautiful wife named Lady Godiva.  “Lady Godiva took pity on the people of Coventry, who were suffering grievously under her husband’s oppressive taxation. Lady Godiva appealed again and again to her husband, who obstinately refused to remit the tolls. At last, weary of her entreaties, he said he would grant her request if she would strip naked and ride on a horse through the streets of the town. Lady Godiva took him at his word, and after issuing a proclamation that all persons should stay indoors and shut their windows, she rode through the town, clothed only in her long hair. Just one person in the town, a tailor ever afterwards known as Peeping Tom, disobeyed her proclamation in one of the most famous instances of voyeurism.” [Wikipedia]

Lady Godiva by John Collier, c. 1897, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.

Today we now have ‘Peeping Tom’ laws that cover an array of voyeurism that generally make it a crime to view and/or photograph or film a person without his or her consent. Peeping Toms statutes differ from state to state, but they usually require: That the victim did not realize he or she was being viewed; That the victim was fully or partially naked….well you can easily examine what’s covered by accessing a copy of our Criminal Codes.   With the vast development and expansion of technology it has provided an array of tools for surveillance – another form of peeping on each other.  In the privacy of one’s home the line is drawn and that line is pretty strong however, in public spaces how can peeping be regulated?  There are laws for that too and they are ever evolving.  Another area where we seem to  have difficulty, monitoring, regulating and prosecuting is in cyber space.

Many governments around the world are very slow or just don’t know where to begin balancing the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, and censorship especially when used as a form for stigmatizing, revenge taking and bullying of other users whether it be on social media, blogging or in video game platforms to mention a few.  The arsenal one has against another is plenty especially when equipped with editing suites that can literally lift our face from a picture and place it elsewhere, for example, on a porn model, edit the image to the point one would think the image is real and representative of you.  Lives and reputations have been destroyed but the perpetrator always seems to get away in that even if they are caught and even prosecuted, the damage is already done and remains for the victim.  Justice can’t be dolled out by using the rule of thumb of ‘an eye for an eye‘ because usually the perpetrator is an unknown individual therefore has no reputation or career to protect or destroy. What recourse can a victim rely on that will make them feel relatively safe at least to re-enter cyberspace platforms with a level of trust and not be haunted by something that was done long ago (or it’s not even you) interfering with future prospects?  Not just victims, it could be you acting recklessly in your youth posting silly stuff but not realizing what you’ve done twenty years ago in high school or college will come back to haunt you in a variety of different ways.

Many of us has  that one  person, or perhaps more, where we wished we never knew in the first place, or your experience with that person has been so unpleasant you wish to wipe your memory of it. Unfortunately, you can’t do that, go back in time and unmeet a person, nor wipe them from your memory as unpleasant as the experience may have been.  A computer unit, however, is a little different and acts much similar to the human brain that uses similar terminology, for example memory, that collects all the bits and pieces of data and stores them in its electronic brain and when you want to clean out the system it’s called a ‘memory wipe’.  The human brain is similar it can get amnesia, it can also get a memory wipe or something so simple as forgetting.  It can be done intentionally or as a result of hitting your head in an accident (See: Bourne, Memento).  You see here’s the thing with the human brain.  It never forgets.  Memory can be hidden for a while but you can’t purge a person’s memory, for the body remembers while, and for the little awhile that the intellect forgets.  Through the collective cellular memory what is forgotten reveals itself – even B.F. Skinner knew that despite his countless of opportunities for trying.  Yet for cyber space thankfully engineers have developed a safety mechanism called, the ‘right to be forgotten‘:

The right to be forgotten is a concept that has been discussed and put into practice both in the European Union (EU) and, since 2006, in Argentina.  The issue has arisen from desires of individuals to “determine the development of their life in an autonomous way, without being perpetually or periodically stigmatized as a consequence of a specific action performed in the past.” There has been controversy about the practicality of establishing a right to be forgotten to the status of an international human right in respect to access of information, due in part to the vagueness of current rulings attempting to implement such a right.

 Furthermore, there are concerns about its impact on the right to freedom of expression, its interaction with the right to privacy, and whether creating a right to be forgotten would decrease the quality of the internet through censorship and a rewriting of history.  Those in favor of the right to be forgotten cite its necessity due to issues such as revenge porn sites appearing in search engine listings for a person’s name, as well as instances of these results referencing petty crimes individuals may have committed in the past. The central concern lies in the potentially undue influence that such results may exert upon a person’s online reputation almost indefinitely if not removed. [Wikipedia]

Despite the concerns of this is very promising development and it’s well worth the time to fine tune the particulars because as surveillance capitalism strengthens its steely ‘all-seeing eye’, especially with the onset of the Internet of things, let’s say a lot will be caught on camera and no one will be safe no matter what position you hold in life.

