The New Surveillance Capitalism

Every time I talk about the Great Reset or the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the Internet of Things or Bodies to friends that are unfamiliar with these terms, I get blank stares or disbelief.  My view that we are rapidly heading into a new era of a globalized biodigital security state, in which daily life for most occurs in a panopticon of surveillance and control, seems like a paranoid stretch to many.   One reason for this dismissal is that a lot of background goes into seeing and understanding the shift, the “Great Reset” that is underway and people don’t have the background.  To many, it seems like the business models and technologies involved in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the tools for the Great Reset, have come out of thin air, and they have no context to comprehend what is happening.

The Great Reset and its tools are extensions of changes in business, technology and governance that have been underway for some time.  Specifically, in this essay I hope to show that the levels of surveillance and control that we are moving into are entirely predictable from the current dominant business model, surveillance capitalism, and the ongoing explosion of internet connected devices in our daily lives.  It has taken me two years to understand these connections better, and I hope to make it easier for others.

Surveillance capitalism is the business model that gives you stuff (apps, browsers, social media, educational software) in exchange for your data, which they aggregate, sell, analyze and ultimately use to manipulate you with.  Facebook is the best known example due to prominent news stories, including the recent “whistle blower” story, Cambridge Analytica, and “The Social Dilemma” documentary.   These high profile stories document how Facebook tracks your likes and clicks, your photos, everywhere you go and what you do on the internet and many places in the real world, and sells the data to third parties for advertising and socio-political manipulation.  They also use your data for machine learning, or artificial intelligence (AI), to improve the algorithms they use to decide what content will best control your attention.   For example, Facebook increases divisive (defined through AI) content on your feed, so they can provide better “engagement” for their advertisers.

It is an aside, but perhaps worth remarking at this point that given how Facebook and other social media platforms work, calls for them to censor “mis” and “dis” information are absurd.  Their algorithms, which promote and amplify extremist content by nature of its ability to garner attention and engagement, are central to their business model.  Their algorithms also promote news and other posts on your newsfeed that AI predicts you are more likely to share or like, meaning that you get exposed more to “friends”’ posts that are like-minded rather than diverse views. These algorithms re-enforce the echo-chambers that harden opinions and beliefs isolated from evidence, to make it easier to target advertisements or other stories to well-defined user groups.  Polarization, which makes it far harder to discern truth in a cluttered information landscape, is thus the bread and butter of social media giants, not an aberration of malignant or ignorant users.

It is crucial to realize that surveillance capitalism is the dominant model not only in Big Tech internet companies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, etc. but throughout the economy.  As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term and wrote a ground breaking book on the subject says:

“[Surveillance Capitalism] has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. Nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device, every “digital assistant”, is simply a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data on its way to predicting our futures in a surveillance economy.”

Surveillance capitalists sell three levels of product – the first is the service that entraps the user, like the Google search engine or a GPS service on a phone.  The second level is the data or information that they are able to capture when you use the service, which includes both data you provide and meta-data, like where and when you used the service.  Location is highly prized real world data from your phone because so much information can be inferred from it with AI.  The captured data is analyzed in increasingly sophisticated AI in order to better predict your behavior, called predictive analytics, either by the party that collected it or by a second party that buys it.

The World Economic Forum, (WEF) a global organization dedicated to the Great Reset, shares this handy table to help you grasp the breadth of the data of interest.

As they say, “Think of personal data as the digital record of everything a person makes and does online and in the world.”  That’s all.

You, as the sum totality of everything you do within the underlying materialistic context, are the product at the second level, in other words.

The purpose of predictive analytics goes far beyond advertising to the “automation of you.” As Zuboff makes clear, surveillance capitalists “sell certainty to business customers who would like to know with certainty what we do. Targeted adverts, yes, but also businesses want to know whether to sell us a mortgage, insurance, what to charge us, do we drive safely? They want to know the maximum they can extract from us in an exchange. They want to know how we will behave in order to know how to best intervene in our behaviour.”  Of course, surveillance capitalists’ customers are not exclusively “business customers,” as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments also use their data, as well as collect their own for predictive analytics.

Surveillance capitalism goes into hyperdrive with the Great Reset because of new business models, technologies and markets coming online.  In short, these models and technologies expand surveillance capitalism’s all seeing eye and manipulative reach from the original market provided by online activities to new “markets” managing social problems and the environment.  This new business model is variously called social impact investing/bonds, social entrepreneurship, or Pay for Success (PFS) financing.  For ease, I will usually use the PFS term.  The specific problems, or markets for investment, are outlined in the United Nations’ (partner of WEF) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are explicitly referred to by impact investment corporations.

