TOUGH JUSTICE : Surveillance capitalism: one more reason to frown at tech

Monday February 26 2018

Justice Novati Rutenge

Justice Novati Rutenge 

By Justice Novati Rutenge

It was captivated by a speech by a Zimbabwean-cum-South African friend named Fikile Magadlela, who is well versed in the ‘big concepts’ that govern our existence on the planet. Invited to speak about equality, ethics and opportunity in business and entrepreneurship to a group of young African leaders, the very eloquent comrade enunciated the below words, which I found very profound:

“When I was young, I wanted to change the world, but I didn’t know what the world is. The Earth is the planet that we live in, but the world is a man-made collection of systems… and these systems govern how we exist on this Earth. To change the world is to have your own ideas influencing these systems.”

There is a lot of talk about how technology is changing the world, and this is an undeniable fact. But when we think of it, we often think about the ubiquity of technology, and the impact this has had on the manner in which we access and exchange information and carry out day to day tasks.

In doing this, what we often forget to account for is the nature in which the broader system within which we operate, capitalism, seems to be evolving side by side with technology. To anyone with a mind as curious and conscious on the bigger questions about life as my friend Fikile’s, the intersection of technology and capitalism is one to be extremely engrossed in.

For instance, have the millions who enjoy free Facebook through our local telecoms thought about the catch inherent in this magnanimous giveaway? They, and the rest of us see such moves as charity, which we often take at face value.

Of course, someone may ask, for instance, about the clothes we wear; the soap, toothpaste, cars and everything else that characterizes the modern life.  Aren’t capitalist forces at play in those things as well? So why should technology be any different?


My answer is that, unlike other ‘commodities’, technology promised to save us all from capitalism. Case in point, what in the name of Mike happened to the “open source” movement and the bigger “public interest” ideas behind it? Few years ago I was completely sold on the idea that technology is bringing about the democratization of (basically) everything. I am now well cognizant of the naiveté in my earlier assumption.

I had placed my confidence in the fact that, unlike in ‘traditional’ consumer capitalism, new technology confers upon us the power of choice. However, the debate is never about choice, but about informed choice. And since most of us hardly go through the terms of service when joining popular online platforms, we unknowingly give these platforms the right to surveil us online (and offline, as I came to learn) and make our data available to whoever is willing to pay an arm and a leg for it.

By relying on advertising, new technology has failed to disentangle itself and its users from the dark side of capitalism. Tech giants collect and exploit ‘big data’ in the guise of value creation to consumers, which in itself is a classic capitalist pretext. We need to question whether the tech giants are really learning about us to serve us better, or simply surveilling us to control our behavior and consumer patterns. Recognizing the dangers that come with surveillance which are more than I have space to explain here, we must draw a line between capitalism and greed, and refuse to let the profit-goaded tech giants cross it.

I must not be misconstrued to be technophobic and techno-paranoiac. Even with stern warnings such as those offered in Netflix’ magnus opus, Black Mirror, I’m not about to discard any devices I have that can connect to a data network, for that’ll be shooting myself in the foot. What I am instead advocating for is a debate about surveillance aimed at keeping ourselves as consumers safe as we enjoy the multitudinous benefits technology has to offer.