Saturday, May 30 2020

In 1886, German architect Mies van der Rohe famously declared that "less is more". In 2019, not to be outdone, American entertainer MattySmokes420 responded with: "like and subscribe for more great content!" Both men make compelling arguments, but I'm starting to think that less is becoming a more important option in this Age of Great Content we've found ourselves in. Mies van der Rohe was a pioneer of modernist architecture, which was also a cultural precursor to the minimalist art movement of the 20th century. In the years since, minimalism has evolved into a variety of other art forms and areas of life. Nowadays we watch as Marie Kondo, a petite and joyful Japanese woman, preaches to her Netflix audience to remove all the possessions that don't "spark joy" in one's life. Clean up your room and throw things out; this is minimalism in 2020.

Looking back to its origins as an artistic philosophy in the 1950s, minimalism was an attempt to "expose the essence, essentials or identity of a subject through eliminating all non-essential forms, features or concepts", according to an art critic named Wikipedia. Digital Minimalism book coverIn the context of American art, it was partly a response to the abstract expressionism movement of the mid-twentieth century. Abstract expressionism was popularized through artists like Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning who eschewed form and objectivity in favour of the surreal. It was dynamic, spontaneous art that was often overflowing with emotion and energy. As far as I understand it, these artists wanted to abandon traditional composition in order to evoke their subconscious representation of a subject. Jay Meuser, an American abstract expressionist, wrote that "it is far better to capture the glorious spirit of the sea than to paint all of its tiny ripples". If the purpose of abstract expressionism is to represent boundless emotion, then perhaps minimalism is about the boundaries themselves. And that, I think, is the crux of minimalism conceptually: erecting boundaries and then thinking about your relationship with them.

The artists of the abstract expressionist movement sought to express their personal emotions through their paintings. As such, each work of art is integrally tied to its creator. Art created to serve this purpose can be viewed as narcissistic or pretentious, but as much as these artists have imbued themselves into their work, the observer still has their own subjective reaction to the art,

A painting is not a picture of an experience. It is the experience.

— Mark Rothko

Rothko sought to cultivate a personal experience to the observer, but it is still hard to separate him from his work completely. Each brush stroke was produced by his hands. When you see Rothko's bright, colourful rectangles slowly transform over the years into darker and darker shades, ultimately culminating in a work with no colour at all, its hard not to think of his suicide just a year after this work was painted. It is this context, and the intimate focus on the artist that minimalist art strives to eliminate. How can an artist remove themselves from the experience of the art? How can an artist create something with no meaning at all?

Minimalism is all about literal, physical presence. It is characterized by extreme simplicity and a reduction of any personal and referential elements so that only the objective, purely visual parts remain. Expressionism, and most art in general, is about representing some feature of reality, or visualizing human experiences like emotion and feeling. The minimalist artist seeks to remove any external references at all, so that the viewer is effected only by what's in front of them. The material, form, and location is the entirety of the art. Because of this, minimalist art most often takes the form of sculpture rather than painting. And it is common for this art to be manufactured in bulk, or produced by automated machinery; further removing the artist from their creation.

Now, I can certainly appreciate this style of art and the virtues it represents. A metal cube sitting on the floor in front of you can be seen as a very pure form of beauty; the art does not try to imitate something its not, and in that way it is truthful. It is easy to understand it simply by comparison to movements such as abstract expressionism. Minimalist art was created as an antithesis to the emotionally driven art that preceded it. If the point of art is to evoke feelings and start discussions, then I think minimalist art, as boring as it may seem at first glance, fits this criteria still.

stupid monkeys looking at a monolith
stupid monkeys looking at a monolith
cultured humans appreciating art
cultured humans appreciating art

Minimalism's popularity grew throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and its core tenets have spread to other disciplines and facets of life. I would resist saying that minimalist art actually influenced these other areas like music, architecture, software, and lifestyle, because I think it is more to do with the reasons why minimalist art resonates with us in the first place. When we see a neat tiling of bricks on a wooden floor, or a tidy, all-white spacious room with white chairs and white shelves, or a clean and simple user interface on a smartphone app...we are drawn to the simplicity and the clear distinctions. I think its deeply rooted in the fact that these straight lines and neat symmetries are not found in nature. They are of human creation and their inarguable logic is comforting to us. Like the apes in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey being captivated, and inspired, by the monolith, minimalist design can open up possibilities to us and teach us something about the essence of things. Maybe a minimalist lifestyle can have similar benefits.

