Surveillance Capitalism and the Climate Crisis

When the climate crisis is the biggest problem of our time, you might wonder if something like surveillance capitalism is worth bothering about. What if I told you that they are related?

Surveillance Capitalism created an attention economy where your attention is sold to the highest bidder. The most important problems of our time are masked behind the endless personalized advertising, media addiction and attention grabbing techniques of surveillance capitalism.

Centralized social media helps centralize censorship on a global scale. A certain social media corporation that did nothing to prevent the Rohingya crisis (a genocide in Bangladesh) for several years has immediately sprung into action to censor the Extinction Rebellion movement which has a presence on their platform.

AI-driven newsfeeds optimize for a politician’s whataboutisms over news of climate change activism, because user engagement is the metric that social media is being optimized for. The loudest voices are heard all over but their algorithms don’t show your posts to your own friends - not something we’re used to in the real world.

Surveillance has a chilling effect on activism itself. Let’s say you went to a Climate Strike protest. An IMSI catcher placed at the site of the protest finds your mobile phone and informs the police that you attended this protest. If you are careful enough to leave your phone at home or switch it off, several video cameras with real-time facial recognition will match your face against national databases to identify you. If your goverment is not rich enough for this, helpful social media companies will tag you in photos (which have geolocation enabled by default on most smartphones) and sell that data to goverments or whoever is buying.

The business-as-usual operations of Surveillance Capitalism are themselves responsible for a lot of Greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental impact of cloud computing, most of which is used for big data and machine learning is the equivalent to the entire aviation industry combined (from a 2014 Greenpeace report). That’s only on their side. We have to keep buying more powerful smartphones every year so that surveillance capitalist apps can listen to our private conversations, run the neural nets on our own devices to extract ad words out of them. The questionable ethics behind the manufacture of smartphones deserves a post of its own.

The worst problem caused by Surveillance Capitalism yet is the availability of Behavior Manipulation as a Service. Mercenary Surveillance Capitalist firms like Cambridge Analytica can deploy their weapons of mass manipulation to get anybody who is paying elected to power. We end up with people who don’t know the difference between climate and weather ruling entire nations, denying climate change and imprisoning climate refugees en masse.

Fascism is making a comeback in developing countries as young people grow up with content recommended by black box recommendation algorithms which bubble up conspiracy theories, hate speech and propaganda, because engagement drives ad-revenue no matter what the content is. Rain forests with animals and tribal people inside them get burnt alive and nations with starving populations make war preparations.

Surveillance Capitalism not only hinders the efforts of climate change activists but also has a direct effect in increasing carbon emissions both in its operations and also in helping climate change deniers come to power through mass manipulation. We need ethical, freedom-respecting software and hardware now more than ever not only to keep our mind, society and environment healthy, but also to minimize the impacts of the sixth mass extinction event on planet Earth.