The False Promise of Enlightenment
Three new books paint a chilling portrait of darkness in Wall Street, the law, and technology. But the apocalyptic metaphors obscure the real problem, hindering how we fight back.
May 29, 2019
May 29, 2019
20 Min read time
Three new books paint a chilling portrait of darkness in Wall Street, the law, and technology. But the apocalyptic metaphors obscure the real problem, hindering how we fight back.
Editors’ Note: This essay is part of Boston Review's special project Democracy’s Promise.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
PublicAffairs, $38.00 (cloth)
Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
The Code of Capital: How the Law Creates Wealth and Inequality
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
We need metaphors to make sense of reality. But we are often unaware of how those metaphors can then dictate our reality. By defining our problems and challenges, the metaphors we choose to use inadvertently imply solutions. Three recent books, for example, paint a disturbing and dark vision of our present. By their telling, the worlds of data, finance, and law are like aquifers beneath our feet, an alternative geography of accumulation and extraction to which we are each bound by catheter-like lines. Handheld devices transmit our every experience for purposes of revenue creation while the rise and fall of pension funds and asset prices map our futures and those of our children and grandchildren.
If it gives you chills, it is supposed to. All three books are written as conscious interventions into what they see as an unacceptable state of affairs. We need to think carefully about the tales these books tell, but even more carefully about the remedies their metaphors propose. The means of exit or opposition on offer, after all, are conditioned by the symbolic language they use to spook us.
For Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the status quo is nothing short of pre-apocalyptic. Her book may be the most perfect specimen yet of a genre—let’s call it the social-science horror-memoir—fated to expand. She folds subjective experiences of dread into projected scenarios of immiseration, collective disempowerment, and likely violence—an unavoidable conclusion except by treading a narrow path whose coordinates she concedes are hard to discern. David Wallace-Welles’s The Uninhabited Earth (2019) and Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s Climate Leviathan (2018) follows this model, as does David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends (2018).
Over hundreds of pages, Zuboff’s book proceeds as a kind of internal arms race in the quest for ever more extreme ways to convey what is happening.
In Zuboff’s case, the story begins literally with her family’s house burning down and her efforts to reconstruct a sense of home in its wake. The death of her husband, to whom the book is dedicated, as well as her German editor, Frank Schirrmacher, also cast an understandably long shadow. Her 688-page book is often less analysis than gut-wrenching scream—a sometimes moving, often exasperating, attempt at mourning what she sees as a passing relationship to our innermost selves.
She implores us to fight the “coup from above” being staged by Google and other tech giants. The book is self-conscious agitprop, designed to “rekindle the sense of outrage and loss over what is being taken from us.” It resonates with the ash-sifting moment around the end of World War II, and there are analogies to the highly personal political interventions of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom (1944), B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Indeed, Zuboff likens herself freely to Arendt, plumbing the present to find the origins of a new threat which, like totalitarianism, is all-consuming but which takes the new forms of a “muted, sanitized tyranny.”
Zuboff brings different weapons to the effort, however. Occasionally, she reprises her life as a business school professor to offer facts about corporate governance. When Google went public in 2004, for example, it introduced a dual-class stock structure that preserved extra voting rights for founders. Imitated by Facebook, Tesla, Snap, and, more recently, Lyft, and Pinterest, this model—which concentrates power and decreases shareholder voice—has become an industry standard.
Although Zuboff uses the example of Cambridge Analytica, her alarm bells were ringing before Donald Trump and Brexit. She plumbs earlier history, pointing out that Barack Obama was the “Google President,” appearing next to Eric Schmidt at his first post-election press conference in 2008. Even further back, the CIA’s attempt to “swim in [Silicon] Valley,” as George Tenet declared in 1997, led to the weaponization of the surveillance capacities of tech and communications firms and investment in startups with ominous names such as Recorded Future. First drafts of Zuboff’s arguments appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung after Edward Snowden’s jaw-dropping revelations about the scope of incursions into privacy under a Democratic administration. Since then, she has helped fuel a debate about tech and privacy in Germany that continues to be more wide-ranging and deeply-felt than in North America.
