Digital Information Totalitarism

by NahFallei

What we call nowadays “big data” would not be possible without the mathematical theory of information and communication and the emergence of the digital electronic computing in the late 40’s. In this new world (discovered to be scanned) the digital “computer-mediated work” meets a new logic of accumulation: the “surveillance capitalism” as Shoshana Zuboff (2015) coined the term.

This kind of work differs from earlier automation process designed to make easier or substitute human labor. Why? The digital information and communication technologies (ICT) are characterized by a basic duality: automation not only requires information (by codes or algorithms) but also produces information (by retrieval, processing and store of data). So, when it comes to this disruptive, pervasive and ubiquitous kind of technology automation simultaneously generates data that provides “transparency” to jobs or “activities” that had been performed “partially” or “completely” in secrecy (ZUBOFF, 20015, p. 76).  

The Internet is a relevant contemporary exemple of digital ICT that alone is able simultaneously “to automate and to informate” machinery through its feedback system. The “computer mediation” work symbolically renders events, objects, and processes that become visible, knowable, and shareable in a new way. “This distinction […] marks the difference between ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ (ZUBOFF, 2015, p. 76).” So with digital ICT, machinery can learn and become smart! That’s why devices such as our digital mobile telephones are called “smart phones”.

Nowadays, much of the information produced by humanity is increasingly being stored on the servers of influential digital networks platforms such monopolies as Google, Amazon, Face Book, Apple and Alibaba servers. Those servers are characterized by surveillance, narcissism culture, hyper amplified risk aversion or prediction and extreme information asymmetry. The “siren servers”, as Jaron Lanier (2014) describes, gather big data from Internet, often without having to pay for (that’s what is called “free lunch” in economics). But we should notice that Internet users produce data in those digital networks plattforms. So the “2.0 plus value”, as described Marcos Dantas (2017), comes from an “unpaid work” produced in a big scale. That’s why there is no “free lunch” in political economy indeed.

So, I would say that the “surveillance capitalism” could also be described as a mix between the Bentham’s Panopticon and the Maxwell’s demon (the myth of perpetual motion). In other words, the surveillance meets the automation process in the age of digital big data and this fusion (that characterizes this new model of acumulation) has serious implications to democracy.

Inspired by Shoshana Zuboff’s work and an old Marx’s postulate in his Grundrisse that all forms of production forge their own forms of government or jurisdiction, my hypothesis is that “surveillance capitalism” aims to eliminate contracts through “computer-mediated work”. Why? Regulation is based on trust. It means that agreements between human beings always involve improbability or risk.

“Surveillance capitalism” is a radicalization of economics and in that context we can notice that contracts could be eliminate by prediction! If automation generates data (as I said before) that provides “transparency” to activities that had been performed in secrecy in the past, nowadays we don’t need to trust people anymore. They are supposed to be scanned. They became apparently “transparent” because all data about them is stored in the “sirens servers”. The democratic implications of this information totalitarism are many.

Secrecy or confidentiality is the basis of reciprocal social relations and is therefore closely related to the process of forming of the modern individual as described by Simmel in the XIX century. The social interaction between individuals is based on information exchange, and that entails a minimal (not a total) knowledge of the other individual in order to establish a reciprocal relationship based in trust.

However, the secrecy notion changed throughout history, with the process of modernization. If there is no such thing as 100% security or confidentiality on the Internet, then in turn social life would become unviable in a 100% transparent digital society.

Therefore, it’s important to explore how certain personal privacy and/or data protection (as cryptography) can be configured as arrangements of social measures against the information totalitarism in this new mode of acumulation.

Last but not least, it is also necessary to clarify which social groups or classes are benefited or harmed by privacy or transparency, respectively. If we assume the fact that information is power, in democracy, as Julian Assange and other activists claimed “transparency for Governements and Companies; privacy for citzens”.


Thank you!


Nahema Nascimento Falleiros. ECREA’s Talk (Nov. 2017 Stockholm)



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LANIER, Jaron. Who owns the future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

MARX, Karl. Grundrisse. Manuscritos econômicos de 1857-1858. Esboços da crítica da economia política. Supervisão editorial Mario Duayer. Tradução ________; Nélio Schneider; (colaboração de Alice Helga Werner e Rudiger Hoffman). São Paulo: Boitempo; Rio de Janeiro: Ed. UFRJ, 2011.

SIMMEL, Georg. “The Sociology of Secrecy and of Secret Societies”. In: American Journal of Sociology, vol. 11, Issue 4, pp. 441-498, 1906.

ZUBOFF, Shoshana. Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization. Journal of Information Technology, n. 30, pp.75–89, 2015.