Big Tech and Persuasion

Zuboff believes that Big Tech has the capability to process large volumes of consumer behavioural data and use that to influence consumer behaviour [1]. According to Zuboff, this data is able to reveal what "a particular individual in a particular time and place was thinking, feeling, and doing" [2]. Zuboff believes that these organizations also have the ability to "brush aside users' decision rights", in other words, directly influence their behaviour [3]. Zuboff believes that consumer's autonomy is taken away and consumers are made to purchase goods out of their free will.

Doctorow believes that Zuboff's statements are an over exaggeration, and there is no mind-reading or mind-control. He believes that consumers still retain their autonomy, Big Tech is just able to more efficiently segment consumers using the data it has to deliver more targeted advertising [4]. Big Tech is just better at sifting out and identifying consumers who already have some intention to purchase those goods and selectively advertise to them. Doctorow uses the example of marketing diapers to new parents to make his point across. If mind-control was possible, diaper companies would have everyone be buying diapers. However, we do not see this happening. Rather, Big Tech is able to segment customers and more effectively persuade new parents who already require diapers to purchase from the advertised brand.

Doctorow also believes that Big Tech makes use of deception in their practices [5]. Hence, consumers are still rational and in full control of their mental faculties. However, they are making a rational decision based on bad information introduced by deceptive practices. To use an example, if an information board in an indoor shopping mall deceived consumers by indicating that it is currently raining outside, a perfectly rational person might choose to buy an umbrella based on that bad information. It is a conscious and deliberate decision by that person and he was not mind-controlled into buying an umbrella.

Lastly, Doctorow believes that dominance contributed to the effectiveness in the deception used by Big Tech. He uses the example of Google Search becoming the source of truth due to its dominance in the search engine industry [6]. To build on the umbrella example earlier, if the shopping mall had no windows, balconies or roof terraces, there is no way for consumers to verify if it was truly raining outside without leaving the mall. Faced with the decision of walking all the way to the entrance to verify for themselves and getting back to the umbrella shop on the 4th floor, the deception pulled off by the shopping mall would be a lot more effective.

[1] Shoshana Zuboff (2019) 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power' (Profile Books 2019), Chapter 3, Section IV. The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid, Chapter 3, Section VII. The Secrets of Extraction

[4] Cory Doctorow (2020) 'How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism' (OneZero 2020), pp. 13-15

[5] ibid, pp. 15-17

[6] ibid, pp. 17-18