Big Tech ‘Nudges’ Our Behavior for Its Own Greed: Here’s a 4-Step Social Media Self-Defense Class

Yves here. I suspect many readers already employ some of the recommendations for how to keep tech from taking too much mindshare.

By Justin Podur, a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. You can find him on his website at and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. He is the author of the novel Siegebreakers. Produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Human nature—how we exist, how we live our lives—is at risk. That’s the premise of Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff believes the tech giants have created a new form of capitalism. The surveillance capitalist “wants your bloodstream and your bed, your breakfast conversation, your commute, your run, your refrigerator, your parking space, your living room.”

In the old propaganda system, media audiences were not the consumers but the products, sold to the real consumers, the advertisers. In surveillance capitalism, you are neither the consumer nor the product, simply raw material. The tech giants don’t need your consumption, or even your attention: they make their money by selling products that predict your behavior based on the trails of data that you throw off as you go about your daily business online (and, increasingly—with ubiquitous surveillance devices in the environment—offline as well).

And once your behavior can be predicted, it can be changed. You are being hacked, Zuboff says, as the surveillance capitalists “nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions by executing actions as subtle as inserting a specific phrase into your Facebook news feed, timing the appearance of a BUY button on your phone, or shutting down your car engine when an insurance payment is late.”

Each new nudge-able behavior becomes a free asset for the taking, as opportunities are found to make money by controlling you. For example, insurance companies offer discounted premiums if you install a surveillance device in your car to monitor your good driving behavior. Once it’s in there, in Zuboff’s words, “the insurance company can set specific parameters for driving behavior. These can include anything from fastening the seat belt to rate of speed, idling times, braking and cornering, aggressive acceleration, harsh braking, excessive hours on the road, driving out of state, and entering a restricted area.” Amazon’s employees, called “athletes,”wear monitored devices to push them to higher levels of productivity. We fear being replaced by robots: surveillance capitalists make us into the robots.

The stakes are as high as the level of control is microscopic. A new form of power, which Zuboff calls “instrumentarian,” has arisen. Instrumentarian power would have you cede your privacy, your behavior, your free will, all to the profit imperatives of the tech giants. To maintain your individuality, Zuboff suggests, you are forced to “hide in your own life,” trying to use encryption and privacy technology to get around the surveillance. But the story of WhatsApp suggests that they can find you if you try to use technology to hide: intended as an encrypted and secure platform for people to chat with one another in privacy, WhatsApp is now one of Facebook’s flagship products. It’s also the platform on which lynchings are organized in India and on which the fascist Jair Bolsonaro’s election was coordinated in Brazil.

As you consciously try to minimize surveillance capitalism’s control on your individual mind and life, a philosophical framework would come in handy. Computer scientist Cal Newport has set out such a framework in his book Digital Minimalism. Newport argues that social media tools delivered through smartphones can add value to a person’s life, but not if used as directed. He asks readers to think carefully about exactly what value they are getting from engagement with these tools, and how we can get that value without the huge costs in time, energy, and emotion that we are currently paying. You can probably get the full value of Facebook from 20-40 minutes per week, he writes. All the other hours per day that you are spending are a voluntary gift of your attention and eyeballs to Facebook, which has figured out how to turn that attention into profit.

How to Defend Yourself Against Big Tech Manipulation

In the face of the old propaganda system, Noam Chomsky advocated a course of “intellectual self-defense.” In the face of the new, supercharged, surveillance capitalist version, I’m advocating a course of “social self-defense.” With help from Zuboff and Newport, here are four steps you can take to defend yourself against social media manipulation.

1. Join the Attention Resistance. If you are using social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and hoping to retain your autonomy, Newport writes, “it’s crucial to understand that this is not a casual decision. You’re instead waging a David and Goliath battle against institutions that are both impossibly rich and intent on using this wealth to stop you from winning.” You will have to become a member of what Newport calls the attention resistance, “who combine high-tech tools with disciplined operating procedures to conduct surgical strikes on popular attention economy services—dropping in to extract value, and then slipping away before the attention traps set by these companies can spring shut.” Long live the resistance!

