The digital economy has been called ‘surveillance capitalism,’ but that doesn’t capture how insidious it really is. During the last decade, thanks to the proliferation of sensors and data-rich devices, a new economic order sprung up around us. Some refer to it as “surveillance capitalism,” a form of accumulation built on the collection and parsing of massive amounts of data. In this arrangement, those who collect the most data can make the most profit (often by selling that data or using it to target ads), which is why companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are among the most valuable in the world.
By Jacob Silverman for Gen
Surveillance capitalism depends on what the scholar Shoshana Zuboff, whose work has helped popularize the concept, calls “behavioral surplus” — a kind of digital exhaust that is constantly produced and collected. More than just contributing the user-generated content — profiles, photos, posts, likes — that social networks rely on, we now produce useful data all the time, which tech giants collect almost by default, as part of a massive informational dragnet operating according to the logic that any bit of information is potentially useful. (The U.S. intelligence community abides by a similar philosophy, known as “collect it all.”) The result for internet users is total surveillance in exchange for free services.
But surveillance capitalism, while a useful concept, doesn’t capture the entire picture. Digital feudalism, which casts us as indentured workers on the platforms’ giant estates, is one compelling model. But a more apt description can be found in the idea of the “social factory.”
Drawing on Italian Marxist theory developed in the sixties, the social factory posits that “labouring processes have moved outside the factory walls to invest the entire society,” as the philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri wrote. As social networks, sensors, and digital systems became mobile and spread throughout society — bringing their logics of surveillance, bulk data collection, and targeted advertising with them — the work of data production began to permeate practically everyone and everything. We all became, however unknowingly, workers in a factory whose profits are immense and whose wages are nonnegotiable: zero.
If we don’t post, we begin to disappear, we don’t receive notifications, we feel forgotten.
The perverse beauty of the digital social factory is that everything feeds back into it — every twitch of the mouse, every screen tap, every GPS coordinate logged, and every behavior and preference demonstrated. It’s not just the posts we write or the photos we take; we are passive producers as well. The metadata of our lives, of our tastes and choices, has become a productive, renewable resource. As Rob Horning, an editor for Real Life magazine, once wrote: “Through social media, our consumerist satisfactions are captured and fed back into the production cycle as a component of the manufacturing process.”
Whereas numbing factory and office labor often involves annihilating your sense of self — become a drone, recite the company mantra, etc.— the new social factory is deeply wrapped up with our sense of self and identity. Since developing one’s identity requires a certain amount of participation in the new digital public sphere — through posting photos, comments, likes, and other interactions — we must constantly engage with the systems that power the factory. If we don’t post, we begin to disappear, we don’t receive notifications, we feel forgotten. The mental image of ourselves becomes a little distressed, a touch faded, and out of date. We know that our place in the feed is ephemeral, and if we wish to regain our audiences’ attention, then we must keep posting. As Horning wrote, “Gestures of identity in social media expire almost as soon as they are instantiated. Updates and tweets hit the pool, have their ripples, and then vanish.” The social factory is designed to keep you posting — that is, to keep working.
In a 2015 conference speech, the Italian scholar Tiziana Terranova, a key thinker behind the digital social factory, explained that tech companies now attempt to capture everything as productive work. These companies depend on the “centrality of user-generated content and services” and getting as many users as possible. Losing money doesn’t matter; growth is everything, as it “signals future earnings.” An unmonetized user base of millions represents an untapped army of factory workers, as Facebook showed by rising from a money-losing social network in the mid-aughts to a money-minting colossus just a few years later.
As Terranova explained, the socially networked factory runs practically autonomously. With so much information being tracked, stored, and algorithmically parsed, nothing escapes the machine gaze. Instead, “every social act… is abstracted in order to participate in a process of monetization.” Everything we do “is enmeshed in this machine of production of value.” Even our consumption of digital media has been rendered a productive activity, with viewing habits, ads shown, and our clicks being tracked.
The social factory’s power is reflected in a series of arbitrage plays over which we have practically no control.
It’s no accident that the rise of the digitized social factory has coincided with the financialization of everything and the ascendancy of neoliberal orthodoxy. As Google, Facebook, and other barons of surveillance capitalism reap mind-boggling profits from the raw materials of our lives, other industries have gotten in the act, such as insurance, energy, intelligence, and policing, all trading freely in consumer data that is then used to power black-box algorithms that make decisions about our lives. Whether you receive credit, whether you earn parole, whether your car premiums go up — the social factory’s power is reflected in a series of arbitrage plays over which we have practically no control.
In the social factory, we are seen as interchangeable workers who are managed by disinterested overseers, in the form of software engineers at mammoth tech conglomerates. In a 2015 paper, three German and British academics explained how this arrangement works (and doesn’t). They wrote, “work [now] occupies an expanded terrain of social activity; where management moves further away from direct control of work to more complex practices of governance; and where collaboration in production is increasingly the responsibility of workers.”
The result is that platform programmers and executives operate much like managers of vast labor forces, from whom the company has a responsibility to increasingly extract more and more productive data. Or as the academics put it: “When Facebook employees code algorithms for data extraction, or develop protocols like the ‘like’ button, they are effectively managing. They are guiding user behavior in such a way that it is more likely to create marketable data, or generate content that will draw other users’ attention, which can subsequently be commodified via advertising.” The upper management of Facebook is not just designing a platform for communication; they are designing a workplace that extracts value from everyone who comes into contact with it.
As should already be clear, this arrangement is far from fair. In the social factory, value becomes divorced from wage labor — the people producing value get paid nothing at all. Actual wage labor, especially that is done by working-class people, is just considered a pretext to automation, a source of information to funnel into machine learning and other AI systems. (Think of Facebook’s outsourcing of content moderation to thousands of low-paid freelance contractors, who the company hopes to eventually replace with an AI trained on their decisions.) The solution to any problem becomes more data, more surveillance, more tracking, more passive user labor, while users themselves are expected to be content with whatever services and features they receive in return.
Social media has undoubtedly facilitated global communication, but it’s come at a cost that’s still being measured. Perhaps the language of empowerment so often employed by Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow tycoons is honestly felt. But besides boosting some of society’s most illiberal forces, social media has also empowered us to become full-time workers, content and data producers, for corporations that act as distant overseers, shaping our work environment — and manipulating us in the process. There have always have been many types of work, recognized and unrecognized, paid and unpaid — domestic work, sex work, gray market economies. Each deserves its own scrutiny and its workers’ advocates. It’s past time we add the digital social factory to that list, and that we workers start making some demands.