Yet Zuboff’s preferred weapon in the end is neither the factoid nor the FOIA revelation but the metaphor. Over hundreds of pages, the book proceeds as a kind of internal arms race in the quest for ever more extreme ways to convey what is happening. We begin by finding that we “are the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated,” trapped in a “dispossession cycle.” Then we are an “extraction quarry.” For a while, “we are the native peoples . . . whose tacit claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience,” and the terms of service we click through are the rebooted requerimiento of the conquistadors, read to us in an incomprehensible language before our enserfment.
Our utter lack of agency is emphasized time and again: “unruly life is brought to heel, rendered as behavioral data and reimagined as a territory for browsing, searching, knowing, and modifying” as “the prediction imperative unleashes the surveillance hounds to stalk behavior from the depths.” It may even already be too late: “The world is vanquished now, on its knees, and brought to you by Google.” In the metaphorical coup de grâce, she pronounces our own extinction: “You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass.”
Where to begin? Applying the normal tools of interpretation to such William Burroughs-like spiraling almost seems inappropriate. One could point out her excessive stagism, which implies we have moved from one form of capitalism to another without acknowledging their co-existence. What of, for example, the real indigenous people who are still subjected to real extraction? Is this not happening alongside the metaphorical kind involved in ad targeting, itself a pretty minor part of the economy writ large even if a site of tremendous growth?
Surveillance might not be an apt metaphor as we are not rendered supine, as so many of Zuboff’s metaphors imply, but encouraged always to emote, rage, flame, heart, rant, stan, and swoon.
One could ask whether her description doesn’t flunk the Cultural Studies 101 test by failing to acknowledge that the media’s designers don’t dictate directly its use and consumption. We hear a great deal about what companies “aim” to do through baroque projects of “behavioral modification,” but, as with the Cold War brainwashing techniques she references, we have little evidence that these efforts work—except for generating ever greater contracts for those pronouncing their own effectiveness. Pokémon Go was a startlingly popular trend, but was it really “a public announcement of history-illuminating change that moves through us and among us, irreversibly altering life as we have known it”?
One could point out that surveillance might not be an apt metaphor as we are not rendered supine, as so many of her metaphors imply, but encouraged always to emote, rage, flame, heart, rant, stan, and swoon. Isn’t it more like incitement capitalism? Isn’t the precise characteristic—the secret even—of this mode of accumulation that we are not actually dispossessed or extracted, but that we get to keep our own feelings even as Google gets them too?
Zuboff offers examples that undermine her own point in passing. A family falls on hard times and misses car payments. Someone starts an online fundraising appeal to “pay off the Kippings’ car, detail it, purchase a Thanksgiving turkey, and give the couple an additional gift of $1,000.” We are presented this Upworthy anecdote as evidence of what is being lost in the present “dystopian rule of the uncontract.” Indeed, Zuboff has painted herself into such a corner that she can only bear witness to the scattered husks of our formerly rich lives; she can’t concede that this salutary form of sociability emerged online, using the precise tools and platforms of surveillance capitalism she condemns.
In another subtly undermining case, Zuboff recounts a study where subjects are shown how much of their location data is sent to tech companies. After the study, 58 percent restricted permissions on their apps. But she fails to dwell on the inverse: after getting the kind of direct information that few users ever will, 42 percent did not. The lesson seems to be—if we needed any reminding in the long post-Snowden shrug—that old-fashioned enlightenment is not enough to enrage.
Perhaps the most recurrent metaphor Zuboff uses in her quest to astonish is that of darkness. The “dark data continent of your inner life” is “summoned into the light for others’ profit.” “All that is moist and alive must hand over its facts,” she writes, “there can be no shadow, no darkness.” Here, too, we can see the outlines of her prescription of a solution. As in the metaphor of surveillance, the problem is the one-way relationship. Tech companies operate in the shadows of public oversight even as they subject our inner lives to the klieg lights of the prison yard, approaching what she calls “a collectivist vision that claims the totality of society.”
