Personal Data for Profit: A Christian Response to Digital Capitalism in the 21st Century

Dr Timothy Stoneman and Dr Ashok Maharaj

Introduction

There is a high probability you had agreed to a set of terms and conditions that you never read while downloading an app this month. I recently did, with a clear knowledge, that whatever I signed up is watching me. A virtual panopticon in motion only that you sometimes are oblivious to its existence. The technology that structures our day today life is invisible – the GPS, which was once a contraption with visible antennas is now safely hidden inside the toughened glass of your latest android and iOS with microphones that always hears, and cameras that always see. In this digital ecosystem, humanity loses its God given uniqueness and becomes sea of data tossed by government, and mega corporates like twitter, facebook, Instagram, amazon, google, Microsoft and others….how did we end up in a world where a microcosm of techies in silicon valley determined how the rest of the people in the world should live and behave ? What implications does this unregulated social media and big data have on human flourishing?

“I know you better than you know yourself” the megalomaniac Cristof says that to Truman in the Oscar winning movie “Truman Show.” I recently watched this movie with my 15 year old son over the weekend. I have seen it a few times, however the experience this time was surreal, more so when Nate asked, “actually how many cameras are watching Truman?” I said around 5000 hidden cameras where broadcasting every detail about his life to the world wide audience.

Though the psychological science fiction comedy drama hit the screens close to two decades ago, the movie was prophetic in some ways – we today live in a data world augmented with invisible cameras. It was really cool at one time when Amazon suggests what book I should read next, and I get an offer on my email to buy Kombucha tea for weight reduction, and Coursera asks me to register for Network Analysis in Systems Biology, but once when algorithms starts to dictate on my personal freedom and when my privacy is encroached it’s no longer cool anymore, its creepy. Are we all little Truman’s in this “Surveillance society?” How many “Cameras” are watching you and me?

What makes sweeping surveillance of this nature possible is the developments in science and technology; for better and for worse the investment in technology by superpowers during Global Coldwar had brought forth many technological marvels, that has both saved humanity and also we have unleashed many destructive forces that stifle humanity.

Our digital infrastructure, which has grown up over the last two decades, is broken. Our information ecosystem – the digital world that we inhabit daily through our smartphones, computers, and networked devices – suffers from both overload and heavy corporate control. Instead of serving the interests of users, digital capitalism now provides profits for a small number of companies that have developed complex algorithmic mechanisms to track and profit from our 24/7 online “attention economy.”

Our society is marked by the dominance of a small number of technology companies (Big Tech), surrounded by an impenetrable moat of algorithmic opacity, a deferential, even worshipful, culture of innovation, and a capitalist system that inordinately rewards a minority of investors, business owners, and employees. The most visible manifestations of our broken digital infrastructure – increasingly in evidence since 2016 – have been an increasingly polarized society, marked by steady loss of faith in scientific and political authorities, weakening of democratic institutions, and erosion of the epistemic foundations of the public square.  How do we penetrate the protective “moat” that surrounds Silicon Valley, address the fundamentals of our broken information world, and redress the imbalance between corporate algorithmic controllers and users?

We must begin by properly locating our basic problem. The current situation we face has resulted from choices made by actors under specific historical circumstances. In the process of self-examination, we  must challenge the unquestioned hegemony of Big Tech over the process of technical and social design and allow ourselves to re-imagine an alternate digital future. As witnesses and stewards, Christians have a significant role to play in healing our broken digital infrastructure, challenging the dominance of tech companies, and conceiving a different collective outcome for the 21st century.

  1. Analysis

Our current system of “surveillance capitalism” is not technologically determined, but resulted from business decisions concerning the social organization and commercial purposes of networked computing in the United States at the start of the open internet era. As Couldry and Ghosh state, “… the surveillance implications of connected computers depend entirely on the social uses to which computers are put” (14). The difficulties of today’s information ecosystem lies in the business model of the “consumer internet,” established by foundational tech companies and built on user engagement (the “attention economy”) through viral advertising. 

