Jim de Bree | Beware Surveillance Capitalism

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

Computer algorithms seem to be taking an increasing role in influencing our lives. Over the past couple of weeks I got a stark dose of algorithm reality. 

My friends know that I love dachshunds. I have had dachshunds since I was 4 years old. Our three dachshunds played an important role in maintaining our spirits during the pandemic. 

On Super Bowl Sunday, our son and daughter-in-law visited us to show off their new puppy, who of course was a dachshund. Our 9-year-old dachshund, Dukie, was roughhousing with the puppy when all of sudden he hurt himself. He ruptured a spinal disc in his neck.  

It turns out that Dukie had intervertebral disk disease (IVDD). Dogs who have IVDD are prone to having ruptured spinal discs and when one disc ruptures, it is not uncommon for multiple discs to rupture. Unfortunately, Dukie ruptured six discs in various parts of his spine and suffered extreme pain. Because there was no surgical option, the only humane alternative was to euthanize him.  

During the few days that we endured this ordeal, I researched IVDD online, which told Google’s algorithms that I had a sick dog. When we returned home from the pet hospital after Dukie had been euthanized, I checked my email and found several emails from veterinarians offering online IVDD consultations starting at $100.  

I also received an email from an online veterinary pharmacy reminding me that I needed to refill one of Dukie’s prescriptions. I notified the pharmacy that Dukie had passed away, and within 30 seconds, I received an email from the pharmacy containing an electronic sympathy card.  

When I checked my email the next morning there was an attention-getting email telling me about the joys of getting a new puppy. In the next 72 hours, I received emails from about 40 breeders wanting to sell me a puppy for $3,000-$4,000. At first the messages came from breeders of all types of breeds. But after a day or so, the algorithms figured out that I loved dachshunds.  

A few days later, when I opened up the Microsoft Edge browser, instead of getting my usual news feed, there was a huge picture of a dachshund and a link to click to get the dog of my dreams. Human beings historically would have shown some respect and not tried to sell products to a grieving person, but algorithms do what they are programmed to do — irrespective of historical social norms. 

I was reminded of the Netflix documentary, “The Social Dilemma,” which chronicles the impact of social media and its algorithms that mine data to engage in “surveillance capitalism” by manipulating behavior for profit. I had left an online trail telling the surveillance capitalists that I had a sick dog who died. Based on data patterns of others who left similar traces, the algorithms predicted that I was in the market for veterinary services and a new puppy.  

Surveillance capitalism is exceptionally profitable for those who own media platforms. Consider the case of the pharmaceutical chain that gives you a paper receipt that is 3 feet long full of coupons. That drug store chain is a surveillance capitalist that has uncovered purchasing patterns through data mining and uses that information to predict what the customer is likely to purchase in the near future.  

There is the infamous story of a woman who noticed her receipt included a coupon for a pregnancy testing kit. This woman wondered why she would get such a coupon. It turns out that she was pregnant, and based on purchasing patterns, the drug store’s algorithms correctly predicted her pregnancy before she even knew she was pregnant. When it became apparent that she might be pregnant, she went to the drug store and used the coupon to purchase a pregnancy testing kit. 

The positive side of surveillance capitalism is that the consumer is directed toward products that he or she is likely to buy and one can argue that this is not manipulation, but instead, merely makes the marketplace more efficient by using targeted advertising. 

But “The Social Dilemma” argues that there are nefarious aspects of surveillance capitalism. One of these is the loss of privacy. In contemporary society, people willingly compromise their privacy in exchange for being rewarded with something that pleases them. 

Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Business School professor, believes that we unwittingly have admitted Big Brother into our lives by allowing surveillance capitalists to influence or perhaps even control our behavior. These companies make extreme profits from data about us and they share a business imperative that ensures predictive algorithms continually evolve to become increasingly efficient at directing our behavior to maximize their profits. 

Like the frog who slowly boils in the warming pot without realizing he is being cooked, we need to pause and examine how our behavior is being modified before it’s too late.  

Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident.

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