2. Minimize the Role of Devices in Your Life. Newport’s tactical advice in this section is sound, and I won’t rehash it all, but here are a few key points: remove social media from your phone and access it on a computer; “dumb down” your smartphone; try embracing “slow” media; turn watching Netflix into a social, not an individual activity.

3. Get Into Real Life. One way to “hide in your own life,” as Zuboff suggests, is to embrace Newport’s suggestions to take up “high-quality” leisure activities to crowd out the “low-quality” leisure that swiping and clicking on your phone represents. Don’t use your phone until you’ve lost the dexterity to use your hands, like the medical students who now lack the dexterity to stitch patients. Do things that involve your hands. Go for walks; embrace conversation, which is a “high-bandwidth” activity and the only real way to maintain friendships (and yes, phone and video calling do count as conversations, though in-person is better).

4. Fight for a Better Digital World. Using your new practice interacting with real human beings in real life, join groups who are trying to get surveillance capitalism under control. The struggle to assert collective rights to privacy, to communication and information, will have to take a collective form. Perhaps it will be a struggle for regulation, to break up the tech monopolies and assert legal and democratic controls. Perhaps the communications infrastructure of societies shouldn’t be in private hands at all, but should be nationalized (there was a time when economists believed that certain infrastructures were “natural monopolies” that should be government-owned and run).

Newport emphasizes social and civic activity in crowding out mindless phone use, and warns not to be turned off by normal group dynamics: “It’s easy to get caught up in the annoyances or difficulties inherent in any gathering of individuals struggling to work toward a common goal. These obstacles provide a convenient excuse to avoid leaving the comfort of family and close friends, but… it’s worth pushing past these concerns.” I know that I’m not the only activist who has gotten caught up in the “inherent annoyances and difficulties” of offline activism (i.e., endless meetings, dysfunctional group dynamics). And in those dark moments when we think of isolation as an alternative, our phones are there to offer us the lowest forms of socializing and the lowest simulations of activism, clicking “like” (which Newport advises us to never do) and retweeting, or “desperately checking for retweets of a clever quip.” Don’t do that stuff—instead, join a real group and interact with people in real life.

There was a time decades ago when I was frustrated as an activist with groups who spent a lot of time talking and not enough time doing things (action being defined then mainly as street protests, or sometimes occupying things). I’m old enough to remember the criticism of “preaching to the choir,” back when there was apparently a metaphorical equivalent of a choir who would sing together every week. These days, getting together and talking about politics in person, even just with like-minded people, would already be subversive. Let’s talk. Because to work, the new tools of social self-defense must still be complemented by the old intellectual self-defense methods: talking and thinking with others, wide and critical reading, and taking conscious social action according to your principles.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    One or two suggestions. Take a look at your mobile and start deleting all those apps that you do not use. Not so much for getting space back on your mobile but you can never be sure just what those apps are doing on your mobile or who they are reporting their findings too. If you don’t need them, why are they there? Did they come pre-installed?
    Another one. If you can get away with not using any of Google’s offerings, perhaps it might be an idea to consider using a Huawei mobile. They are cheaper and appear to be as good as most mobiles but there is a point to consider. Will a Huawei mobile spy on you the same way that an Apple or an Android will? Absolutely! But they will not be in much of a position to monetize you as much as the later two companies will.

    1. Carolinian

      If you are concerned about privacy you shouldn’t be using smartphone at all or at least not one hooked to the web. They do make handy GPS navigators, cameras, music players.

  2. Tom Pfotzer

    Today’s smart phone operating system (e.g. Android) is a crucial, strategic interface to today’s human being. It’s the point at which many of us connect to society at large.

    It’s like there’s a toll-both outside your front door, and in order to enter and operate in society, you must first pay the toll…every day, each and every time you participate.