Lord of the Rings – Eye of Saurgon [Source:]

“Many hopes today are pinned on the new body of EU regulations known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR),which became enforceable in May 2018.  The EU approach fundamentally differs from that of the US in  that companies must justify their data activities within the GDPR’s regulatory framework.  The regulations introduce several key new substantive and procedural features, including a requirement to notify people when personal data is breached, a high threshold for the definition of “consent” that puts limits on a company’s reliance on  this tactic to approve personal data use, a prohibition on making personal information public by default, a requirement to use privacy by design when building systems, a right to erasure of data, and expand protections against decision making authored by automated systems that imposes “consequential” effects on a person’s life. The new regulatory framework also imposes substantial fines for violations, which will rise to a possible 4 percent of a company’s global revenue, and it allows for class-action lawsuits which users can combine to assert their rights to privacy and data protection.  In time, the world will learn if the GDPR can move out in front of Big Other, reasserting a division of learning aligned with the values and aspirations of a democratic society.  Such a victory will depend upon society’s rejection of markets based on dispossession of human experience as a means to the prediction and control of human behavior for others’ profit.”

Bill C51 and Bill C59 – Nothing to Hide

“We will repeal the problematic elements of Bill C-51, and introduce new legislation that better balances our collective security with our rights and freedoms.”  Canadians know that in Canada, we can both improve our security while protecting our rights and freedoms.  We will introduce new legislation that will:  See: Liberals 

What really happened…

“Weighing in at a daunting 139 pages, Bill C-59 – the government’s sweeping new proposals for reforms to national security law – include some welcome changes, but also many serious new problems and threats to rights.” [BCCLA]

  • Just as we feared, the government’s “response” to the CSIS spying scandals of last fall is to make it legal and infinitely easier for national security intelligence to collect and use bulk data….So, instead of reining in mass surveillance, the accountability framework will actually be providing an official seal of approval for mass surveillance.
  • Still no redress system, meaning no remedy for the ‘No-Fly Kids’ and others with same or similar names and still a grievously flawed process for those deliberately listed, still involving largely secret hearings.
  • The CSE (Canada’s NSA) would have explicit authority to use cyber-attacks against foreign individual, state, organization or terrorist groups.  This would include hacking, deploying malware, and “disinformation campaigns…there remains a significant danger of normalizing state-sponsored hacking and disinformation campaigns.
  • For the CSE, that includes personal information that has been published or broadcast for public consumption, is accessible to the public on the global information infrastructure (aka: Internet) or can be requested, subscribed to or purchased, leaving wide-open the potential for CSE to target Canadians through data brokers.  And for CSIS, a “publicly available dataset” is defined as being “publicly available at the time of collection” – a not very comforting definition, arguably wide enough to encompass hacked data that has been publicly posted.
  • C-59 provides some tweaks to the terrible “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act” but still allows a troubling amount of information sharing and any way you slice it, it’s still more legalized surveillance of Canadians than was the case pre-Bill C-51.
  • All these hugely sensitive privacy quagmires and no legislated involvement/role for Canada’s Privacy Commissioner?  Seriously…? [Ditto on that!]
  • There’s review of the CBSA’s national security activities but most of the CBSA’s activities are still completely without proper review and accountability.
  • C-59 continues to empower a radically redefined role for CSIS which includes the ability to act on (rather than merely collect) security intelligence.

“While apart from C-59, the government has revised its Directive on torture-implicated intelligence, we are still failing to uphold International Law in having a complete prohibition on torture-implicated information.  Thus, we are failing to have the appropriate prohibition and failing to enshrine that prohibition in the appropriate statute.” [BCCLA]

In the modern era the sacredness, inviolability, and reverence that once attached to the law of asylum reemerged in constitutional protections and declarations of inalienable rights.” writes Shoshona Zuboff, author of Surveillance Capitalism,  “English common law retained the idea of the castle as an inviolable fortress and translated that to the broader notion of “home,” a sanctuary free from arbitrary intrusion: unplunderable. The long thread of the sanctuary privilege reappeared in US jurisprudence. Writing in 1995, legal scholar Linda McClain argued that the equation of home with sanctuary has depended less on the sanctity of “property rights” than on a commitment to  the “privacies of life.”  As she observed, “there is a strong theme of a proper realm of inaccessibility or secrecy with respect to the world at large as well as a recognition of the important social dimension of such protected inner space…”

“The same themes appear from the perspective of psychology. Those who would eviscerate sanctuary are keen to take the offensive, putting us off guard with the guilt-inducing question “what have you got to hide?”  but as we have seen, the crucial developmental challenges of the self-other balance cannot be negotiate adequately without  the sanctity of “disconnected” time and space for the ripening of inward awareness and the possibility of reflexivity: reflections on and by oneself.    The real psychological trust is this:  If you’ve got nothing to hide, your are nothing.”