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport describes a healthier approach to technology, and our use of it, that is inspired by minimalist ideologies. The book provides guidelines for improving our personal use of technology, specifically the use of internet-based entertainment, social media, and video games. In a broader sense, Newport wanted to address the consequences of ubiquitous connection and endless content that is now possible thanks to smartphones and the internet.

It was interesting to read this book during the Coronavirus outbreak, where Canada and the rest of the world has been placed in a lockdown. Almost everyone has been living in social isolation in their homes; the only face-to-face contact is with whoever you live with, which may be nobody. Newport spends time looking at the fundamental differences between connection, which is digital interactions and communication with others, and conversation, that is real, physical interaction. Anyone that has been subject to this lockdown over the past couple months has become intimately aware of these differences, or at least aware of the negative effects. Coronavirus has forced upon us what may be the greatest global social experiment in the history of our species, and it will be interesting to see the results of this experiment.

Connection is any form of digital interaction with others. The most basic of which is something like the Facebook "Like" button or Instagram's "Heart", which is literally a single bit of transmitted information and therefore the absolute smallest amount of interaction possible between two people. Text messaging, whether through SMS, comments, or e-mail would be the next "level" of interaction we use frequently, which everyone understands is fairly low-bandwidth as well. It is hard to convey emotion with just words, particularly when you do not message the other person frequently (although anyone in a relationship can probably infer a lot of things when their partner sends them a "K"). Newport argues that connection is an insufficient and vapid substitute for true conversation. He points to several studies conducted on the effects of heavy social media use that generally correlate this behaviour with loneliness, lower satisfaction in one's own life, and less overall happiness. Naturally, if social media causes such a detriment to one's mental health, the question arises as to why is it so popular in the first place? I think Newport's explanation can be reduced to two primary reasons; the first is concerned with why we are so willing to replace real conversation with digital connection:

Humans are naturally biased toward activities that require less energy in the short term, even if it’s more harmful in the long term—so we end up texting our sibling instead of calling them on the phone, or liking a picture of a friend’s new baby instead of stopping by to visit.

— Newport, pg. 185

I think this shift towards "easier" forms of communication to blatantly evident today. The decline of phone calls in favour of texting (in my generation at least) is a primary example. Social media provides ways of interacting with your friends and family from the comfort of your own home, or while on the bus on your phone, or anywhere really. It is so convenient and accessible that we can feel, at times, more connected to the people in our lives—but Newport believes that by replacing genuine physical time spent together with these digital forms of communication, we are losing out on the real benefits of social interaction.

The second reason that we love social media is that it is has been explicitly designed to be addicting; the more time we spend using Facebook's services, the more money they get. There is already a plethora of research and information available that explains exactly how these tech companies build these addicting feedback loops into their products, so I won't go into detail here. If you are interested a google search will yield plenty of results, or this podcast episode with the author Cal Newport is a great explanation of how social media works.

Unfortunately, the negative effects of ubiquitous technology do not stop at our social lives, according to Newport. This constant connectivity and consumption has a major effect on our psychological welfare; always having stimulus from other outside sources means we are never truly alone with ourselves anymore. Newport claims that these moments of solitude are vital,

For one thing, when you avoid solitude, you miss out on the positive things it brings you: the ability to clarify hard problems, to regulate your emotions, to build moral courage, and to strengthen relationships

— Newport, pg. 136

I really believe in the importance of alone time, especially in how it can help to clarify whats important to you. When you give your mind the space to breathe, where your not processing anything and there is no distracting stimuli, the things that are important to you (or it?) will naturally surface to your consciousness. If you start thinking about something for no reason, there's probably a reason you should be thinking about it. Moments like these I tend to value, and I place a lot of weight on the decisions I make during these times.

