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Book Review How virtual power is imprisoning us in a surveillance society

Monitored: Business and Surveillance in a Time of Big Data
by Peter Bloom
(Pluto Press, £16.99)

THE panopticon, philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s unrealised design for a total institution, enabled a single unseen warder to observe its every inmate.

In Monitored, Peter Bloom explains that advances in surveillance technology are making all of us prisoners in the electronic equivalent of Bentham’s blueprint.

Bloom shows how the interaction of individuals and corporations has created a command-and-control society in which people are defined by the information they produce.

Beginning with an examination of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, he establishes key ideas such as the “weaponisation” of social media, viral influencing techniques and the digital harvesting of information.

Diligently linking the growth of digital connectivity to ideas of the fragmented self, cultural commodification and the nebulous notion of meritocracy, he highlights a key contradiction at the heart of the era of big data.

There’s a negative correlation between personal monitoring and systemic accountability — as workers are subjected to more intrusive accounting metrics, the activities of elites are increasingly hidden from public oversight.

If that seems an unsettling contradiction, brace yourselves for the real paradox. In an era of increasing exploitation, Bloom argues, we are increasingly aware of losing all control over our own lives.

To compensate, we invest time and effort in systems that give us a false sense of control and, therefore, collude in our own oppression.

The explanation of this contradiction is painstaking and demanding but well worth the investment. The author goes on to outline the necessity of assessing every aspect of digital accounting in terms of its transformation of people’s lives, imposition of social control and reinforcement of capitalist ideology.

His analysis of the threat of “virtual power” — grounded in the example of Amazon’s model — suggests we are offered a limitless range of opportunities and ways of being but only if our choices are of value to the invisible corporate plunderers of data.

He goes on to discuss the use of tracking tools for self-monitoring and social media for self-presentation and describes the negative impact this has in terms of raising anxiety and reducing knowledge of the wider world.

His conclusion is that digital applications foster “smart colonialism” by exploiting people without constraint, promoting consumerism and limiting political debate.

Our awareness of the suffering of others is lost in a cacophony of information. “Data,” says Bloom, “has become the new opiate of the cyber-masses.”

Finally, and more optimistically, he establishes possibilities for democratic, co-operative and humane use of digital technology. If we recognise the possibility that data can be used to advance human and political rights, big data can be a force for unpredictable revolution. And “the revolution,” he tells us, “will not be monitored.”

While some of Bloom’s arguments are repetitive, he introduces urgent issues and hammers home his concerns with considerable conviction. If we continue to ignore the link between markets, authoritarian governance and smart systems we risk contributing to the creation of a culture of “totalveillance,” in which every aspect of our lives is subjected to digital accounting.

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