    I often wonder what it would take to write, via open-source project, a smart-phone operating system that would have a decent user interface, make and take phone calls, and have a few other basic functions, like web browser support, contacts management, calculator, so forth.

    Canonical – the company that supports the Ubuntu derivative of Linux – tried this a while back. They wrote all the software, and then abandoned the project. They gave up because not enough people wanted to use it.

    We may be approaching the time to re-visit that decision.

    Would you want your phone to be running code that works for you, and defends your interests?

    1. ejf

      Count me as well. The problem is walking the software into a phone, the hardware. The project would inevitably wind up with lots of DIY projects. With something like this, I’d have to run Ubuntu on my windows laptop, then install it into my project . A pain but doable.

    2. James

      I thought Android was open source except for the google apps and the google store – which both technically are not part of the OS. You could build a new “distribution”, which is a whole lot easier than writing a whole new OS from scratch, but it is the apps that do most of the information gathering.

      1. Anon

        An Android phone has Google software embedded into the OS. Some Google apps can be deleted, but others can only be “disabled”. And then there are the “system background services” that cannot be turned off and send info to Google intermittently.

        I use a Motorola Play (smartphone) with every possible app turned off. The phone is either off or in “airplane mode”. I only carry it on my person if I think I’ll absolutely need it; otherwise it’s stays at home or in the car. Most of my communication is text (SMS) or email.

        The reason to use a laptop more than your phone is the availability of more robust defense apps to keep one’s activity in the “dark”. (Excepting, of course, the NSA.)

    3. lordkoos

      Since installing Linux Mint (variation of Ubuntu) on my laptop I’m all in for a Linux smart phone. People are still working on the project and I think at some point it could happen. I use an iphone and have almost everything turned off or deleted, but I do use some apps, such as podcasts, a guitar tuner, maps, etc. I never use the phone for social media.

      People who are using Windows 10 really should check out Linux Mint, it’s super easy to set up a dual boot on a Windows machine, or just try it live from a USB stick to see how you like it. I found the transition to Linux fairly easy, and I’m very happy with it.

      Something called Kali Linux is available to run on Android phones but it appears to mostly be used for forensics and security testing, I don’t know much about it.

      1. Robert Valiant

        Kali Linux is mostly used for hacking. “Penetration Testing” can be a euphemism for hacking. ;)

        Did you know that Mozilla (FIrefox) once made a phone operating system? They couldn’t make it happen, which was too bad. I had a Firefox OS phone; it sucked.

        Good luck to Purism and enjoy your life in Linux Land – I’ve been there for 26 years!

    4. Kurtismayfield

      It’s not just the phone.

      It’s every hotspot/wifi device/cell tower

      It’s every POS.

      It’s most cars. (Since plate readers are everywhere).

      Basically if I wanted a trackless system, I wouldn’t use a credit card, a car, public transport, or a cell phone. I can’t walk in a public place without being under video surveillance either. It’s going to be impossible to roll back the clock on our entrenched surveillance system. You have to get people to ask the question:

      What has all of this extra surveillance done for public safety?

      The answer is next to nothing. Ask someone for direct examples of it. I can’t think of one

      1. Yves Smith Post author


        Plate readers are not everywhere. They are on interstate and most state highways. In NYC, the cops wind up having to rely on building security cameras, which are often not good (whenI left my laptop in a cab, the building’s camera didn’t capture the license plate or the hack # on the top of the cab).

        Unless there is a court warrant out on you, if you use a dumb phones, your provide retains data that can locate you ONLY when you are making calls or downloading data (and on a dumb phone that is texting or checking for messages) AND cell phone triangulation is so imprecise that it cannot be used in court as evidence of where you were. Completely different than the precision of GPS, which is +/- five feet.