[Source: Bespoken Bureau], Dr. Ann Cavoukian

“I always say that Privacy is all about control – personal control relating to the uses of your own data. It’s not about secrecy. It drives me crazy when people say ‘Well, if you have nothing to hide, what’s the problem?’ The problem is that’s NOT what freedom is about. Freedom means YOU get to decide, as a law-abiding citizen, what data you want to disclose and  to whom — to the government, to companies, to your employer.” ~ Ann Cavoukian

“One empirical study makes the point.  In “Psychological Functions of Privacy,” Darhl Pedersen defines privacy as a “boundary control process” that invokes the decision rights associated with “restricting and seeking interaction.” Zuboff continues to write, “Pedersen’s research identifies six categories of privacy behaviors: solitude, isolation, anonymity, reserve, intimacy with friends, and intimacy with family.  His study shows that these varied behaviors accomplish a rich array of complex psychological “privacy functions” considered salient for psychological health and developmental success: contemplation, autonomy, rejuvenation, confiding, freedom, creativity, recovery, catharsis, and concealment. these are experiences without which we can neither flourish nor usefully contribute to our families, communities and society.”

As the digital era intensifies and surveillance capitalism spreads, the centuries-old solution of “justice as sanctuary” no longer holds.  Big Other outruns society and law in a self-authorized destruction of the right to sanctuary as it overwhelms considerations of justice with its tactical mastery of shock and awe.

Here’s the point:

“The facts of surveillance capitalism’s dominance of the division of learning, the unrepentant momentum of its dispossession cycle, the institutionalizaton of its means of behavior modification, the convergence of these with the requirements of social participation, and the manufacture of prediction products for trade in behavioral futures markets are de facto evidence of a new condition that has not been tamed by law.” ~ author, Shoshana Zuboff

So far US [and Canadian] privacy laws have failed to keep pace with the march of instrumentarianism.  According to legal scholar Anita Allen observes that physical privacy is violated “when a person’s efforts to seclude or conceal himself or herself are frustrate.”  Information privacy is disturbed “when data, facts, or conversations that  a person wishes to secret or annonymize are nonetheless acquired or disclosed.”

“In the era of Big Other, though, these categories bend and break.  Physical places, including our homes, are increasingly saturated with informational violations as our lives are rendered as behavior and expropriated as surplus.  In some cases we inflict this on our selves, typically because we do not grasp the backstage operations and their full implications.  Other violations are simply imposed upon us, as in the case of the talking doll, the listening TV, the hundreds of apps programmed for secret rendition, and so on.  We have surveyed many of the objects and processes already earmarked to be smart, sensate, actuating, connected, and internet-enabled by surveillance capital.  By the time you read this blog, more and more after that.  It’s the sorcerer’s apprentice cursed with perpetual filling and refilling driven by an unbounded claim that asserts its right to everything.”

The Right to Sanctuary

Sanc-tu-ar-y: protection or a safe place, especially for someone or something being chased or hunted.


The above video is a discussion panel with the three artists who created the Surveillance installation in the Armory Park in New York.  The panel discussion is hosted by the Aspen Institute .  In it Wei Wei speaks about visiting over 40 refugee camps in various parts of the world  as a filmmaker documenting the travels of refugees as they try to find sanctuary.  It’s remarkable how powerful, useful and necessary the cell phone is to the refugee.  They may have nothing but rest assured they will have a cell phone, its a necessity, a much needed instrument to phone loved ones to let them know they’re safe, to arrange where next to go once they reach their destination trying to find a safe house.  The cell phone is often found on the traveler wrapped up in plastic with their important  identity documents such as passports, wallet and keys.  Wei Wei finds it remarkable once the boat arrives on to shore watching them in unison quickly unraveling their plastic packages to get to the phone to either call family or for the next person to help them get to sanctuary.  Migrating is dangerous business.  Humanitarians realize this so they install cell phone power stations at refugee camps to allow migrants to power up when they travel.  Yet every time you turn on your cell phone you can be tracked and that in itself can be very dangerous for the migrant.

