Commentary / World

How to stop surveillance capitalism

by Dirk Helbing

The Globalist

We are living in a society that thrives on the combination of two very successful systems: capitalism and democracy.

Unfortunately, this model is not good enough anymore. A key reason is that, after some decades of wishful thinking, it is now clear that democracy and capitalism do not have aligned goals.

Capitalism tries to maximize profit, while democracy should aim at continuously increasing human dignity.

Given that the goals of both systems are not aligned, the odds are that one system will sooner or later crush the other. Recently, it has become ever clearer that it is democracy that would be crushed. A key reason for this is that we have a new legal system: “Code is law.” Algorithms decide what we can do and what we cannot do.

In the new kind of data-driven economy we live in, called “surveillance capitalism,” algorithms are the new “laws of our society.” Even though they increasingly shape people’s consumption patterns, opinions, emotions, decisions and overall behavior, the algorithmic de facto laws do not require any approval by our parliaments. Properly understood, Facebook, Google & Co. are thus the new quasi-royal sovereigns.

Their near-absolute — and wholly unchecked — power does not just extend to all spheres of commercial nudging. They are also shaping a new political system: By serving as hireable platforms to manipulate the opinions of people and choices of voters, they undermine democracies as well as the free, unbiased competition of ideas.

Usually, we in the West are inclined to believe that a “brave new world” — where relationships and contacts are preordained by oligopolistic data providers obsessed with controlling all aspects of human behavior — is what China’s Communist Party does (with its Citizen Score and the like).

How wrong we were! Evidently, we have been sleepwalking for a long time. We did not notice the silent coup that was going on. Even more galling, the Chinese government has been more transparent about its efforts and intentions. After all, it has not made a secret of the Citizen Score.

To help democracy win under the present tough, but not yet hopeless, circumstances, we must pursue the only effective option that is at our disposal — build “democratic capitalism.”

This means to democratically upgrade capitalism and to digitally upgrade democracy. To achieve those twin ends, we need information platforms and technologies which have our constitutional, societal, cultural and ecological values in-built. This approach is called “design for values.”

And it’s coming. The IEEE, the biggest international association of engineers, is already working on standards for ethically aligned design.

Designing for values is a tall order. But it is doable. It requires us to make sure that the democratic principles, i.e., the lessons that we have learned over hundreds of years in terrible wars and bloody revolutions, are built into our technologies.

This includes: Human rights and human dignity, freedom and self-determination, pluralism and protection of minorities, the division of power, checks and balances, participatory opportunities, transparency, fairness, justice, legitimacy, anonymous and equal votes, as well as privacy in the sense of protection from misuse and exposure, and a right to be left alone.

Every one of us would have a personal data mailbox, where all the data created about us would have to be sent. The principle to be legally and technologically established would be that, in the future, we decide who is allowed to use what data for what purpose, period of time and price.

An AI-based digital assistant would help us administer our data according to our privacy and other preferences. Uses of personal data, also statistics created for science and for politics, would have to be transparently reported to the data mailbox.

With this approach, all personalized products and services would be possible, but companies would have to ask in advance and gain the trust of the people. This would create a competition for trust and eventually a trust-based digital society, in which we all want to live in.

Furthermore, we would have to upgrade our financial system toward a multidimensional real-time feedback system, as it can now be built by means of the “internet of things” and blockchain technology.

Such a multidimensional incentive and coordination system is needed to manage complex systems more successfully and also to enable self-organizing, self-regulating systems.

So, assume we would measure — on separate scales — the externalities of our behavior on the environment and other people in a privacy-respecting way. This includes, for example, noise, carbon dioxide and waste produced, or knowledge, health and the re-use of waste created.

Suppose further that people would give these externalities a value or price in a subsidiary decision process.

Then we could build our value system into our future financial system. I call this multidimensional system the socio-ecological finance and coordination system (or finance system 4.0+).

People could then earn money with recycling. Companies could earn money for environmentally friendly or socially responsible production. In this way, new market forces would be unleashed that would let a circular and sharing economy evolve over time.

Personally, I don’t think the problem is that we don’t have enough resources for everyone in the world. We also don’t have an over-population problem. Our problem is rather that the organization of our economies is outdated.

We live in a time where we have to fundamentally re-organize our society and economy in the spirit of democratic capitalism, based on the values of our society.

Dirk Helbing is a professor of computational social science at ETH Zurich.