From today’s vantage point, the neglect of social design in the creation of our current digital advertising ecosystem is evident: the clear exclusion of broader societal considerations and the exclusive prioritization of engineering and business concerns. The neglect of social design occurred early on in the development of digital platforms – long before social media giants consolidated their enormous monopoly power.

The “consumer internet” emerged as the result of three historical inflection points. First, the decision by federal government in the late 1980s to turn NSFNET over to private internet service providers (ISPs) resulted in the initial commercialization of internet space. During a second, critical transitional period in the late 1990s, small web start-ups like Tripod worked to find ways to make the early internet profitable. The solution they developed – the aggregation and sale of user data for third-party advertising (the “original sin of the internet”) – radically transformed the purpose and orientation of the early open internet (the “Open Web” or Web 1.0). During a third stage, which began with the incorporation of Google in 1998 through Facebook’s transition from social media service to platform in 2006, new digital platforms consolidated the nascent consumer internet business model and took it to scale.

Digital platforms joined three actions to cement the current information ecosystem that we have today in monopoly form. First, sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. massified users in hundreds of millions (later billions), multiplying the impact of data aggregation through network effects. Second, digital platforms developed algorithmic tools for precision targeting of ads, grabbing and then sustaining user attention through a process of engagement that included user content generation and which further augmented stockpiles of user data. Third, and finally, digital platforms developed algorithmic recommendation engines (such as Like and Share buttons) that produced viral amplification of user-generated content and expanded network growth exponentially (though in an asymmetrical or highly siloed manner). Emerging tech giants like Google, Twitter, and Facebook profited from a unique historical atmosphere after 9/11 to create “an infrastructure purpose-built for advertising coupled with vast amounts of personal data [with] infinite reach and little and no regulation” (DiResta, 2018).

Google played a critical role in pioneering the new practices of surveillance capitalism at the turn of the 21st century. Beginning in 1998, Google invented a “manufacturing process for the internet age” across an array of products and processes that transformed unused user data, or “data exhaust,” into “behavioral surplus” – the new gold dust of the digital era. Initially, Google’s breakthrough tools (Search, Maps, Translation, etc..) utilized unused data exhaust to improve its services. By early 2000, however, Google harnessed behavioral surplus to the consumer internet business model as its core activity, harvesting and selling aggregate user profiles on a large scale to third-party advertisers in the form of behavior prediction products. Over time, Google succeeded in transforming behavioral surplus into surveillance assets, then surveillance revenues, and finally surveillance capital, which became the foundation for a new economic order: surveillance capitalism. (Zubanoff) 

Google’s exploitation of the consumer internet business model, coupled with the scale and enhanced algorithmic capabilities of its digital platform, generated untold corporate success and riches. In the early 21st century, Google has dominated the internet, relied on advertising from internet search for its principal revenue, and succeeded in translating its dominance of Search into unparalleled corporate dominance through its exploitation of behavioral surplus (Z, 67).

The development of a new logic of surveillance capital has had several major negative social consequences. First, surveillance capitalism has resulted in the claiming of human experience for the first time “as free raw material for hidden commercial practices” of extraction, prediction, and sales. Second, worth noting, the actions of surveillance capital are comprehensive and have resulted in the creation of the opportunity for an “architecture of behavior modification” on a global scale. Third, surveillance capitalism has produced an historically unprecedented concentration of wealth in hands of few, a small elite (the “new priesthood”) that control access to the new forms of surplus value in the digital domain. Finally, surveillance capitalism poses a threat to the future of human nature, and its scope for action, comparable to the threat posed to physical nature by industrial capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. (Zubanoff)

  1. A Christian Response

Christians understand the brokenness of the current world system as a consequence of original sin. At the same time, Christians are also called to socially responsible action rather than resignation in the face of the collective difficulties and shortcomings that we face.