It follows that the solution is to drain the darkness, spin around the interrogation lamp, and expose the tech companies themselves to the light of publicity. Here, the law plays the key role. She hopes that social movements can make “the life of the law . . . move against surveillance capitalism.” What will this look like? Her repeated metaphor of the Berlin Wall seems inapt. There is no territorial West Germany into which we can all burst. Yet she feels Europe still offers some hope. She cites the EU regulation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a sign that a white horse may arrive yet to stay Google’s death hand. After we virtual natives have had the virtual land of our souls seized, we must summon the will to hail the sheriff and the judge.
Walter Mattli shares a similar faith in the law as antidote to darkness in his book on the changing nature of stock market governance. In a crisp 178 pages (which even finds space for some repetition), Darkness by Design tells the story of what was once the undisputed throne room of global finance: the New York Stock Exchange.
Created in 1869 with 1,060 members, the NYSE only added 40 seats before 1929 when, to the sound of a sad trombone, it increased its membership by 25 percent a few months before the stock market crashed. Mattli is bullish about this early exchange and even more about the one that followed after 1945.
Mattli appeals to Louis Brandeis’s refrain that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” But here the question is the same as the one we could ask of Zuboff: how golden shone the Golden Age of capitalism?
In his description, the stock exchange had something of the horizontality of other archetypical sites of U.S. democracy: the village green or the New England town hall. “It was a body of many voices and no single one was dominant or prevailed,” Mattli writes. He does not hesitate to use the “d” word itself: the NYSE was a “democratic private governance system where all members had an equal voice on key matters.”
Just as Zuboff sees the midcentury management of Henry Ford and Arthur Sloane as models of class compromise and the redistribution of the rewards of economic growth, Mattli sees the NYSE up until the 1990s as good capitalism: a place where finance could serve valuable social functions by processing information and directing capital to where it was most efficiently put to use.
Yet in an ironic counterpoint to Zuboff’s book, the hero of Mattli’s story is literally surveillance. Much of the book is taken up describing how the creation of a Market Surveillance unit in the 1930s provided continuous oversight on the trading floor, which, until the advent of digital trading, remained a literal place.
“Floor cops” appointed by the exchange’s governing body circulated and ensured an “orderly market.” The space of the trading floor also allowed for mutual surveillance, a kind of Jane Jacobs model of financial governance whereby traders watched their neighbors and remained aware of the importance of reputation and the value of their brand.
Reports were filed and infractions were punished, but Mattli emphasizes the self-governing quality of the exchange above all else in the golden age. Questions of economic distribution and equality beyond the peculiar demos of the exchange (and the kind of worlds that finance created) are beyond Mattli’s analysis, but he makes much of the fact that the membership was relatively equal in its capitalization internally, with no member of the stock exchange being radically richer than the others.
Everything changed with the introduction of the computer in the 1970s. At first, the computer seemed to enhance the powers of surveillance, reducing the time spent on “reconstructing a day’s trading activity” from weeks to “days or even hours” and introducing an “electronic Audit Trail” by the 1980s. Some traders recoiled at this. “It seems like we live in the world of Big Brother,” one complained.
But soon, the wheel turned. “By the late 1990s, over 90 percent of NYSE trades were handled electronically,” Mattli writes. With the advent of high-frequency trading by the 2000s, it became possible to outrun the regulators. Traders could use the bazooka-like power of their computers to manipulate prices by “quote stuffing,” which could mean “placing and canceling . . . over 25,000 orders of a stock per second” or “spoofing,” sending orders to simulate momentum on a particular stock. The sheer data demands of reconstructing the course of investment became overwhelming as did the timeframes involved in spotting an infraction. Clocks would have to be “synchronized to nanosecond accuracy to enable regulators to reconstruct market events.”
More consequential was the choice of the NYSE to renege on its once hallowed duty of market surveillance altogether, slashing its market surveillance division by two thirds in 2007 before outsourcing it all to a third party a few years later. The impetus was not so much an ideological conversion to market fundamentalism but the pragmatic fear of losing their biggest members as new exchanges allowed the threat of exit to create an ever more trader-friendly and regulator-unfriendly atmosphere.