Not only are they tracked by their cellphones, but through drones, facial recognition, security and traffic cameras, you name it.  Reminds me of that scene in Batman The Darknight where he brings his trusted employee and friend Morgan Freeman to the secret surveillance room where there’s like 1000 TVs monitoring people in different places and listening to their conversations, all you have to do is just type in a person’s name and perhaps a social security number and there the ‘all-seeing eye’ has targeted you and there’s absolutely no hiding.  The dumbfounded look on Morgan Freeman’s face was priceless he was awestruck in amazement but also in disgust of the severe privacy violations, the dialogue in that scene was top notch and Morgan Freeman said the perfect thing;  “Alright, I’ll do this for you and I’ll leave my resignation on the counter when I’m done.”  BOOM!

Back what to Ai Weiwei saying in the artist’ talk discussion panel, I immediately understood what he meant because I took a while – well more than usual – observing the illustrations on one of his ceramic installation at the Unbroken exhibit at the Gardener Museum.  Huge ceramic bowels – that looked like planter pots for small trees or busy outdoor plants – strategically stacked on top of each other about eight bowls high equaling to about 12 or 14 ft. On each of the bowel so intricately illustrated was the plight of the refugee, you just take your time walking around this huge stack of ceramics, round and round, observing the story it tell as you rotate around each bowl and repeat the walk around for the next bowl, and the next bowl and the next. Soon you are joined with a few people but we were careful not to run into each other circling the ceramics for fear one of us might crash into the installation and it’ll come crashing down to the floor!

Sanctuary:  A Place of Refuge or Safety

Home is a very special place – a place for intimacy and rejuvenation. Home is also a place, a town, a province or a state, even a country.  People move to new homes in either of these categories, and for migrants all categories,  for a variety of reasons.  Economic reasons, safety even privacy, sometimes it’s a matter of life or death or to improve one’s mental/spiritual health or economic prospects. Surveillance capitalism today, however, is making it very difficult for us to enjoy the privacy and solitude of our homes as it slowly makes it way invading our intimate spaces through ‘smart devices’; smart fridge, smart thermostats, our telephones, security camera, talking and listening amazon speakers, children’s toys, web cameras secretly recording in our computer monitors, TVs and cellphones, light switches; remember clap on and clap off?  That’s about as ‘smart-anything’ I want in my home.

There can be no secret hiding places because there can be no secrets.  Big Other swallows refuge whole, along with the categories of understanding that originate in its elemental opposition: house and universe, depth and immensity.” And so to conclude I will leave you thoughts from Zuboff about home, if anything at all, we must fight surveillance capitalism for the sake of privacy in our homes:

“Home is our school of intimacy, where we first learn to be human.  Its corners and nooks conceal the sweetness of solitude; its rooms frame our experience of relationship.  It’s shelter, stability, and security work to concentrate our unique inner sense of self, an identity that imbues our day dreams and night dreams forever.  Its hiding places – closets, chests, drawers, locks, and keys – satisfy our need for mystery and independence.  Doors – locked, closed, half shut, wide open – trigger our sense of wonder, safety, possibility, and adventure.

Bachelard plumbs not only the imagery of the human house but also of nests and shells, the “primal images” of home that convey the absolute “primitiveness” of the need for a safe refuge:  “Well-being take us back to the primitiveness of the refuge.  Physically, the creature endowed with a sense of refuge huddles up to itself, takes to cover, hides away, lies snug, concealed…a human being likes to ‘withdraw into his corner’.

The Shelter of home is our original way of living in space, Bachelard discovers, shaping not only the existential counterpoint of  “home” and “away” but also many of our most fundamental ways of making sense of experience: house and universe, refuge and world, inside and outside, concrete and abstract, being and non-being, this and that, here and elsewhere, narrow and vast, depth and immensity, private and public, intimate and distant, self and other.

Our family instinctively pursued these themes in imagining a new home.  When we were finally able to undertake that project, we foraged for durable natural materials:  old stone and scarred wooden beams that had weathered the storms of time.  We were drawn to old furniture that had already lived many lives composing others’ homes.  This is how the walls of the new house came to be massive, nearly a foot deep and packed with insulation. The result is just as we had hoped: lush and peaceful stillness.  We know that nothing guarantees safety and certainty in this world, but we are comfortable by the serenity of this home and its layered silences.

The days unfurl now within the embrace of these generous walls, where once again our spirits spread and root.  This is how a house becomes a home and home becomes a sanctuary.”

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