Toronto is surveillance capitalism’s new frontier
The city of Toronto now sits in the crosshairs of a uniquely 21st-century economic model that I call surveillance capitalism. Invented at Google two decades ago, surveillance capitalism claims private experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Most data are hunted, captured and valued not for service improvement but rather for their rich predictive signals. These data flows lay the foundation for a lucrative new surveillance economy. First, data are extracted from private experience. Next, they are conveyed to computational factories called “machine intelligence,” where they are fabricated into behavioural predictions. Finally, prediction products are sold to business customers in markets that trade exclusively in human futures, where companies compete on the quality of predictions: they sell certainty.
Surveillance capitalism has become the default model of the tech sector and now migrates across the normal economy, infiltrating every sector: insurance, education, health care, retail, finance, transportation, the list goes on. As its name suggests, this rogue mutation of capitalism operates stealthily, designed for secrecy and camouflaged by a fog of carefully crafted rhetorical misdirection, euphemism and mendacity, all of which aims to keep us ignorant.
The competition to sell certainty produces economic imperatives: great predictions require data in volume and variety, economies of scale and scope. This economic model drives toward a totality of information: from bodies to cars, bloodstreams to brainwaves. However, the most predictive data come from intervening in the state of play to modify behaviour in ways that serve the bottom line. Data scientists call this the shift from “monitoring” to “actuation,” where a critical mass of data can be used to impose programmed control. Surveillance capitalists operate through the digital infrastructure to achieve this power: automated systems are designed to modify human behaviour in the direction of preferred outcomes. The ability to know gives way to the power to control.
The imperatives to map and shape human behaviour effectively, automatically, economically and at scale are unprecedented. The result has been an ever-widening spectrum of experimentation, some of which has become known to the public. For example Facebook’s “massive-scale” online contagion experiments demonstrated that it was possible to shape real-world behaviour and emotions using subliminal cues and social comparison dynamics on Facebook pages, while concealing these operations from users. Next, the Google-incubated augmented-reality game Pokémon Go went further, learning how to use gamification to tune behaviour, herding people through the city in ways that served the bottom line of the game’s customers. Sidewalk Labs and the “Google city” represent the next phase, adapting these methodologies to real life in the real city: the next experimental laboratory. This evolution tracks the advice of the scholar who perfected the theory and practice of behavioural modification, B.F. Skinner, who wrote in 1947: “It is not a matter of bringing the world into the laboratory, but of extending the practices of an experimental science to the world at large.”
Toronto now stands first in line to become surveillance capitalism’s real-world petri dish. Sidewalk’s proposals reveal the full arc of the new logic. With astonishing audacity, it claims the city as its laboratory and the lives of citizens as its free raw material for data creation, ownership, computation and monetization. Sidewalk Labs celebrates the Toronto waterfront as its “meaningful test bed and product/service trial venue…” To this end, the company unilaterally declares that all public and private experience occurring within this experimental zone would be deemed “urban data” available for monitoring and actuation. In these endeavours, Sidewalk can be confident in its dominance as it rides the wave of Google’s leading position in machine intelligence.
The real outcome here is the privatization of the city. In this version of our digital future, algorithms replace laws, as the computational truths that expand private capital’s revenue streams replace democratic municipal governance. The city is no longer a crucible of creativity, which is innately unpredictable. Instead it becomes a zone of certainty for the sake of profit. Should Toronto fall to this anti-democratic juggernaut, surveillance capitalism will be emboldened to keep on taking. Without laws to protect democratic freedoms and governance, more cities, then regions, then countries will be reborn as private data flows that yearn toward totality for the sake of profits, until “privacy,” “self-determination,” and “democracy” read like ancient words on faded parchment.
This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.