Capitalism, Surveillance and… Chickens?
What do chickens have to do with data rights? Quite a lot, according to Zephyr Teachout, an attorney and a professor at Fordham University. In her book, “Break ‘Em Up,” Teachout uses the plight of chicken farmers to explain the way our current antitrust laws allow monopolies to operate with impunity:
Three processors — Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue — are responsible for buying and selling almost every chicken in America. They are the ones who slaughter the chickens, pluck and gut them, chill them, and ship them to groceries and restaurants. There is growing evidence that the processors secretly coordinate with each other and do not compete with each other. They stay off each other’s turf. So in most parts of the country, farmers have no choice but to sell their chickens to one buyer. And in order to sell to that buyer, the farmer has no choice but to sign an arbitration contract, so that any dispute with his processor stays secret.
This processor-control model — called chickenization, because the innovators came from chicken processing — has spread to almost all poultry and pork production. It is not driven by technological change. It is, rather, a direct result of changes in our antitrust laws.
“Chickenization” allows the processor — the middle man between producers and consumers — to levy their market power against anyone who goes against their interests. If a chicken farmer wants to be profitable, they have no choice but to sign away their rights to make their own choices. The only choice they’re free to make is whether to continue toiling under their feudal lords or lose their land altogether.
If you’ve never lived anywhere near a farm in your life, you may wonder what bearing this holds on your life. The fact is that — whether you live in a city, out in the country, or anywhere in between — you are subject to chickenization.
You’re going to WISH you were the chicken… but you’re not.
Monopolies like these are more obvious in cases like Big Pharma, which has control over the price of medicine— free from price regulation — despite the fact that they did not produce the research funded by taxpayers and merely manufacture the drugs they sell. We see the same in Big Money, where four massive firms have consolidated banking while escaping consequences of their actions leading up to the 2008 financial crash.
However, when it comes to the shadowy realm of Big Tech and Big Data, the practices are even more insidious. Amazon, FaceBook, Google and Apple have enormous influence because of their popularity with consumers. They gain that popularity because they have ruthlessly held down any market opposition or political regulation. Yet, despite these corporations’ known flippant disregard for human rights, the darkest characteristics come from their engagement in what’s known as surveillance capitalism.
Shoshana Zuboff — a Harvard professor, philosopher and social psychologist — has written extensively on technology and its effect on our society. In her book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Zuboff describes the term as a “mutation of capitalism” that uses the private human experience as its raw material. Surveillance capitalists elicit their product —your data — through subterfuge, and sell it to business customers for their use.
Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary
In the chicken industry, the product is — obviously — chicken. There is a saying that “if the service is free then you are the product,” but that’s not true. You’re going to WISH you were the chicken… but you’re not. In this surveillance economy, Zuboff explains, you yourself are not the product: you are the producer of valuable, raw data.
In the scheme of data chickenization, then, you are the chicken farmer. And given how Zephyr Teachout opens her book by describing the rampant suicide and opiate addiction in farming communities, that doesn’t bode well for our rights in digital spaces.
When corporate surveillance comes to mind, it usually conjures up images of targeted advertising predicting what products we might be interested in. You may even recall a time your phone recommended a restaurant that came up in an overheard conversation at work.
This may seem like a disconcerting new reality to some, but others may say that there’s no harm in companies personalizing the ads we see. After all, who cares if they listen to you through your phone? You’ve got nothing to hide, right?
The misconception here lies in the idea that our privacy is the price we must pay for these services. We act as if this is the only way the digital can operate, so there’s no other alternative except for going off the grid.
However, we should not have to crawl before the “privacy czar” in Silicon Valley and ask him to please do something about election tampering and misinformation.
This responsibility is obviously not something FaceBook was prepared to take on given how slow to react it was to breaches of privacy in 2015. At that time, Cambridge Analytica — a British data-analytics company — used FaceBook to steal personal data from 50 million users. The group took this private information and built personality profiles that they used to predict a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation and politics.
These predictive models allowed Cambridge Analytica to target people susceptible to specific messaging. These models were trained to tell FaceBook users what to read, which groups to join, who to listen to, and even who to vote for.
When FaceBook faced a lawsuit in 2018 for allowing users data to be stolen, they changed tack and declared in spring of 2019 that, “The Future is Private.” At his F8 keynote, Zuckerberg sought to reinvent his company’s reputation on privacy with a new(ish), cleaner layout.
Incredibly, this image shift turned out to be nothing but a public face, when, two months later, FaceBook’s legal counsel claimed that by using the platform, we renounce “any reasonable expectation of privacy.”
FaceBook’s position is that our personal data is our own responsibility. Which is convenient, since the data we slough off every day has no real value to us, but is worth billions to surveillance capitalists.
This data includes our spelling errors, the structure of our faces, and even the volume and timbre of our voices. This data was stolen from us surreptitiously, and used to make products which were then sold to businesses to control our behavior.
The idea that data can be stolen suggests that it could also be owned. While we don’t have any functioning data protections in the U.S., the E.U. has much stricter laws regarding, among other things, data ownership.
Unfortunately, these laws only protect public data that we freely publish and choose to freely give away. If FaceBook only ever used the data that we gave them knowingly, surveillance capitalism wouldn’t be such a huge problem.
That problem being the asymmetrical balance of power between FaceBook and its billions of users. This dynamic, as Shoshana Zuboff puts it, resembles the relationship between elephants and the poachers killing them for their ivory tusks.
The bright side is that we can stop this from continuing to happen everywhere from farms to FaceBook. What we need to do:
- Pass stronger antitrust laws
- Enact ougher enforcement of those laws
- Bring an end to the era of Citizens United
These things are perfectly possible if we pile enough democratic pressure on our elected officials. We need not plead with authoritarian corporations to temper their own illegitimate rule. These problems exist because our government dismantled protections and regulations. They can be solved in much the same way.
If you’re not convinced, just keep in mind something Zuboff says which I find deeply encouraging:
We haven’t even tried yet, to stop it! Look, surveillance capitalism is 20 years old. Democracy is several centuries old.
I bet on democracy.