Newport is careful to note that this ability to keep yourself distracted is not a new problem that Silicon Valley has created. There has always been ways of keeping yourself mindlessly entertained, and ever since advertising became a part of entertainment, the "attention economy" has been figuring out ways of getting more and more of your eyeball time. What has changed is how pervasive this influence has become and how its infiltrated every corner of our daily life,

Erecting barriers against the existential is not new—before YouTube we had (and still have) mindless television and heavy drinking to help avoid deeper questions—but the advanced technologies of the twenty-first-century attention economy are particularly effective at this task.

— Newport, pg. 217

The presence of smartphones and devices that we can carry on our person at all times has given us the previously unimaginable ability to access...well...literally everything? If you don't see how insane that is then maybe you were born after 2000 and its just expected for you (Shouldn't you be making a TikTok right now or something?). Anyways, smartphones are, without a doubt, very powerful tools we've been given and I think its right that Newport is thinking about how we can properly manage this power without losing ourselves. It may sound hyperbolic, but I think its necessary. Just as art minimalism was a necessary response to the sensory overload of abstract expressionist art, so to must we respond to a world that claims it has given us all we ever wanted, right in our pocket.

So, how exactly does Newport suggest we survive in this brave new world? Its quite simple; Newport wants everyone to become Amish, they figured out this stuff a long time ago. Just kidding, but Newport does spend some time lauding the Amish for their altogether quite reasonable approach to technology. Most people assume that the Amish are strictly opposed to any technology at all, but it turns out they actually do adopt some new tools and technology, whenever they collectively agree that the tool is good:

The Amish, it turns out, do something that’s both shockingly radical and simple in our age of impulsive and complicated consumerism: they start with the things they value most, then work backward to ask whether a given new technology performs more harm than good with respect to these values.

— Newport, pg. 77

This sort of value-driven adoption is closely aligned with what Newport actually suggests we do to curb our technology use. This lifestyle is what he calls digital minimalism:

A philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.

— Newport, pg. 48

In other words, use technology only when it benefits what you personally value. Use it as a tool for life, not a substitute for it. Its certainly easier said then done because there are so many reasons we use technology and so many ways its become integrated into our lives already. But Newport thinks its vitally important to at least become aware of these things. The Googles and Facebooks of the world have every intention to take over all aspects of your life; I've wrote previously about how their entire business model is predicated on getting your data and attention. In an economy like this, we must erect boundaries and protect ourselves. This is what digital minimalism is, a way of saying no.

streaming yourself on Twitch watching Youtube videos while scrolling through Instagram
minimalist art
throwing your phone into a lake

Newport goes into a lot of detail around how to become a digital minimalist, and what he recommends you do with all the free time you're going to suddenly have. Overall, I thought it was a very thought provoking read despite being overly prescriptive at times. There was also a sense of "look at all the great ways I spend my time" kind of vibe at points as well, which came off as a little pretentious. But in general, what Newport is talking about in digital minimalism is really important today. Minimalism has been around a long time, in different forms, and it is vitally important today to figure out how to live simply. I will end with a succinct explanation of how Newport suggests we look at each individual technology in our life, when deciding whether it is necessary or not. I think it would be good to keep this in mind.

[Does the technology:]

  1. Serve something you deeply value (offering some benefit is not enough).
  2. Be the best way to use technology to serve this value (if it’s not, replace it with something better).
  3. Have a role in your life that is constrained with a standard operating procedure that specifies when and how you use it.

— Newport, pg. 107









🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: half a baconator

Sunday, May 10 2020

Last Updated: 26-05-2020

One fears a number of things—that one's body could vanish, that human beings may really be what they appear to be at twilight, that one might not be allowed to walk without a stick, that it might be a good idea to go to church and pray at the top of one's voice in order to be looked at and acquire a body

-Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" pg. 44

Reading Kafka was not the easiest. His writing was often difficult to parse and understand. I got lost sometimes; trying to maintain a grip on the details while also trying to understand the meaning of the story. Meaning is a tricky concept, in literature and in life. The search for meaning is a ubiquitous aspect of our humanity, yet it is also unique to each individual. Because of this, its hard to compare and share meaning with others. I believe that meaning has a deep relationship with pain and suffering, in one sense they could be seen as contrasting forces that guide us through life. However, I think they are really borne out of one another. Having something to live for begets the possibility it can be taken away—it also forces one to accept the challenge of living, and enduring, for what is meaningful to them.