Mattli shows how the shape of financial governance—and lack thereof—was pushed by a small elite of investment entities. The advantages gained by those able to make costly investments in computerization began to concentrate wealth at the upper end of exchange’s members, including the “national commercial and non-U.S. ‘universal’ banks” that deregulation had allowed to enter. By 2000, the twenty-five second-tier firms had less than 10 percent of the market capitalization of the top ten. Household name titans such as Barclays, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan dominated.
In the new millennium, Mattli’s beloved “market democracy” was degenerating into oligarchy. Enabling this was not only the unequal access to expensive technology but also the new tendency of big firms to transact beyond the public eye of the financial agora. Here the metaphor of darkness returns.
“Dark pools” is a term used to describe a venue where trades are made without displaying “price order or order size information.” The volume of dark trading “tripled in less than a decade to about 37 percent of all trading in 2017.” Mattli hastens to point out their potential usefulness since dark pools are intended primarily for institutional investors, whose bids might otherwise overly disrupt the market. The spread of dark pools points to two facts: first, the increasing size of investment firms large enough to handle enormous transactions internally, and two, our collective participation in the very world that Mattli is describing.
What transpired on the trading floors and in the microwave-borne flashes of the exchange may be only relevant to clients, but by the early twenty-first century, we were almost all clients. Recalling Julia Ott’s research on how Wall Street Met Main Street (2014), Mattli points out how, already by 1930, one third of U.S. households were shareholders. By the 1990s, 401(k)s and pensions funds were a huge part of the investment picture. Over half of Americans currently own stock either individually or as part of a fund.
The clip-art image of a gridded globe, streaked by laser beams of information and money is misleading. It gives the false sense of capital existing mostly in low earth orbit beyond the reach of territorial nation-states.
In other words, those operating on Wall Street may often be part of the 1 percent but the wealth they are handling belongs to all of us. This makes Mattli’s descriptions and prescriptions of acute interest, partially because what he is describing can seriously exacerbate risk and, as we have been shown repeatedly, risk is privatized in good times and socialized in times of crisis (such as after 2008).
The question, though, is whether Mattli’s appeal to Louis Brandeis’s refrain that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” in the final pages of his book is enough. Here the question is the same as the one we could ask of Zuboff: how golden shone the Golden Age of capitalism? Is it utopian enough to imagine a return to that period of robust Fordism when the United States was the engine of the world economy, exporting industrial products globally to former enemies tucked snugly under its nuclear umbrella?
Zuboff’s description of the capacity of tech companies for “total information . . . and the promise of guaranteed outcomes” is notable in how close it comes to discussions dating back to the Socialist Calculation Debates in interwar Vienna about technologically-enabled models of socialist planning. Would it be possible to turn the wheel once again to see how the power of computerization can be socialized and turned toward the problems we face—problems that are fundamentally different than those of the 1950s? Such new horizons would offer a vision to chain Zuboff’s re-enkindled astonishment to something other than the mid-century Golden Age or what proved in many ways to be the false dawn after the Berlin Wall’s fall.
Mapping such a future requires being clear-eyed about the tools at hand. The third book under review is invaluable for its (near) break with the constraints imposed by the binary of darkness and light. While orders of magnitude more understated than Zuboff’s, Katharina Pistor’s The Code of Capital is also an urgent tract. The difference, in her telling, is that the law doesn’t always ride a white horse. It comes as often to perpetuate injustice as redress it.
One of the misleading visions of the last thirty years of globalization is the clip-art image of a gridded globe, streaked by laser beams of information and money. Beyond the proliferation of obstacles to mobility repressed by this image, it also gives the false sense of capital existing mostly in low earth orbit beyond the reach of territorial nation-states—an extraterrestrial “market people” beaming from one spot to the next. Some critics of the present order reinforce this image by speaking of a world where the market has become “disembedded” from society and states, cut free of institutional constraints to chase profits and transmit them back into the bank accounts of the “few not the many.”