The UN SDG logo is a stylized human iris – suggesting both the all seeing eye and normalizing iris scans.

PFS is an outgrowth of the last 50 years of the neoliberal (and WEF) agenda of erasing distinctions between public and private interests.  Just like surveillance capitalism offers a free or low cost solution (remember, the first level of the “product” discussed above) to a problem (eg. social media “increases connection”), a PFS project offers aid for social or environmental problems.   Even though internet and mobile phone usage is ubiquitous, it is more optional than schooling and healthcare for most people.  Thus, moving surveillance capitalism into the realm of social services, as PFS does, brings its predatory surveillance and control into the daily lives of many more people.  It also opens the most vulnerable populations, who need access to many more publicly funded services, to a lifetime of exploitation for profit.

Venture or philanthro capitalists invest in a PFS program, such as a specific educational intervention, and receive a return on their investment if narrowly pre-defined outcome measures of “success” are met.   For example, the intervention could be a specific social emotional learning (SEL) program and success could be defined as a particular percentage decrease in the need for school mental health services after one year.  Funders, usually the government or large NGOs, reimburse the investors with a return on their investment (a profit) determined through calculated cost offsets.  Cost offsets are the long term costs to the government or NGO that were theoretically avoided due to the PFS intervention.  For example, researchers have calculated a 13% reduction in long term social spending costs (eg. less food assistance, fewer prison terms, less substance abuse counseling) through the provision of birth-to-five early education.  PFS investors then, could receive up to a 13% ROI for funding such education, as long as agreed upon “success” metrics are met. Even if all these savings are used to pay back investors, the government saves money overall by avoiding start up costs and by paying only for “successful” programs.

Information, in the form of captured data, is key to successful PFS deals.  Investors must carefully define both interventions and outcomes to increase chances for success. PFS deals collect data not only to document the success of the present intervention, but also to set up future PFS deals.  As in the original form of surveillance capitalism focused on internet services, the second level of the profitable product in PFS deals is your data, and ultimately, you. Allison McDowell, who has written extensively about the problems with PFS, expresses how it:

“…embodies digital colonialism, the lives of the poor managed through devices imposed upon them by wealthy, often foreign, interests… the economic value of humanity, especially the humanity of black and brown people, will be less in the products they consume (because their purchasing power will have become so limited) than in the data they generate. Most of this data will come from interactions with interventions designed to “fix” them. And now with predictive analytics, algorithms can make pronouncements of “future” problematic behaviors well in advance, setting up device-wielding non-profit partners to continually enforce behavioral and psychic compliance with the structures designed to oppress and contain them. The legacy of colonization and white supremacy will continue in digital form, magnified through the actions of social impact investors.”

A recent article in The Atlantic explains one way that “you” can literally become a product.  Some “innovative” young man featured in the article decided to raise money for a business project by “creat[ing] a financial instrument known as a social token, a form of cryptocurrency whose value revolves around a person, [and] sell shares in himself. Holders of $ALEX would receive 15 percent of Masmej’s income for the next three years, capped at $100,000 overall…”  The article hails the advantages of everyone “becoming an investor,” but acknowledges: “The phenomenon has a dark side. If everyone becomes an investor, the inverse is also true: Everything—and everyone—becomes a potential investment. As part of $ALEX, Alex Masmej designed a “Control My Life” component. Token-holders could vote on his life decisions—whether he should run three miles every day, stop eating red meat, wake up at 6 a.m. Token-holders had a financial stake in his success, so Masmej followed through on their commands.” 

It should be easy to understand how surveillance and control plays a role for investors in this type of economy – it is merely due diligence.

The video below, advertising a new platform for PFS deals, also illustrates the concept of everyone and everything being an investment.  Please spend the two minutes and watch it. Did you see all those numbers around the plants, every tree, and each drop of clean water?  Where does all this “high definition” data to “measure impact” come from? The continuous nature of the data stream shown in the video is a literal representation of the planned and desired level of information required for the best predictive analytics.