Over the past few months I've been reading Kafka's The Complete Stories which, as its name implies, is the entire collection of his short stories. I finished reading "the longer stories" but I'm going to stop there and save "the shorter stories" for another day. In this post, instead of just reviewing a book, I'm going to explore the broader theme of meaning in life. Right after reading Kafka, I read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, an important story about life in the concentration camps in WWII, by a man who survived them. Frankl was also a psychiatrist, and is known as the inventor of a school of psychotherapy called logotherapy, which is a means of therapy rooted in finding meaning in one's life. This concept was conceived by Frankl before he was imprisoned in the concentration camps, but his experiences there re-enforced his beliefs that an individual always has a meaning to live, and by understanding one's meaning it is possible to endure anything. As he explains himself,

Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance which will satisfy his own will to meaning.

-Victor Frankl, "Man's Search for Meaning" pg. 142

Frankl believed that it is vital to understand our purpose so that we may endure the hardships of life. It was easy to see this by reading Frankl's account of his time in the camps—everything was taken from him and he was left with nothing but himself, in the face of unimaginable hardship. But, does a will to meaning have any benefit in ordinary life? Say, in the case of Kafka writings? Kafka's protagonists experience immense hardship in ordinary circumstances. Walking down the street, getting out of bed, saying goodbye to someone...exposing the infinite ability of the human mind to construct obstacles and complications around oneself. To contrast that with the reality of life as a prisoner in a concentration camp, where existence is the only goal and every obstacle is horrific cruelty and suffering. What can be said about these two states of mind and how can they have anything in common? Would empathizing with Kafka's protagonists in their inextricable quests be an affront to those who face real, external hardship? When compared to real physical suffering, how can feelings of isolation and disappointment be seriously considered actual problems? I don't actually believe there is much difference, but it's a question worth having a good answer to.

The ironic thing about the stories found in The Complete Stories is that many of them are incomplete or fragmentary; it was common to see these placeholders like this in the text: ". . .[Two pages missing]. . ." which signified the missing parts. Taken together with the fact that even the "completed" stories were usually devoid of any sort of conventional plot, such that even they could be considered fragments, it made me curious why Kafka's writing is regarded so highly that such effort would be taken to publish it in these forms. The Complete Stories Cover The writing itself was interesting, and I am no expert but I could definitely appreciate Kafka's talent for prose. I found that he had an ability to describe mundane events as fantastic, and seemingly alien to the narrator. Descriptions of the world in his writing felt different, as if the narrator's perspective was orthogonal to our conventional observations. Writing in this way emphasizes the idea that the protagonist is somehow different than the people around him - they are isolated and forlorn, unable to fully grasp the necessary reality of the world around them.

As an example, the second story in the collection is called Wedding Preparations in the Country. Not only are there several missing fragments from the story (as much as FOUR pages missing in some parts), there is also a second manuscript included right after the first manuscript ends. This second manuscript is a much shorter version which begins under the same premise—a man named Eduard Raban is walking along a street on his way to a wedding in the countryside, but aside from the first couple paragraphs it is completely different than the first version, and also considerably shorter So, to recap, Wedding Preparations in the Country is really a collection of two vaguely similar manuscripts, each with significant portions me this begs the question, how great was this story, and in a broader sense all of Kafka's writing, that it would merit being published in this form? As I read Wedding Preparations, I sought to find a meaningful message within the words written. For the most part, meaning alluded me; perhaps directly looking for a hidden message is not the best strategy when reading Kafka.

In the second version of this short story, while Eduard Raban is waiting for the rain to stop under the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel, he is joined by an elderly man. They begin to converse, starting with small talk about the weather. The conversation begins to drag quickly, and the elderly man seems bored with Raban. Despite the boring start to the conversation, it evolves into a discussion of literature at some point (it is unclear how they arrived at this topic as this part of the story is missing) and it leads to a passage I found quite profound. Raban, in describing the usefulness of books, explains their significance to one's own life,

"I was only going to say books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that's how I should like to put it"

