Deflating the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’

I thought this was an interesting critique by Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow in their Chokepoint Capitalism, arguing that the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’ suggests a break with (past) capitalism whereas we are instead seeing a familiar modus operandi undertaken by new commercial actors:

This is the true heart of “surveillance capitalism”—not the idea that Big Tech uses data-mining and machine learning to create mind-control systems that bypass our critical faculties and trick us into buying whatever they want to sell us. Rather, Big Tech abuses monopoly power to deprive us of choice by limiting what we can buy, redirecting our searches to hide rivals’ products, and locking us into its ecosystem with technologies we can’t alter without risking a lengthy prison sentence.

Loc 730

These businesses “invest profits into widening and deepening their fortifications against competition” (loc 224) and that is not a new thing. While this might involve new technologies, the underlying impetus towards anti-competitive strategies is a familiar feature of capitalism. They draw on the theory of monopsony, developed by Joan Robinson in 1993, which explains a “scenario in which there is one dominant power in the buying relationship, so that power is able to set prices to maximize profits not subject to competitive constraints” (Wiki). If I understand correctly monopoly and monopsony are parallel concepts, referring to one dominant buyer and one dominant seller respectively. Their concept of the moat or chokepoint is a way of theorising how this power operates across a range of domains:

Moats have many different forms. Cost moats give companies cost advantages over their competition (perhaps because they have unbeatable economies of scale, or because it’s expensive for customers or suppliers to switch elsewhere). Data moats arise where companies use information they’ve collected over time to give them an advantage over rivals. Network effect moats take advantage of the phenomenon whereby some products and services get more valuable as more people use them. A phone network is the classic example: it’s useless if only one person has access, because there’s no one to call, but its value increases rapidly with each new subscriber.

loc 145

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