The desire and need for information is not limited only to the need to measure or define success metrics for ROI in PFS deals, nor to track one’s investments in the needy or the environment.    Potential returns on investments are actually small potatoes.  The big money comes from the final, third, level of the “product,” the securitization of the debt. Just like bundling mortgage and other debts to create new financial products and trading them in the stock market led to stratospherically higher profits than trading actual assets, betting for (or against) PFS interventions raises the profit potential for these “products” astronomically.  Since PFS “interventions” could consist of all kinds of social services, for example, pre-natal care of a group of women, shorting against its success could mean literally profiting from more dead babies.  Investors in such a scenario would be highly motivated to use as much information as possible to predict participants’ compliance with protocols and likelihood for success — rendering those whom the AI deems “poor” bets less likely to be eligible for services.  Although no one is trading instruments on wall street like this yet, the IXO platform, profiled in the video above, as pointed out in this in depth paper, is set up to allow internal prediction markets in which investors can bet for or against a project’s success.

I recognize that a stock market betting on human welfare may seem far fetched to some, but in the absence of strong regulations against it, financialization is a natural end stage of commodification.  This last year has seen the introduction to the NYSE of a new financial instrument to trade ecosystem services, for example, in a move that parallels the privatization of social services for profit in the environmental realm.

In the past, the information used for predictive analytics has been limited to information captured on the internet and through our smart phones.  However, the devices that are capable of tracking our every move internally and externally through sensors are about to explode as billions of  “smart” devices come on line as the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Internet of Bodies (IoB).  The IoT currently includes our phones, smart appliances, smart meters, smart grids, and connected and “smart” cars, but may soon pervade every area of life and the economy including agriculture, recreation, retail, manufacturing, transportation, health care, and education.   The Internet of Bodies (IoB) currently mostly refers to wearables, for example, to monitor fitness, security, mental health, or disease status. Implanted and embedded devices are also part of the IoB, usually framed at this point as therapeutic devices for the paralyzed, but also for viral detection or convenience. The expansion of the IoT and IoB is contingent upon the roll out of 5G/6G small cell technology.  5G is required to support low latencies for the envisioned billions of devices communicating with each other, not to support current cell phone users internet browsing or gaming.

The IoT and IoB should not be thought of as billions of surveillance devices operating independently, but rather as the word “internet” implies as an interconnected network.  This network has the potential to automate every aspect of life it touches– think The Jetsons.  Imagine walking through a store and scanning RFID tagged items as you put them into a cart.  The cart learns from your smart fridge what you need and lets you know when you are in the appropriate location in the store. When it’s time to leave you just walk out the door after glancing into an iris reader that accesses your digital ID and digital currency.   Once out of the store, you call a self-driving car with your smart phone app and get into the car with another iris scan.   Now, imagine a couple more levels of automation, because AI can choose the items based on your profile and drones can go and get them.

Automation like this requires that disparately owned devices communicate with each other (interoperability) and perform based on authenticated and secure permissions and payment that work with no human intermediary necessary for verification.  Also, in an economy that runs on information — to advertise, to manipulate, to sell, to predict, to manage, and to bet with — as much data as possible needs to be collected from all these sensors and stored in an accessible centralized way.  Biometrically linked decentralized digital IDs connected to digital “wallets” filled with your data and currency are thus as integral to an IoT/IoB information economy as advanced (and energy intensive) telecommunications (5G/6G etc.) infrastructure is.

The WEF, not coincidentally a major proponent of digital ID’s, was envisioning digital ID linked repositories of your data as long ago as 2011:

“In practical terms, a person’s data would be equivalent to their “money.” It would reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for just like personal banking services operate today. These services would be interoperable so that the data could be exchanged with other institutions and individuals globally. As an essential requirement, the services would operate over a technical and legal infrastructure that is highly trusted.”

The short video below from Microsoft explains how decentralized digital IDs work within a “trust” framework.

“Trust” is an Orwellian marketing term for the technology underlying decentralized digital IDs.  These ID’s are touted as the perfect solution to privacy and security concerns because they can be “self-sovereign”’ identities, meaning that the individual “owns” and controls it and their own data through private “keys.”  Although private keys could theoretically be PINs, automaticity requires finger prints, facial recognition, or iris scans.   The problem with the logic of “self-sovereign” ID is “choice” and “control” are meaningless in the context of rapidly intensifying extreme wealth/ownership concentration and further merging of the private and public sphere.  Surveillance capitalism is already the dominant economic model — this means that already, to keep your information private, you cannot use most apps or use the internet.  Under the PFS model, though, in which public services are doled out in exchange for data, you may not be able to eat, let alone see an (online) doctor, if you choose to maintain your self agency.

