Meeting Shoshana Zuboff

Hi all - I mentioned in our call this past week that I had a chance to meet Shoshana Zuboff recently. Luckily before we entered coronavirus panic mode, she came to visit Olin and the two colleges in our consortium (Babson and Wellesley Colleges). She did a lunch visit with us on our little campus ahead of her bigger speaking engagement at Wellesley that same evening.

In our discussion with her, many students asked about actions they could take to push back against surveillance capitalism. Shoshana pretty much exclusively suggested democratic action–speaking to lawmakers, advocacy for legislation, etc. She mentioned the importance of recent developments like GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and recent efforts to curtail facial recognition in areas ranging from housing developments to cities and states.

I asked her to weigh in on how we might fix what she called “epistemic inequality” (or the “division of learning” as she puts it in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism), which to me (and all of us in this course, I’d assume!) is a prerequisite to democratic participation. Put another way, I wanted to know how she felt educators could bridge the gap of understanding/power between the architects of surveillance capitalism and the people on the receiving end of their dehumanizing greed. Her answer was a little half-baked, I thought; she said that if we begin to route capital away from the companies that have got us into this mess, we’ll have more money for teachers, librarians, etc. and therefore resources would be freed up for more learning. I guess I’m not Pollyannaish enough to buy that, or at least not patient enough to sit around and wait for it to just happen.

I DID give a hella plug to Library Freedom Project, though, which she said she thought she had heard of, and mentioned the existence of LFI as a means of creating a core of library folks with the skills/knowledge to get out to their communities and start bridging the division of learning. Shoshana said that she has been continually impressed by the remarkable resilience of our field and appreciated our creative ingenuity in staying relevant even with all the existential threats leveled at us in the age of big tech. Anyway, it was all interesting, though I’m continually bummed to skim through the indexes of these “social justice in tech” books and not see anything “librar*”-ish. I wonder why that is…?!

You know, it’s the funniest thing: yesterday, a co-worker was reclassifying books from the new shelf onto the regular circulating stacks and came across a copy of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. We thought that given how thick a book it is and the reading trends of our patrons that it wouldn’t get very much use but we’ve had it for about six months and it’s already accumulated 18 circs! We were very pleasantly surprised, and it validated my thoughts that the Springfield community is particularly vulnerable to surveillance, aware of it, and wanting to get active to combat it!

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That’s great! It’s a book/topic that lends itself to long, thoughtful book clubs/talks if you have the desire to try to set something up like that. My consortium did a several-months-long reading of it where we met three times to discuss the beginning, middle, and end. Members led breakout discussion groups within it and came with copied passages for people who hadn’t read the whole thing. It culminated in the visit described above.