-Kafka, pg. 75

I'd like to think that Kafka was, in some sense, providing commentary on his own writing. Although these fictitious scenarios are utterly foreign to us, we read to be reminded of our own lives. And as Kafka puts it, by reading something unrelated to one's personal life, it is still possible to think and be stimulated by "all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise". But what exactly is one's "enterprise"? I believe Kafka is referring to the same thing that Victor Frankl is. Someone's enterprise is the reason they get out of bed for everyday—their raison d'être. Kafka is saying that there is not one, specific meaning to his work—it is how we interpret his writing in relation to our own reality that we find meaning in it. Kafka understood that literature is meant to open our minds to new ideas and perspectives, and he was exceptional at conveying ideas in veiled form. Beyond the "hissing arc lamps" and the "zephyr shirts", underneath the "wet cobblestone"...Kafka was describing the elements of our human experience, and most literary critics agree that these experiences were largely inspired by his own life.

Franz Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential writers of the 20th century. Kafka apparently struggled with anxiety and depression his entire life. He considered himself an outcast in some respects, and it is speculated he may have suffered from some type of personality disorder. Kafka also had a strained and complicated relationship with his father, whom he felt a need to appease due to his father's demanding and authoritarian demeanor. All of these fears and feelings of isolation are represented in Kafka's writing. Most of the stories I read consisted of a male protagonist facing some inexplicable troubles while navigating through a seemingly ordinary situation. The protagonist would struggle against some unseen or unexplained force that disrupts their perception of reality. In the end, their struggles are never vindicated, the "hero" simply succumbs to the fate they fought to avoid the whole story. This struggle, painted in a depressing way by Kafka, feels familiar to us because we all have to work against the forces in life that try to bring us down, be they social, economic, environmental, or bureaucratic. 30 years and 300 kilometres away from Prague, Victor Frankl wrote about how we can face these forces and answer the challenges in life,

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

-Frankl, pg. 115

Victor Frankl was a prominent Austrian Psychiatrist, born in Vienna in 1905 and laid to rest in Vienna in 1997. Frankl practically lived through the entire 20th century, seeing both World Wars and unfortunately, as an Austrian Jew, having to experience the concentration camps of the second World War. Over the course of 3 years, Frankl was imprisoned in several different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. He was separated from his wife, who at some point died in another concentration camp. Both of Frankl's parents, and his brother, died in concentration camps as well. Frankl did not know the fate of his loved ones until after the war, which I'm not sure made his experience in the camps any better; I imagine the anguish of not knowing was just as terrible as knowing they were gone. Regardless, the reality of camp life that Frankl describes in Man's Search for Meaning is so incredibly horrifying that it doesn't even seem possible to compare levels of suffering at that point. The first part of the book Man's Search for Meaning coveris a vivid description of what life was like in these camps. Upon arrival to the camp there was an immediate selection process—any persons who did not seem physically fit for hard labour we're immediately sent to be killed, either by gas chamber or some other torturous method. For the remaining prisoners, the camps were designed to quickly dehumanize them; they were treated simply as working animals, being fed the bare minimum amount of calories to survive and with no regard for their well-being whatsoever. Hard labour was performed, day in and day out, in any weather conditions and in any state of health. Frankl takes time to describe the afflictions that most prisoners dealt with in the camps:

Like nearly all the camp inmates I was suffering from edema. My legs were so swollen and the skin on them so tightly stretched that I could scarcely bend my knees. I had to leave my shoes unlaced in order to make them fit my swollen feet. There would not have been space for socks even if I had had any. So my partly bare feet were always wet and my shoes always full of snow. This, of course, caused frostbite and chilblains. Every single step became real torture.

-Frankl, pg. 45

No matter how terrible the pain, you worked every day, because if you were not able to work, you were not able to live. In addition to the immense physical suffering that was afforded to the prisoners, the psychological cruelty made it even harder. The guards ensured that no prisoner ever stepped out of line, or even showed any sign of displeasure, even for tasks like cleaning the toilets:

Between the huts in the camp lay pure filth, and the more one worked to clear it away, the more one had to come in contact with it. It was a favorite practice to detail a new arrival to a work group whose job was to clean the latrines and remove the sewage. If, as usually happened, some of the excrement splashed into his face during its transport over bumpy fields, any sign of disgust by the prisoner or any attempt to wipe off the filth would only be punished with a blow from a Capo. And thus the mortification of normal reactions was hastened.