However, it is a grave mistake to imagine that only those who need subsidized social services will face coercion.  The Great Reset advances a plan to “manage” the world’s problems for a reason – the global economy and environment is collapsing and shifts are necessary.   We are not far from an economy in which masses are forced into unemployment due to automation and other causes.  Providing a Universal Basic Income is the preferred solution to recirculate enough capital to keep the economy going as it allows the elite to maintain their wealth and control.  Ownership concentration, however, means that UBI will be little more than script that can be spent (in exchange for data) at the “company store” or for rent in the “company town.”

Beyond the need to exchange data for goods and services, digital ID and digital currency in an automated society are perfect means of control.  During covid times, we have been treated to front row seats of the farcical claim that digital ID’s “empower the individual” with control over their own information.  For example, the “ownership” of vaccine information in a vaccine passport does a person little good if they are barred from public life and travel if they keep it private, as has been the case in certain cities in the United States, Canada, and other countries.  We also saw how easy it is to cow government dissent without getting your hands dirty with overt violence by shutting off access to funding and credit in the Canadian Trucker Convoy protests.

While shutting off the truckers funds required an act of the Canadian government, the adoption of Central Bank Digital Currencies will formalize bankers control of your life.  Do you doubt that such control is of interest?  Listen to Agustin Carstens, the general manager of the Bank of International Settlements, (the central bank of central banks that most people have never heard of) at minute 59:50 in the unexcerpted video: “We don’t know who’s using a $100 bill today and we don’t know who’s using a 1,000 peso bill today. The key difference with the CBDC is the central bank will have absolute control on the rules and regulations that will determine the use of that expression of central bank liability, and also we will have the technology to enforce that.”

It is important to note, though, that dystopian levels of surveillance and control only require government passivity, not action nor CBDCs, once ownership is sufficiently concentrated and commerce is more fully digitally mediated.  Anonymity and self-agency is impossible with decentralized digital IDs in automated “company town” societies filled with sensors continuously gathering your information.   Thinking through the “vision” of the 4IR, even just the IoT and IoB, leads to a very different scenario than the fun and efficiency promised by telecom when they promote 5G/6G.   Similarly, on the surface, engaging corporations in the “business” of “solving” (it is really managing with no intention of solving) the world’s problems may initially sound like a good idea.   However, understanding PFS as an expansion of surveillance capitalism into the most fundamental aspects of daily life, in concert with a greatly expanded surveillance network into the physical world, reveals its predatory nature.   The planned automaticity the network enables is a final important element to consider because it requires an “interface” between the human and real, and the digital — digital IDs and currency.  Most of these implications of these parts of the Great Reset and 4IR do not involve hidden conspiracies – they are simply implications of out there in the open business and technology agendas that are generally not discussed.   Seeing the big picture is crucial to assessing the safe guards in place (or not, as the case is) to protect our society against negative outcomes as well as to make informed personal and collective choices.

A Narrative Within A Narrative

Corporate and social media cover controversies like arrows that point to interesting and important things.  Of course, the talking points, memes, and narratives cannot be taken at face value — they are likely to reflect the least true and least important aspects of whatever is going on.  In this light, months of controversy about efforts of US public schools to reduce the achievement gap between white and black students and teach history and current events from more points of view suggest an underlying story or stories that we are NOT supposed to notice.   As goals such as historical accuracy, inclusion, and providing everyone an excellent education seem beyond reproach, it is natural to wonder how the debate devolved into:

With multiple Republican led states passing bills banning teaching “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) in schools and candidates in a bell weather governor’s race fighting over it. 

In Virginia, Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin claimed CRT was widespread in Virginia schools and made his objection to it a talking point.  In contrast, Democrat Terry McAuliffe flat out denied CRT was taught in Virginia and claimed the idea was: “a right-wing conspiracy…totally made up by Donald Trump and Glenn Youngkin.”

The focus on Critical Race Theory, per se, is Distraction’s Exhibit A as it mires dialogue in an academic question – what is CRT – rather than on what people care about, which is whether these changes in schools and by extension society promote truth and justice or divisive, harmful ideology. Like with so many other issues, the corporate and social media circuses seem designed to pit us against each other, rather than to look and think more deeply about our common ground.  The divide between those shouting “communist!” at those shouting “racist!” is too wide and deep to be anything other than the product of a manufactured narrative. 