Confronted with the broken information ecosystem that facilitated rise of digital surveillance capitalism, Christians have two main responsibilities: witness and care.

First, Christians must bear social witness.

Christians have a spiritual obligation to testify to all forms of concentration of power, including asymmetries and abuse of digital surveillance power.

Christian witness is at a low ebb currently in the West due to high level of contemporary political polarization and the association of the evangelical church with various forms of ethno-nationalism. Historically, the evangelical church has been closely linked with the emergence of industrial capitalism. It was weakened in its witness during the First Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century by close identification with, and implicit sanction of, the consolidated power of industrial robber barons.

The church confronts a similar challenge during the Second Gilded Age. As a moral body, the church must speak to the “internet’s original sin” : the harvesting and brokering of personal user data for commercial gain through sale to third-party advertisers. It is the collection of personal data for profit, coupled with the laissez-faire economic environment of neoliberalism and the security concerns of the post-9/11 security state, which facilitated the consolidation of unprecedented monopoly power by private technology companies in the US. 

The church must call out the aggrandizement of asymmetrical corporate power in the technology sector in the US for at least two main reasons.

First, the church must attest to the idolatrous status of the new data surveillance economy and uncontested algorithmic logic, as an increasing number of former tech insiders and secular observers have done (Cathy O’Neil, Tristan Harris, Ian Bogost, and Scott Galloway). The pseudo idolatrous status of high-tech power is obvious to all but Christian eyes, while the evangelical church has remained silent, if not complicit, in Silicon Valley’s rise to unparalleled dominance of the digital economy. Christians must speak out against the quasi-idolatrous ideologies that underpin the engineering design and business culture of high-tech companies of Silicon Valley, including techno-utopianism (many authors), techno-chauvinism (Broussard,) and innovation-speak (Russell & Vinsel).

Second, the church must address the growing epistemic concern with the breakdown of truth and truth-telling in the public square. Christian faith is grounded in belief in unitary truth as a result of the acts of divine creation (nature) and divine revelation (scripture). The structural spread of misinformation as well as disinformation by algorithmic platforms is eroding our “shared epistemological framework” and thereby deeply undermining society’s epistemic self-confidence (Diresta, 2018). According to DiResta, we can locate a major source of our social dilemma in our broken digital infrastructure: we have “an information ecosystem that prioritizes what’s popular over what’s true” (Diresta, 2018). Christians must stand publicly for truth and combat structural sources of un-truth.

The second responsibility of the church concerns the duty of care.

The church’s duty of care derives from the stewardship of both creation and fellow humanity given to the first humans by God in scripture (Genesis).

The question of Christian stewardship and responsibility in a technologically defined age is complicated, since the line between humans and nature (or first and second creation) becomes blurred and it becomes increasingly impossible to extricate God’s world from human activity.

Since their notion of human freedom is grounded in divine being, Christians must stake out a profound and visible concern for the future of human nature. As creatures of dignity made in God’s image, Christians believe that humans are not objects for the mining operations of data colonialism (Coudry), which technifies individuals and transforms human experience into commodities. Instead, Christians must affirm human free will in the face of what appears as the crushing dominance of a new technical order.

To acquire understanding of the current digital ecosystem, Christians must look beyond a simple instrumentalist view of technology, based on strict, measurable and correlated social outcomes. Christians must also embrace a substantive view of technology and society at a systemic level, which understands the deep and mutual implications of social choices for the design of technology and appreciates the far-reaching, often invisible role, of deep-seated technological infrastructures.

  1. Solutions

Solutions to contemporary data surveillance for profit require not just paying attention to the role of ethics such as bias in AI design, but more deeply rethinking the model and ideal of technical design itself. We must understand that the role of society is not limited to that of consuming information in the “consumer internet.” Instead, users now play a dynamic role, situated between digital production and consumption, and provide the raw material that feeds the industry’s business model and generates its revenue. Hence, users deserve a seat at the table in determining how their private data is managed and commercialized.