        Moreover, what the POS gets about you varies widely. If you use ApplePay, you’ll be registering when and where you made the transaction. If you use a ccard with most big chains (Starbucks, drug stores), all that gets recorded is the date of the transaction, not the time, so they can’t do much in the way of reconstructing your movements.
        I do a great deal to minimize my exposure, but carrying a dumbphone only when necessary goes a long way.

  3. Partyless Poster

    How about not using social media? It still amazes me how many anti-corporate anti-establishment types will meet on a Facebook page.
    Its like protesting against Starbucks by meeting up at a Starbucks.
    It wasn’t that long ago that people got by just fine with no social media, the fact that so many feel they cant live without it is pretty depressing.
    You don’t fight the beast by feeding it.

    1. Mel

      It’s tough. There’s a Transition Town initiative starting up in the village, and they so far handle all their contacts through Facebook. Facebook seems to decline to talk to me unless I join. So I’ll have to scramble to keep in touch face-to-face. (And they’re findable on the events page at the library web site. So there is some good in them.)

  4. Tim

    We need a Consumer Protection Agency warning (much like the Surgeon General’s warning on Tabacco products) placed in/on all advertisement that makes use of big data research to take advantage of people’s innate weaknesses to get them to buy something.

    It could read something like this:
    CONSUMER PROTECTION AGENCY’S WARNING: This Advertisement was developed using “big data” and possibly even your own personal data to strongly persuade you to purchase something you may not otherwise desire to purchase.

    It couldn’t be that hard to regulate and implement.

    1. xkeyscored

      It couldn’t be that hard to regulate and implement? Who are you kidding? Every electoral candidate forced to issue a disclaimer before opening their mouth, every company and corporation admitting you may not need or want their products?
      If they ever agreed to anything like your suggestion, it would become something like
      We use the most advanced and cutting edge technology to ensure your needs are fulfilled.
      which they would of course argue means exactly the same, just without the subversive anti-capitalist connotations.

    2. sierra7

      How about having businesses (anybody else also) pay you for using your personal data profiles??????
      Seems we have the system backwards and the advertisers/businesses/politicians love it!
      They profit and we are like automatons!!

  5. shinola

    How about (horror of horrors!) not using that spying device called a “smart” phone? I don’t carry one and I will not unless/until I’m absolutely forced to. Nor do I have a twitter, FB or any other social media account. I guess I should feel somehow left out – but I don’t.

    I find it rather amazing how so many people have been brainwashed into thinking they must be “connected” at all times. If you volunteer to be spied on, don’t complain about being spied on.

      1. shinola

        I assume that there is some info. on me “out there” since most of my relatives do have FB accounts. I also assume I’m being tracked by someone/something just about anywhere I go on the ‘net. I just don’t voluntarily give it up & (hopefully) maintain a minimal “footprint”.

        (I seem to remember that Vox article – may have been linked here in NC)

        1. DonCoyote

          I believe it was linked earlier.

          Other things that can be done (to minimize): turn off the GPS on your smart phone, and prevent sharing that information with as many apps as possible (phone will still collect, from towers and what not) but preventing the sharing and logging helps. Also, use duckduckgo search engine (not google), which does not log and monetize your searches.

  6. jfleni

    Big Tech ‘Nudges’ Our Behavior for Its Own Greed: Here’s a 4-Step Social Media Self-Defense Class.

    Avoid “Butt-Book” like the idiotic scam that it is; anybody can access “mailing lists with many hundreds or thousands of interesting and important topics; sign up and you can be heard over and over again; you will never need the permission of some “butt-book” moron to speak your piece.!!

  7. James

    Something worth sharing (even if the focus is probably more governmental here than big business): The site has some really good resources for adding layers of protection/obfuscation to your online activities. The Browser and Software tabs are particularly useful in my experience. Also offers some alternate email providers.

    As for decoupling your need for lengthy internet excursions, I find it helpful to remember I’ll never look back on my life and wish I spent more time as a creepy social media voyeur. I definitely will look back and wish that I did more and read more. Maintaining this perspective works for me.

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