-Frankl, pg. 37

This "mortification of normal reactions" was Frankl's way of explaining how, in the face of constant, routine suffering of unimaginable depths, the human psyche would eventually refuse to process the emotional reaction expected for these conditions. It is a survival instinct to retreat into this state of emotional unconcern:

Apathy, the blunting of the emotions and the feeling that one could not care any more, were the symptoms arising during the second stage of the prisoner’s psychological reactions, and which eventually made him insensitive to daily and hourly beatings.

-Frankl, pg. 40

It is hard to imagine what a state of existence like this would be like—being numb to physical beatings. Reading Frankl's account of life in the camps was emotional for me, as I'm sure it would be for anyone, for two reasons. Firstly, it is shocking to learn the levels of cruelty we as humans are capable of. We are capable of systematically and mercilessly constructing these camps of torture, and that thousands of individuals would willingly operate them. Secondly, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned, was that humans are capable of enduring these levels of depravity. Our ability to adapt to such circumstances speaks to more than just our survival instincts, because there is more to survival than just physical resilience. Human consciousness is special in that we can reflect on our own consciousness. This simple fact enables us to understand any circumstance we find ourselves in, and by holding on to our meaning, we can endure no matter what. This is our greatest survival instinct.

Both Frankl and Kafka wanted to explore suffering and hardship in their own way. Frankl used the most extreme example of physical suffering as a way of proving his theory's applicability. Kafka explored the depths of our consciousness and how we can find suffering within our selves. In both cases, although they may diverge in details, I think understanding one's will to meaning can provide a path out of each. We all experience hardship, this is universal, but each individual has the opportunity to achieve a better future. No one can ever prevent you from seeing the beauty in that.

We build useless war machines, towers, walls, curtains of silk, and we could marvel at all this a great deal if we had the time. We tremble in the balance, we don't fall, we flutter, even though we may be uglier than bats. And on a beautiful day hardly anyone can prevent us from saying 'Oh God, today is a beautiful day'

-Franz Kafka, "Description of a Struggle" pg. 45

Friday, March 13 2020

Last Updated: 29-05-2020

All grew so fast his life was overgrown,
Till he forgot what all had once been made for:
He gathered into crowds but was alone…
W.H Auden

I think we are in times of rapid change in all aspects of modern human life. Google was founded 20 years ago, the first iPhone was released just 13 years ago, and Instagram launched only 9 years ago — yet these tools and services have already revolutionized the daily lives of billions of people. Despite this widespread adoption, it feels to me like we are still in the infant stages, at least psychologically, when it comes to understanding whats going on. It seems weird to say - but I think no one, not even Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or any other executive in Silicon Valley can truly grasp the long-term consequences of this transformation in technology and how personal interaction will change within this new digital landscape.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Soshanna Zuboff explores the business models and economic imperatives that have taken over the tech industry. These novel and effective forms of revenue generation have spurred the rapid innovation we have become so accustomed to in recent, really accustomed to. It feels like, for most people, these incredible feats of software engineering are accepted in stride. Google now displays augmented reality simulations of a tiger when you do a search for 'tiger'. You can order satellite imagery on-demand using an app on your phone. Spotify gives you access to every song ever made...for free. It's crazy to realize some times that we live in the future predicted by science-fiction just 50 years ago. Zuboff wanted to highlight the hidden costs to us, as consumers of this shiny new technology, that have funded this tornado of innovation. The unsettling aspect of this business model, called 'Surveillance Capitalism', is that it relies largely on subtlety and misdirection in order to be effective. Zuboff takes a very aggressive stance in opposition to these tactics, and in general she is extremely critical of the entire industry. It felt like one of those books where even though it is composed almost entirely of objective, empirical have a very clear understanding of the author's opinions, fears, and biases by the end of it.

The book is quite long, and for a number of reasons it took me close to 6 months to finish reading it. One reason is because it is dense, content-wise; Zuboff wastes no sentence on superfluity, she relentlessly drives home her primary ideas with example after example. In the odd moment where she does decide to exercise some artistic flair, it's hilarious. Like an AI trying to imitate a freshman English major:

But the lessons of that day had not yet been fully tallied when fresh answers—or, more modestly, the tenuous glimmers of answers as fragile as a newborn’s translucent skin—rose to the surface of the world’s attention gliding on scented ribbons of Spanish lavender and vanilla
Zuboff, p. 135

No amount of context could make that paragraph any less weird. Similarly, on the subject of inequality:

This is existential toothpaste that, once liberated, cannot be squeezed back into the tube. Like a detonation’s rippling sound waves of destruction, the reverberations of pain and anger that have come to define our era arise from this poisonous collision between inequality’s facts and inequality’s feelings
Zuboff, p. 108

Honestly, adding the term 'existential toothpaste' to my vocabulary might have made reading this 700 page book worth it.

But in all seriousness I'm pretty torn over how I feel about the novel overall. On the one hand, I can appreciate the immense amount of work and research that went in to compiling a book of this depth and scope. Not only that, but the topic is essentially brand new; Zuboff coined the term "surveillance capitalism", and several other concepts in the book are the result of her analysis and novel theories. With this in mind, I can understand why you'd want your theories to be supported by a strong body of work, especially considering the gravity of Zuboff's claims. But on the flip side of the coin, I felt like it was too long and not focused enough. For example, the chapters on behaviorism and it's academic history felt unnecessary. More importantly, I think a lot of Zuboff's claims were too extreme and verged on fear- mongering. Her writing was melodramatic and I found myself rolling my eyes too many times at some of the conclusions drawn. Maybe I'm too much of a realist, but I think the tone could've been dialed back a notch.

The primary thesis of surveillance capitalism is that, in our digitally connected society, our privacy is being stolen from us by tech companies,and that it is possible to prevent this if we act. The methods of data capture have been facilitated by the internet and all the technology that's been built on top of it. These capabilities are largely unregulated currently because tech companies made the decision to "ask forgiveness, not permission" when building all these tools and the market infrastructure to support them. Why would they wait for the bureaucracy of government to tell them what they were allowed to do, when such immense profits awaited them?

In the last 10 years, surveillance capitalism has begun to overtake consumer industries and dominate capital markets - Zuboff provides a plethora of examples that illustrate this. A common refrain that's heard these days is that "every company is a software company", implying that software has become a vital component to every industry fighting to stay relevant and profitable in the digital world. Not just that, but the rise of software and the internet has opened up possibilities for innovation and "disruption" in every sector you can think of. Zuboff believes that, in our unsustainable capitalistic society which values growth above all else, there is no chance for a company to simply just "sell a product" anymore:

The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product or service as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. Where you might least expect it, products of every sort are remade by the new economic requirements of connection and rendition. Each is reimagined as a gateway to the new apparatus, praised for being “smart” while traditional alternatives are reviled for remaining “dumb.”
Zuboff, p. 565

In essence, "smart" devices are capable of sensing, recording, and understanding the surroundings. Some of this data is used to make the device (or product, service etc.) better at what it does through feedback loops and the ability to 'learn' users habits. But what makes digital data acquisition so valuable is that its not a consumable resource. Data can be infinitely copied, and reused by whomever has access to it in order to extract more value from it. This is the "behavioural surplus" that Zuboff refers to; surveillance capitalism is only concerned with extracting this data and either selling it as raw material, or transforming it through analysis and selling these behavioral insights. Some of the examples provided in the book were actually astounding to me, and it was startling to find out the extent to which this motive has pervaded across the vacuum industry:

Nothing is exempt, as products and services from every sector join devices like the Nest thermostat in the competition for surveillance revenues. For example, in July 2017 iRobot’s autonomous vacuum cleaner, Roomba, made headlines when the company’s CEO, Colin Angle, told Reuters about its data-based business strategy for the smart home, starting with a new revenue stream derived from selling floor plans of customers’ homes scraped from the machine’s new mapping capabilities. Angle indicated that iRobot could reach a deal to sell its maps to Google, Amazon, or Apple
Zuboff, p. 555

The other common misconception is that these practices should be expected, and tolerated, since these internet services are free. Things like Google, Facebook, Youtube, and every other service out there that provides us with indispensable value needs to make money somehow—behavioural data leading to targeted adertisting is the primary way this happens. However, as evidenced above by the expensive vacuum cleaner which also spies on your home, this is certainly not the case. Even after we pay these companies for their products and services, they still "unilaterally claim human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data" to put it in Zuboff's terms. Their unrestrained access to this data is granted through our acceptance of their "terms of services" and "end user license" agreements: Faustian bargains we must agree to in order to share our cat photos and look at spongebob memes.

Perhaps the most unsettling example of the reach of surveillance capitalism is with Internet Service Providers. Zuboff spends a fair amount of time looking at how ISPs in the United States have been given the rights to track your internet usage, sell your data to third-parties, and serve personalized ads to you, all without explicit permission. This was a reversal of an Obama-era legislation that Trump signed in 2017, after years of lobbying and pressure by these network carriers. The primary reason is that the major carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast all want to use the exorbitant amounts of data they can collect on their users and profit off of it, in much the same way that Google and Facebook are able to. This is fundamentally flawed as Google is a free service we can choose not to use, and Internet Service Providers are paid to provide internet. Not only that, but internet service is not exactly a competitive marketplace...many areas might only be served by one or two providers. So now, the laws have been changed so that U.S citizens are paying ISPs to sell their private information to advertising companies.

The reversal meant that although federal laws protected the privacy of a telephone call, the same information transmitted by internet immediately enters the ISPs’ surplus supply chains. This roust finally signaled the end of the myth of “free.” The Faustian pact that had been sold to the world’s internet users posed surveillance as the bitter price of free services such as Google’s Search and Facebook’s social network. This obfuscation is no longer tenable, as every consumer who pays his or her monthly telecom bill now also purchases the privilege of a remote and abstract but nevertheless rapacious digital strip search
Zuboff, p. 414

To me, this is like if you had to tell the municipal utilities how you were using the water and electricity you were consuming. And they get to sell that information to whomever's interested. It's ludicrous. And scary. But it's also important to understand that the "surveillance" in surveillance capitalism is not like traditional surveillance. You, as an individual, do not matter to these companies. Your writing, actions, and beliefs are not recorded for human consumption — they are fed into machines as fuel for algorithms and machine learning. Your reaction to your grandmother's passing on Facebook is simply a record in a database somewhere. As Zuboff writes, the products of surveillance capitalism "manage to be derived from our behavior while remaining indifferent to our behavior". I think this is a crucial fact to understand and keep in mind, as we tend to anthropomorphize these giant tech companies when we claim they "spy" on us.

Zuboff insists that these business models aren't necessary components of our digital society, and this marketplace for personal data is unethical and undemocratic. While I agree with the fact that we must act to regulate these markets and prevent the unsolicited capture of our digital information - I don't agree with her proposal that this future we've found ourselves in was avoidable.

Key to our conversation is this fact: surveillance capitalism was invented by a specific group of human beings in a specific time and place. It is not an inherent result of digital technology, nor is it a necessary expression of information capitalism. It was intentionally constructed at a moment in history, in much the same way that the engineers and tinkerers at the Ford Motor Company invented mass production in the Detroit of 1913.
Zuboff, p. 208

I feel that claiming things could have turned out differently is a pretty baseless statement to make. It is impossible to prove or deny, and it's also mostly useless to debate these hypothetical outcomes. In my opinion, any large scale changes to society and human behaviour are actually statistical certainties, once you've factored out the external environment. This may seem like nihilistic fatalism, but I'm talking about all of humanity, not individuals. I think each and every one of us still has plenty of agency to screw things up, at least in our own lives. :)

Zuboff never really backs up this claim anywhere else in the book. She doesn't even spend much time discussing alternative business models or different ways of spurring rapid innovation. Just because these business practices were "intentionally constructed at a moment in history" does not imply it was not inevitable. No one blames the specific gust of wind on the specific day that knocks over an old, rickety fence...the fence was bound to fall over eventually. The important thing is to learn from the fences that fall around us, the old ways of doing things, and the assumptions that can no longer be made anymore. We must figure out how to build a new, better fence, now that we know how strong the wind is.









🥪️If this book was a sandwich it would be: pulled pork with spicy barbeque sauce and melted chocolate on a cheese bun