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Surveillance capitalism and brand marketing What’s App-Facebook and Google

Wednesday, 27th of January 2021

Two sides of the same coin which wouldn’t look the same

Talking of marketing and taking branding as the strategy in any marketing and branding plan; which is built on the platform of STP (Segmenting, Targeting, Positioning), in one of my previous articles I explained the importance of profiling. As opposed to the age-old acronym STP, the suggestion was to make it STPP including profiling into the same acronym and make it STPP. What this means in other words is that going beyond mere stratification or segmentation, now brands are trying to dig deeper into demographics, psychographics, and behavioral variables to find the ultimate truth of their target market.

As it may seem, this is a daunting task that needs to have a way of looking into the black-box of the buyer which is only possible if the information is available on each and every moment of the target market. As a layman I was pleased to see the services offered by Google; such as data transmitting options of Gmail, Google Drive, etc and navigational supports such as Google Maps, and the list goes on… as a marketer I was pleased to see how Google was supporting us with SEO options, Google ads, Google Adwords, etc… However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that there is a lot of money involved in each and every service they offer free-of-charge.

A video that was circulating in social media last week caught my attention and I was surprised to see how Google observes each of us as we browse through the internet. As per the video, there were two identical mobile handsets (phones) carried by one individual of which one is on airplane mode and the other one was on but both phones didn’t have a mobile connection (as we call it sim card was not in either phone). The individual goes from one place to another, by walk, by taxi, etc and he returns to the place where he began the journey.

To our surprise, both phones had captured data on the moments of the individual and the one which was on airplane mode had captured more data than the other. i.e. both phones seem to have a cookie installed by Google which is connected to satellites and the moment the phone is connected to the internet, it transmits all the data that it has captured. To be more specific; the phone with wifi had reported 121 locations, 130 activities, and 152 barometric readings. In total it had transmitted 300Kb of data to Google. The phone with no sim card and with airplane mode on had collected more data than that of the one with wifi on. What does it mean? Google is building capital, a capital that can give returns in the future. As we already are familiar with financial capital, social capital, etc the latest addition to the collection is; surveillance capital.

Surveillance capital

The name given to the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behavior of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent. Zuboff is the writer who first unveiled this new concept to the world; “Surveillance capitalism,” writes “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.

Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behavior.” While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context.

She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact, what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioral predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. “The digital revolution began with great promise. When did you start worrying that the tech giants driving it were becoming more interested in exploiting us than serving us? “The Support Economy,” I looked at the challenges to capitalism in shifting from mass to an individual-oriented structure of consumption.

I discussed how we finally had the technology to align the forces of supply and demand. However, the early indications were that the people framing that first generation of e-commerce were more preoccupied with tracking cookies and attracting eyeballs for advertising than they were in the historic opportunity they faced. For a time I thought this was part of the trial and error of a profound structural transformation, but, certainly, by 2007, I understood that this was actually a new variant of capitalism that was taking hold of the digital milieu. The opportunities to align supply and demand around the needs of individuals were overtaken by a new economic logic that offered a fast track to monetization.” Concludes the writer of the book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff.

The war between Google and Facebook

Google became the number 01 search engine in the world about 20 years back beating yahoo with its unique offerings to the users and later acquired YouTube as it was considered to be the second-largest search engine after Google. The only social media platform Google couldn’t beat was Facebook (Even though Google tried it with Orkut it was not as successful as Facebook) and the only missing piece of Facebook was something similar to Google. However, as you may have noticed, Facebook has acquired What’s App and now they are in the process of making changes to Terms and Conditions to get the consent of the users to share data in synchronization with Facebook.

For a moment many pressed the panic button, but as you woke up the next day, Elon Musk had released a newer app called Singal which is to provides similar functionalities to What’s app. Therefore, the social media users are ready to respond to What’s App and Facebook by installing the new App called Signal for their mobile-based communications. However, none of these can prevent the emergence of Surveillance Capital in the world and as the Eastern part of the world getting stronger in the production aspect thinking that it was the one the Western world was thriving on, the West has discovered a new economic machine leaving production to the East as it has many environmental impacts. Hence, the West would remain to stay clean while the East takes upon the production process to the whole world which is led by China. In other words, what it means is that; most of the environmental issues will be shifted to the East and there will be more social issues that can arise as a result of this new move.

What is the danger?

Under the traditional STP model, brand marketers used to collate data and analyze how the consumer behaves, and made brand plans and promotional offers accordingly. Needless to say that under the new system of surveillance capitalism, social media providers are in an attempt to manipulate the behavior of consumers. The competitive dynamics of surveillance capitalism have created some really powerful economic imperatives that are driving these firms to produce better and better behavioral-prediction products. Ultimately they’ve discovered that this requires not only amassing huge volumes of data but actually intervening in our behavior. The shift is from monitoring to what the data scientists call “actuating.” Surveillance capitalists now develop “economies of action,” as they learn to tune, herd, and condition our behavior with subtle and subliminal cues, rewards, and punishments that shunt us toward their most profitable outcomes.

What is the real danger?

As we get used to these systems, our behavior will be limited by many aspects and the connection that was built between the brain and the body will die a natural death at one point. These technologies are taking over the functions we humans used to handle with our memory and creativity. Taking a simple example, we used to take down the birthdays of people who are dear to us and send them a card on their birthdays. But today, the birthday is reminded to you and the wishing options are also given… There is no space for your creativity in fact it has limited your behavior to given options. It’s more like having an open-ended question versus an MCQ which has given the choice set to pick from. This will eventually pave the way for robots to take control of mankind as we humans keep ourselves away from most of the functions which require coordination among three devices in our body; hand-head and heart. Leaving alone head and heart only by using our hand now we can perform most of the tasks that we perform in a given day.

From Industrialisation to Informationalisation

Informatization or informatization refers to the extent to which a geographical area, an economy, or a society is becoming information-based, i.e. the increase in the size of its information labor force. But I propose a new terminology for Surveillance Capitalism as Informationalisation which is about an industry which makes capital or money out of data. In the industrial era, men were trained and tamed to work in given hours and to perform one task with the objective of achieving efficiencies which was essential for driving profitability.

We can resemble this to the era where Henry Ford was talking of making black cars and making them available for all US citizens to buy as he envisioned to supply a car to every household. And here we are; talking of pollution and looking for alternatives such as hybrids and electric cars which are also not so sustainable as they may seem. Information super-highway; the internet has created the foundation for informationalization as I call it; will look lucrative and be fancy and trendy now but will leave mankind in a big mess for which there will be no simple solutions and it will only be a matter of time. We will have our current generations boasting of target marketing and online branding and our future generations will be suffocating and cursing us as the creators and the pioneers of this mega mess.

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