Capital is global not because it exists in the ether, but because, when properly legally framed, it is portable.
But while the outcome might be accurate, Pistor makes clear that the description is faulty. Assets—and wealth itself—do not exist outside the law and the state. The concentration of wealth and its evasion of state attempts at its capture through taxation also do not happen by escaping law or the state, but through the law and the state—through projects of legal “encoding,” to use Pistor’s dominant metaphor.
The protagonists of Pistor’s narrative include the trust, which is used to put assets an arm’s length from their original owner (originally to family members, but now, increasingly, to financial intermediaries); the partitioning of asset pools within corporations, which allows them (as in Mattli) to take on extra risk and avoid shareholder governance; and the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism, which allows foreign investors to sue states for lost profits.
She shows that capital is global not because it exists in the ether, but because, when properly legally framed, it is portable: “it is possible to code assets in the modules of one legal system and still have them respected and enforced by courts and regulators of another country.” Far from a sub-galactic global space of flows, she shows that assets are almost all drawn up according to the templates of two relatively small places—New York State and Great Britain.
Corporations may be able to choose their own “birthplace,” but that birthplace must still be on the planet. The place where the asset comes to earth points to the place where it can (at least hypothetically) be challenged. Pistor introduces us to new sites and conventions created to offer protection for capital mobility and insulation from democratic states, places with their own acronyms, where PRIME Finance (Panel of Recognized International market Experts in finance) protects PRIMA (the Place of Relevant Intermediary Approach convention).
The quicksilver quality of assets can be a strength but also a weakness. While Zuboff presents human behavior as the novel “fourth fictional commodity” now being enclosed after Karl Polanyi’s land, labor, and money, Pistor points out that immaterial or intangible property have long presented a challenge to capitalists eager to turn a song, a swoosh, a swipe, or a string of formula into private property. Pistor reminds us that Google not only seeks to elude the law, but also use it. Its algorithm, PageRank—which is “best described as a filing system”—was patented and exclusively licensed, and it practices aggressive uses of trade secrecy law and non-compete clauses.
While Zuboff uses metaphors of darkness to describe tech capitalism, Pistor uses a metaphor from tech to describe capitalism’s laws. A terrain of struggle populated by “modules” and “coding” holds neither the liberatory promise of eruption into the benevolently regulated space beyond the East Germany of our own digital abjection nor the royal road back to the financial agora of the mid-century stock exchange. Instead it is a workaday exploration of strategies necessary to redefine what property is in the first place.
This struggle does not happen on level ground. The capacity to engage in legal combat is entirely conditioned by access to resources—the teams of lawyers that can be deployed. The volume of these resources themselves is an expression of the accumulation of the concentrations of wealth created in the last couple of centuries, making path dependency a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Draining the darkness would only bring to light something we already knew was there.
Here, Pistor’s example of Belize is instructive. In 2007, Mayan people, with the help of a team of historians, lawyers, anthropologists, won a supreme court case establishing the collective property right of indigenous people to their own land. But their victory was short-lived. The government soon trampled on its own court’s ruling to allow mining by private corporations. The example is either hopeful or fatalistic, depending on your disposition, but it remains a valuable case study in how property claims are made and unmade. As Pistor points out, there are few claims more powerful at present than that something is “legal” and that it is “property.” Yet, as her book shows, neither of these claims are universal and both dissolve on exposure to history. Her metaphors allow us to see how, by ceding democratic control of law, we’ve “depoliticized critical questions of self-governance,” preserving mobility for some and blocking it for others.
It also reminds us that the idea of a wild, ungoverned space of data and finance depicted by Zuboff and Mattli are false. The wealth drawn from both the digital darkness and the dark pools of Wall Street exists only by virtue of the law’s encasement. Draining the darkness would only bring to light something we already knew was there. What we face is less a long night awaiting the arrival of light and more a war of movement along long-established trench lines. Suns rise by themselves; recoding takes work.
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May 29, 2019
20 Min read time