What is that narrative distracting us from noticing? We’ve seen a massive surge of interest and language around “antiracism,” in the last few years – with the rise of Black Lives Matter, one high profile shooting after another, and the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests and riots that roiled numerous cities in the summer of 2020.  Corporate adoption of antiracist talking points was very noticeable around that time, as corporation after corporation put out statements of support for Black Lives Matter.  The language used in this sudden embrace of social justice – words like “equity,” “sustainability,” “inclusion” and “diversity” – is similarly near-ubiquitous in the mission statements and marketing materials of government and non-government organizations at every level from local school boards to the United Nations (UN) and World Economic Forum (WEF).  These labels are seamlessly intertwined at this point into pillars of the Great Reset, such as stakeholder capitalism, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), social entrepreneurship and impact investing.

Many people seem to think that the widespread adoption of such language really means that those in the halls of power have truly heard the call of peace and justice for all.  I’m afraid it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.  The powerful know that the best way to channel real energy and pressure for change from the masses is to co-opt it by choosing to emphasize, publicize and promote certain ideas, people and actions over others, such that the end product serves their own aims.  This is exactly what I think has happened in the antiracism education movement sweeping our country.  In particular, I think certain concepts, as taught, serve to increase division, hamper communication, direct the conversation away from everything that truly threatens the status quo, lower expectations for standards of living, and promote the financialization of educational outcomes.  

A few concepts, racism vs. antiracism, white privilege, and equity, from one school’s antiracism education program illustrate these points.  A middle school in Virginia used this slide deck as part of its 8th grade curriculum this past spring.

The first slide in the deck introduces the concept of racism versus antiracism with a quote from Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist: “…our children are either going to learn racist or antiracist ideas.” Right off the bat, the curriculum conveys that race is the only correct lens through which to view and understand reality. It also suggests a “you’re with us or against us” mentality that is continued in slides 81-89 as antiracism is defined as consciously, actively and frequently making antiracist choices, with the alternative defined as “(un) consciously uphold[ing] aspects of white supremacy, white dominant culture and unequal institutions and society.”  This dichotomy explicitly divides everyone into the good and bad guys and implicitly dismisses the universe of concerns that aren’t easily categorized along a racist/antiracist dichotomy (such as environmental concerns).  It also makes thoughtful dissent and discussing ideas that may be outside of the box considerably more difficult.  Anything you say, after all, that is not “antiracist,” is defined as racist.

This ideology shuts down valuable communication, truth seeking and ultimately solutions as people strive to stay in the “antiracist” column.  For example, police have killed disproportionate numbers of black people in recent years (slides 33 and 53).  The strong implication regarding causality for these deaths in these slides is that police officers use more force with black people due to racism, perhaps unconscious or implicit racism (slide 7).  While surely individual racism is the main factor in some cases, other factors may be more important, such as drug laws or the militarization of the police.

Take the case of Breonna Taylor, who an officer shot to death in her own apartment in a middle of the night drug raid. According to social justice advocates as portrayed in the media narrative, the officer’s actions and eventual acquittal were obviously due to white supremacy, even though Breonna’s terrified boyfriend fired first and hit an officer.  A worldview that simplifies issues into racist or antiracist easily leads to certainty that the officer and the jury were racist.  This conclusion keeps anger and fear in the forefront, narrows the conversation, and diminishes the potential to change the institutionalized procedures that make such shootings likely, such as middle of the night warrants and raids. It would be more productive to understand and change the historical and social roots of a criminal justice system that prioritizes apprehending people for non-violent crimes over people’s lives than to blame “racists.”

Examining long term social patterns, their historical underpinnings and their interactions with race may be beyond an 8th grade discussion, but the level of depth regarding cause, effect and solutions laid out in this slide deck is reflected in a wider conversation that seems fixated on polarized explanations that lay blame most prominently on individuals.  Keeping the conversation focused on racism keeps it off economic, class and social causes that cut across race, even though more black people are more negatively affected by many of these issues than white people. Focusing the issue on wider social problems that don’t stereotype individuals into race based oppressors and victims like the binary of racism versus antiracism does would benefit everyone as racial enmity were replaced with common cause. 