We must understand that the process of technological design is an intrinsically social dynamic, not an autonomous or self-directed loop. Innovation does not provide a societal blank check. Nor is design the exclusive prerogative of a few large technology companies (Big Tech). Christians must join in the call for the increased involvement of civil society in the re-design of our digital information ecosystem in order to better serve the purposes of democracy and community building, social life, and human well-being. As Renee DiResta argues: “… it’s time to prioritize the creation of a digital ecosystem that doesn’t accommodate camera spies and ideologues, but is instead really focused on real users and genuine conversation” (2018).

Throughout history, religion has provided powerful elements of social cohesion and religious groups have provided social imaginaries to project the ends for which we push our technologies. Christians possess a unique moral and spiritual heritage as well as social responsibility. We can – and should – draw directly on their theology and faith, including their view of creation centered on God’s declaratory powers, to call forth a dignified, human-centered digital future.

We are only at the beginning of this process of re-defining twenty-first century digital capitalism. Christians must act with moral courage. We must affirm our  “our elemental right to the future tense” – that is, to imagine and construct a future of our own choosing – and declare other variants of information capitalism “that participate in the social order, value people, and reflect democratic principles.” (Zobanoff)

By virtue of their moral compass, faith in divine accountability, and confidence in the reality of a future afterlife, Christians provide hope for humanity. We must have the courage to declare – and thereby call forth – the substance of their convictions for a digital world.

Note: The authors would like to thank Tonya Joyner Stoneman for her editorial comments.

Selected readings

Meredith Broussard, Artificial Unintelligence (MIT, 2018)

Nick Couldry and Dipayan Ghosh, “Digital Realignment: Rebalancing Platform Economies from Corporation to Consumer,” Harvard Kennedy School, M-RCBG Associate Working Paper Series, No. 155, October 2020

Nick Couldry with Ulises A. Mejias, The Costs of Connection (Stanford University Press, 2019)

Rene DiResta, “The Internet’s Original Sin” (MozFest 2018)

Rene DiResta, “Computational Propaganda: If You Make it Trend You Make It True,” The Yale Review, Volume 106 (No. 4), October 2018

Scott Galloway, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google (Portfolio, 2017)

Anne Helmond, “The Platformization of the Web: Making Web Data Platform Ready,” Social Media + Society, July-December 2015: 1–11, 2015

Jean-Christophe Plantin, Carl Lagoze, Paul N Edwards and Christian Sandvig, “Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook,” new media & society 2018, Vol. 20(1), 293–310

Baptiste Kotras. “Mass personalization: Predictive marketing algorithms and the reshaping of consumer knowledge.” Big Data & Society, SAGE, 2020

Shoshana Zuboff, “A Digital Declaration,” Frankfuter Allgemeine, September 15, 2014

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Public Affairs, 2019)

Ethan Zuckerberg, “The Internet’s Original Sin,” The Atlantic, August 14, 2014

Ashok Maharaj has a MS and PhD from Georgia Institute of Technology,  USA.  He was the Guggenheim Fellow with the National Air and Space, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D. C. (2010-2011) and also worked on a research project for NASA to write about NASA’s Global Ventures. He is currently heading the XR Lab at Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India. Over the last several years he has worked extensively on digital ecologies leveraging AR/VR/MR.

Timothy Stoneman is a cultural historian of technology who specializes in the histories of communication technology, religion, and globalization. He holds his PhD. from the Georgia Institute of Technology (2006) and has previously held research and teaching positions at MIT and Clemson University. He currently works in the School of History and Sociology of Georgia Tech Lorraine, the European Campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he teaches courses in the European history of technology and regional industrial development. He has published in numerous scholarly journals, including Technology and Culture, History and Technology, New Global Studies, Journal of American Studies, Church History, and the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. In 2020, he co-edited a special volume of History and Technology on religion and technology. His monograph project is entitled God in a Box: American Radio, Religion, and Reception in the Global South, 1931-1970.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *