Essay by Chris Gilliard and David Golumbia: One of the most troubling features of the digital revolution is that some people pay to subject themselves to surveillance that others are forced to endure and would, if anything, pay to be free of.
Consider a GPS tracker you can wear around one of your arms or legs. Make it sleek and cool — think the Apple Watch or FitBit — and some will pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the privilege of wearing it. Make it bulky and obtrusive, and others, as a condition of release from jail or prison, being on probation, or awaiting an immigration hearing, will be forced to wear one — and forced to pay for it too.
In each case, the device collects intimate and detailed biometric information about its wearer and uploads that data to servers, communities, and repositories. To the providers of the devices, this data and the subsequent processing of it are the main reasons the devices exist. They are means of extraction: That data enables further study, prediction, and control of human beings and populations. While some providers certainly profit from the sale of devices, this secondary market for behavioral control and prediction is where the real money is — the heart of what Shoshana Zuboff rightly calls surveillance capitalism.
The formerly incarcerated person knows that their ankle monitor exists for that purpose: to predict and control their behavior. But the Apple Watch wearer likely thinks about it little, if at all — despite the fact that the watch has the potential to collect and analyze much more data about its user (e.g. health metrics like blood pressure, blood glucose levels, ECG data) than parole or probation officers are even allowed to gather about their “clients” without specific warrant. Fitness-tracker wearers are effectively putting themselves on parole and paying for the privilege.
Both the Apple Watch and the FitBit can be understood as examples of luxury surveillance: surveillance that people pay for and whose tracking, monitoring, and quantification features are understood by the user as benefits they are likely to celebrate. Google, which has recently acquired FitBit, is seemingly leaning into the category, launching a more expensive version of the device named the “Luxe.” Only certain people can afford luxury surveillance, but that is not necessarily a matter of money: In general terms, consumers of luxury surveillance see themselves as powerful and sovereign, and perhaps even immune from unwelcome monitoring and control. They see self-quantification and tracking not as disciplinary or coercive, but as a kind of care or empowerment. They understand it as something extra, something “smart.”…(More)”.