Many of these topics are implicitly subsumed under the category identified by Kendi in the quote above as “unequal institutions and society,” often called systemic or institutional racism. Even when these terms are used explicitly and defined to cover current inequities that have resulted from historical, as opposed to current individual racism, they still emphasize individual culpability in the use of the word ‘racism.’ Despite all efforts to redefine the word, it remains stubbornly next to “nazi” as a pejorative in our culture.  They also, obviously, frame the underlying cause as racism, failing to distinguish between racism itself as a motivation and using racism to divide and conquer. We would be better off turning our attention to longstanding patterns that affect almost all of us negatively, however unequally, to the benefit of very few.

Another concept in the deck (slides 37-41) that is becoming common in this type of education is “white privilege.” In one video, a white woman and a black man compare the number of times they have encountered different situations, including being called a racial slur, being followed in a store unnecessarily, having someone cross the street or get out of an elevator to avoid them, and fearing being stopped by the police.  The word “privilege” suggests that a person has something “extra” that is not an integral birthright, which someone else has bestowed upon them and thus can take away.

If it is a “privilege,” to be treated kindly and respectfully, though, then the fundamental dignity and worth of a human being is rendered precarious, extrinsic and undeserved. Emphasis is not placed on decent treatment and conditions for all as a goal, let alone on how to get there, but rather focuses on the privilege disparity between white and black people and the obligation that white people thus incur to even the playing field. The concept of privilege, taught this way, implies that “a good life” should be thought of in some way as something special, out of the ordinary, and achievable only through taking it from someone else.  It is the direct relationship between white privilege and the lack of these benefits to black people, after all, that requires white people to be antiracist to be morally just, as though discrimination were a zero sum game.   

“White privilege” focuses attention on the need to compete with other people, scarcity of resources, lack of fundamental worth, and division. It renders the wider cultural paradigm of exploitation and domination in which the “advantage” bestowed by white privilege has meaning invisible and unquestioned.  A different viral video that aims to explain white privilege shows college students racing to a finish line, in a Mother May I type set up in which they may advance if certain conditions are met.  It is notable that even criticisms of the video fail to point out that, maybe, just maybe, our cultural conception of life and success as a race with inevitable winners and losers could be a big part of the problem.

One noticeable aspect of Great Reset propaganda is an attempt to lower expectations of what it means to lead a “good life.”  For example, the World Economic Forum published an essay on their website on the idea of an entirely renting economy, “You’ll Own Nothing and Be Happy,” which they removed after widespread condemnation and lampooning.  We are also subjected to endless articles on the “exciting” future of food (for the masses) in lab-grown and insect meat, and other technological horrors.  Then there’s the push from governments, NGO’s and corporations alike for augmented and virtual reality education.  As Unicef, says, you know, we need virtual reality education because “…there will never be enough money allocated in the budget, qualified teachers or places in schools for the population we have.”  In this context, it doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch to wonder whether “white privilege” could be part of a widespread psy-op to encourage people to more easily accept these kinds of changes.  The more people can be made to feel that they are somehow helping others by feeling guilty for and eschewing what had previously been considered their due (normal respect, kindness and a degree of ease in life), the more they can be manipulated to believe that a lower standard of living for all (except the owners) is socially just.


While the concepts of antiracism versus racism and white privilege hamper the ability to identify, let alone work on underlying structural problems and threats, “equity” has been by far the most weaponized.  The word is cropping up everywhere because it is a key lever in reframing surveillance capitalism and 4IR technology into “social justice”.  “Equity” is usually presented, as it is in slide 71, like this:

Clearly, this is a very straightforward and concrete example to explain the idea that equity is about meeting everyone’s needs, even when the needs are different or greater.  It is easy to agree that, of course, in a just society, everyone should indeed get what they need.  A family with a special needs child provides a good example of how doing so can benefit everyone in the family.  As long as a family is well-resourced (emotionally, financially, physically) they should be able to meet each child’s needs even though they give more attention and care to the child that needs more.  Typical siblings stand to benefit from the experience themselves in myriad ways.  Unfortunately, it is much more difficult to make equity work for everyone in the top down, corporate captured bureaucracies known as schools.  Someone or something must be trusted to decide and measure who needs more, who needs less, and how needs should be met.

