Are the easy profits of the surveillance capitalists a thing of the past? “Surveillance Capitalism”, as defined by the Harvard social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, is “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data”.
Her 2019 book shone a light on the immense profits of the most successful surveillance capitalists from their power to propel us toward advertisers’ products.
During his State of the Union address, President Joe Biden earned cheers from across the aisle for the politically winning strategy of presenting criticism of Big Tech as a concern about children’s welfare: “We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit.” On this framing, the dominant business plan of Big Tech resembles that of Big Tobacco — namely, if you want a lifetime of profits, best hook your customers when they’re young. There is now speculation that the United States might follow the European Union’s moves against targeted ads.
What happens if the easy money of targeted advertising is over? It’s time to use humanity’s superpower of imagination to anticipate what might come next. The protean nature of capitalism suggests that investors in the business of surveillance will seek out new ways to profit. Perhaps some of the smart money will go into technologies that purport to make us smarter. After Surveillance Capitalism could come Enhancement Capitalism.
Tech visionaries and the dream economy
One person who is not afraid to think big, and profitably, about the future is Tesla, SpaceX, and Twitter CEO Elon Musk. Musk’s imagined future contains driverless electric cars, interplanetary starships ferrying colonists to Mars, hyperloops enabling superfast travel between cities, and a digital platform that benefits humanity by allowing “civilization to have a common digital town square”. Our collective faith in Musk means that we have granted him mastery of the dream economy. If a marginally employed philosophy lecturer forecasts “a city of 1 million people on Mars by 2050” we rightly ignore them. When a visionary tech billionaire offers this as his goal, we seriously consider investing.
We love the gifts of tech visionaries so much that we enthusiastically dream along with them. When the CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman, speculates that AI can break capitalism we pause our own speculations about which of generative AI’s moguls will become the world’s first trillionaire. It’s nice to participate in his dream about a fairer world, just as it was nice to join Mark Zuckerberg in his vision of a global social network that would bring people closer together by giving them the power to share.
Enhancement Capitalism’s marketing plan
Musk has plans for human nature too. His Neuralink Corporation is working on implantable brain–computer interfaces: “We’re aiming to design a fully implantable, cosmetically invisible brain-computer interface to let you control a computer or mobile device anywhere you go.” Neuralink even suggests how this might work: “Micron-scale threads would be inserted into areas of the brain that control movement. Each thread contains many electrodes and connects them to an implant called the ‘Link’.”
If we allow ourselves to dream along with Musk, we can easily imagine a future in which we go to Mars not by boarding a SpaceX colony ship, but instead by “linking” to a machine on Mars and using that to holiday on Olympus Mons.
Neuralink does anticipate issues. Ours is a time of ubiquitous hacking. An implant that controls a robot on Mars will need to send signals back to your brain so you know what to do next. The company states:
We understand that medical devices need to be secure and it takes serious engineering to prevent unwanted access to such devices. Security will be built into every layer of the product through strong cryptography, defensive engineering, and extensive security auditing.
A future in which Neuralink makes your brain unhackable violates no law of logic. But if we are to prepare ourselves for disappointment and danger, we need acts of imagination that are as expansive as those that tech visionaries use to attract investors.
Imagine the immense profits that could come from combining the methods pioneered by surveillance capitalists with Neuralink’s tech. Suppose that commands to immediately purchase the latest Tesla bypass the logical controls of the orbitofrontal cortex and go direct to the emotional centres of the limbic system. Or imagine political advertising beamed by a compromised neural lace direct to your amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates fear. If you discovered that hack, how much could you sell it for? What happens if a hacker gains direct access to your hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for sexual desire?
These implanted devices are just one example of technologies that may soon be sold to us as enhancing human nature. To add to Neuralink’s brain implants, there are experiments in editing DNA influencing many human traits including intelligence. Nootropics — drugs that purport to enhance cognitive functions — are already on sale on Amazon Marketplace.
Enhancement Capitalism will bank on our credulity
Our bias toward technological fixes for our biggest problems makes us too credulous about the promises of the coming enhancement capitalists. Perhaps most of enhancement capitalism’s hacks of human nature will disappoint. But that may be a secondary issue for capitalism’s focus on the bottom line.
It may take decades to learn that an intervention sold as radically extending our lifespans actually fails to extend lifespans at all or delivers additional years that are miserable. By the time this becomes apparent, the names of those who got rich selling us fake life extenders and defective cognitive enhancements may already be emblazoned on the country clubs and institutes of higher learning of 2060.
The fact that enhancement technologies are directed inward at our human natures makes them different from technologies directed outward at the natural world. In this age of climate change, we recognise a downside of the oil refineries that made John D. Rockefeller’s fortune. If we change our human natures with the same disregard for limits that we took to burning hydrocarbons, then we may find ourselves constitutionally incapable of recognising any errors. The possible super-intelligent, dehumanised robots of the future are unlikely to object about the very technologies that made them.
Nicholas Agar is Professor of Ethics at the University of Waikato in Aotearoa New Zealand, and the author of How to be Human in the Digital Economy. His book “Dialogues on Human Enhancement” is forthcoming with Routledge.
This article was first published by the ABC on 10 March 2023 and is republished here with permission.