The old education model used Individualized Education Plans for a tiny and well-delineated minority of students to meet different needs.  This model, though, is ceding to one where “equity” demands that every child be assessed and monitored continuously in order to justify potential interventions. Surveillance, data extraction and the weoponization of that information should sound familiar as the model Facebook and other tech giants use as they harvest your every move online, feed it to algorithms to predict your future engagement and sell your attention to advertisers or other interested parties. As Shoshana Zuboff, who coined the term surveillance capitalism, points out, “…surveillance capitalism is the dominant economic institution of our time… [which] draws surveillance economics into the “normal” economy, from insurance, retail, banking and finance to agriculture, automobiles, education, health care and more… predictions of human behavior are the product.”

Did she say … education?!

The groundwork to use “equity” as an excuse to monetize children was set up in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which followed No Child Left Behind as U.S. national education policy.  ESSA opened the door to wide scale privatization of education and set up conditions for monitoring and data collection through its emphasis on “pay for success,” “evidence based interventions,” and “competency based education.”  Pay for success provided a new funding stream to allow private investors to fund specific programs (evidence based interventions) and receive interest on their investment if pre-determined narrowly defined outcome metrics (competencies) are achieved.  It is rarely explicitly stated that the vast majority of interventions are through educational technology, which, of course, is also vital to assessment.  Technology scales for greater profit than can be achieved through human centered intervention.  ESSA goes a long way to promote educational technology, but what to do about parents and teachers that balk at replacing lower student teacher ratios and independent professional teachers with online “personalized” instruction from artificial intelligence?  This article praising ESSA makes it plain that that is exactly what it promotes:

“…we’ve known for decades that personalized learning is a vastly better approach.  A 1984 study led by education psychologist Benjamin Bloom found that students given one-on-one instruction consistently performed two standard deviations better than their peers in a regular classroom. That’s enough to vault an average student to the top of the class.

Until recently, technology advancements that may have seemed far-fetched a decade earlier have made this personalized approach possible. Indeed, venture funding in the edtech sector has increased from almost $400 million six years ago to an expected $2 billion this year. Powerful, adaptive edtech means that all students can have — as part of their instructional team — a digital instructor to help them learn what they need to know, when they need to know it, at their own pace and place.”

How smoothly and easily the power of human connection, attention and creativity is dismissed!

“Equity” provides an imperative to close achievement gaps by providing everyone what they need to succeed.  Yet, critical truths remain unsaid and unseen: teachers won’t be empowered with enough time or independence to meet needs creatively, underlying contributing or causal factors to need won’t be addressed and everyone cannot succeed in a culture of competition. Online personalized learning funded and controlled by for profit entities, then, becomes the obvious solution to the problem of how to meet everyone’s needs.  The narrative cycle of posing a problem – equity – then a reaction – worried parents concerned about their own kids in a hyper competitive economy, and finally providing a desired solution – personalized learning – is evident in this news story about Virginia’s new math initiative.

Under the new Virginia Math Pathways Initiative (VMPI), all kids will take the same math classes before 11th grade, after which they can diverge.  This system will replace the old one of tracking or ability grouping in which some kids accelerated through the curriculum faster than others, such that they would start more advanced math classes sooner and end up with more math under their belt.  According to the article, in response to parents’ worries that the new math plan would hold their kids back, a Virginia Department of Education spokesperson promised that “Differentiated instruction [would be] catered to the learning needs of each child (appropriate levels of challenge and academic rigor…within a heterogeneous learning environment…” but he did not say how this would occur in practice.  He may not know, but I think it is pretty clear what will happen next.

Companies like Dreambox are more than ready to make sure your child reaches his or her potential!

“DreamBox continuously assesses students to present them with targeted lessons.  The program collects 48,000 data points every hour a student uses DreamBox.  It tracks each student interaction and evaluates the strategies used to solve problems. It then immediately adjusts the lesson and the level of difficulty, scaffolding, sequencing, number of hints, and pacing as appropriate. This allows students, whether struggling, at grade level, or advanced, to progress at a pace that best benefits them and deepen conceptual understanding.”

Note that, while the Virginia Department of Education states that the new math pathways program comes from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, it’s name and ideas are strikingly similar to the Pathway initiative funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that have led to many changes in other states.

Concern for “equity” amply does its job by distracting some parents from noticing or critically analyzing educational changes due to the social justice rationale.  It silences others’ dissent towards greater or this specific use of technology in education by framing all concerns as racist.  Other parents are set up through fear of a competitive culture with growing scarcity to accept personalized learning as a savior that will enable their child to either “get ahead” or maximize their potential.  It completely obscures the step by step construction of an “educational” system that sells children’s futures to the highest bidder and sets everyone on a re-skilling treadmill to compete in a global digital economy.  The greater media narrative of conservatives versus liberals around the issue as a whole can be easily seen in this context as a device to make people think they understand both what is happening and what people disagree on when neither is true.

While surveillance capitalism today has as its central goal selling more stuff, it’s longer term goals are more about selling YOU.  First, there’s the necessity of selling yourself as an employee in the economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in which the vast majority of our current jobs are automated.  This automation will not just include the obvious cashiers and truck drivers, but also most service providers for most people, such as teachers, doctors and therapists.  Nearly every specialized online platform for these services that today gives you interactions with a person is collecting data to feed into artificial intelligence to build better algorithms so a person will no longer be necessary.  Educational technology that adaptively teaches, ie. “personalized learning,” without a human, also, of course, uses user data to improve their algorithms and thus expand their market (and profit). Note that there is no need to keep or use any personal identifiers to use your data this way, avoiding what many believe is the chief privacy concern.

As many more people will need jobs and many more people will need to work in the digital economy to keep it going, new training and assessment mechanisms become necessary to choose among the winners and losers.  Normalizing online learning for the long term is important for a near future in which “life-long learning” is required for workers to keep up with advancing technology.  “Workforce development” (formerly known as education) will train children from the beginning to earn points or badges as they meet employer-defined metrics in endless learning modules – for the rest of their lives.  At the same time, all this performance data will be kept in a real “permanent record.”

The second way that surveillance capitalism within education makes the child, quite literally, the product is through new investment vehicles and procedures.  The beginning of the financialization of students is already present in the Pay for Success and Public Private Partnerships that encourage for profit corporations to tailor educational programs and goals to maximize private profit. However as surveillance monitoring increases through educational and other technologies and algorithms improve in their predictive ability, it will become feasible for investors to not only choose educational programs to invest in (as they do already), but even individual students. This recent Atlantic article discusses this emerging economy:

“To be clear, the financialization of everything isn’t an unalloyed benefit. The phenomenon has a dark side. If everyone becomes an investor, the inverse is also true: Everything—and everyone—becomes a potential investment. As part of [offering shares in himself], Alex Masmej designed a “Control My Life” component. Token-holders could vote on his life decisions—whether he should run three miles every day, stop eating red meat, wake up at 6 a.m. Token-holders had a financial stake in his success, so Masmej followed through on their commands.”

Of course, the author of this piece pretends that everyone could also be an investor, as though the poor and rich are equally as likely to invest as they are to be invested in.

Investing in any particular individual or group could mean providing healthcare or educational or other services — if the predictive analytics indicate that they are a good bet.  These predictive analytic algorithms are being created now with data corporations collect on children through educational technology.  They don’t need to attach the data to personal information to build models.  They can use anonymized data to build models that allow early detection of likely winners and losers now, and apply them to new children in the future.  New financial instruments have recently been developed to own and trade ecosystems services – perhaps students will be next. If such financialization occurs, wall street can trade the commodities (children) as they do others, like mortgages, with all kinds of creative financial instruments that turn people’s lives into a high stakes game for profit.

Yeah, that’s a lot to get from “equity,” isn’t it? But when “equity” suddenly appears on most corporate websites, it’s past time to consider whether the term has been hijacked.  Similarly, media narratives that rely on the most simplistic objections and arguments to objectify the “other” in such strident terms as “communist” or “racist,” deserve a second look.  In the case of antiracist education and the national fervor to defend or outlaw teaching “Critical Race Theory” in schools, there’s a narrative in a narrative.  Corporate media, owned by the same handful of players that own everything else (eg. Big Tech, Big Ag, Big Pharma, and FinTech) casts the story in the most divisive terms possible, as though the story is the conflict.  They hope you will share the demonizing memes their algorithms push forward on social media rather than look deeper. At the same time, the specific character of the educational antiracist movement sweeping school districts tells its own story about modern America and what ails it.  That story casts our deepest problems as stemming from racism and suggests “evening the score” between the races as the solution.  When discussion of the rules of the game is taken off the table, though, evening the score can only lead to changes in who wins and who loses.  And that set-up, of course, leads beautifully into the oligarchs sweeping in as the biggest winners of all.