How Marketing Can Be the Hero and not the Handmaiden to The Anti-Heroes Of The Digital Age

If there is one book you read every year in your quest for enlightenment I strongly suggest that it be “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff, a Professor emerita at Harvard.

I agree with the assessment of Tom Peter (co-author of The Search for Excellence) that this book will be, in decades from now, ranked with Adam Smith’s “The Wealth Of Nations” and Max Weber’s “Economy and Society” as one of the defining texts of the socio-economic structures and imperatives of modern times.

Ms. Zuboff’s analysis is multi-layered and deeply researched and leavened with insights that can come only from a first-rate philosopher’s mind cogitating on hard-earned knowledge. The book is not a “quick read” but one that needs to be savored and re-read.

Putting aside the temptation to dwell on length on the various threads unravelled in Ms Zuboff’s book let me try and put it succinctly – If you think climate change is the only existential threat that humankind faces, think again.

The Industrial Revolution was welcomed at first as a force that liberated the individual to escape the tyrannies of the past into what was lauded as the age of the modern consumer.

An age where as long as society let it do their thing, market forces and capitalism entered a pact of reciprocity of demand and supply with the individual. The individual works for the capitalist to produce goods and services and the capitalist in return pays the individual enough to buy the goods and services.

A perpetual cycle wherein the surplus produced generates more capital and which when invested produces newer and more goods and services. Though in the process the capitalists got richer, society didn’t mind because hey! somebody had to take the risks.

But alas! in perpetuating this apparent cornucopia nobody took into account the real cost. The real and unsustainable damage being done to the environment and nature. The result is today’s existential crisis of climate change.

Mr. Zuboff’s warning about the Information Age that is upon us is stark and simple at its core.

While the capitalists of the Industrial Age misused the freedoms that society gave them to destroy nature, in the Information Age a new species of capitalists, the Surveillance Capitalists, are abrogating and misusing freedoms in a way that will end-up destroying human nature!

Astonishing claim! The greatness of Ms. Zuboff’s analysis is that she backs up this claim with arguments that seem irrefutable.

As the digital age moves forward from Big Data and Data Mining to AI and IOT it moves into the era of “Reality Mining”. An era in which the Surveillance Capitalists (lead by the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon) will have a power that is based on “an ubiquitous, computational, sensate and actuating architecture”

An architecture that goes well beyond the production of goods and services to the production of “human compulsion” – coercion that forces individuals to conform to modes of behavior that benefit the Surveillance Capitalists.

Some would say isn’t that what marketing and advertising has been doing for decades now.

Not really, Far from it!

The so-called “hidden persuader” theory of advertising is just puffery.

Marketing and advertising are disciplines at whose core lies the primacy of the consumer with the central function of offering up products and services that the consumer will, hopefully, choose to buy.

Its true that the art and science of advertising has in its toolbox stratagems that seek to arouse and pander to the consumer’s sub-conscious desires and dreams but then so do all the human arts – literature, theatre, music and cinema – going back to the art of storytelling that evolved sitting around prehistoric fires.

The Surveillance Capitalist’s project goes well-beyond marketing and advertising. In it the individual is not just the product (as some current critics of social marketing put it) but is the raw material to be shaped and tuned to meet the ends of the Surveillance Capitalist – so as to behave in a predictable manner that is to the advantage of the Capitalist and not the individual.

In the age of the Surveillance capitalism there is no notion of, a two way compact between the Capitalist and the individual.

In the age of Surveillance Capitalism the threat is not just against privacy but the very individuality and free agency of each one of us. The individuality and free agency which is at the core of our being human.

As a marketing and marketing communication professional who has been in the business now for close to four decades I have, as most of us have, welcomed and tried to navigate the opportunities and challenges that the digital age has presented.

However there has always been a deep sense of unease that is now crystallizing catalyzed by Ms. Zuboff’s analysis (It is for that reason that I think every thinking marketing and marketing professional should make her book an integral part of their professional upkeep. I believe whether you agree or disagree with it, violently or otherwise, the book will lead you to a deeper insight into marketing and marketing communication in the digital age).

On my reading Ms Zuboff’s analysis it dawned on me that marketing has unwittingly played the role of handmaiden to the Surveillance Capitalist project.

We marketers in our search of attribution, efficiency and ROI have equipped the likes of Google and Facebook with the seed capital they need to proceed to an end when there is no need for the science of marketing (i.e. the need to discern and meet consumer need)!

Because in a future that is just round the corner the Surveillance Capitalists will be in charge of it all – not to discern but to design needs, not to meet but manufacture needs. To be, so to speak, the judge, the jury and the executioner. The horror! The horror!

Does Ms. Zuboff offer a way to meet the threat?

Yes she does. She bases her advice on an insight in the nature of human societies that Milton Friedman, the economist offers.

Mr. Friedman believed to make for lasting change in society one must first change public opinion before one changes the law. Because laws can have long-standing and wide force only if backed by widespread public opinion.

Laws like the GDPR (EU) can have teeth and really rein in the Surveillance Capitalists only if backed strongly in the court of public awareness and opinion

The fight against Surveillance Capitalism and the threat it poses to the very core of human nature must begin with a widespread awareness of the threat and build up opinion against it. It is a core and urgent need and Ms. Zuboff and her ilk have provided a quality “product” that meets the need.

Seems to me what is left to do is widely and forcefully market this “product” building up a strong current of public opinion especially among the young against the threat of Surveillance Capitalism.

It is, I am starting to believe, probably the most critical marketing project of all time.

Can marketing discard the handmaiden role and don the role of the warrior who fights the anti-heroes of the age of digital marketing and thus gaining from humanity the true and beneficial potential of the digital age?

It will require guts, resources and high creativity.

All available in plenty if only we marketers realize that we have nothing to lose but our dainty handmaiden chains and our one way ticket to obsolescence.

About the Author

Ashoke Agarrwal is a marketing strategist who is actively exploring possibilities in the emerging world of AI and Deep Learning. Ashok’s width and depth of experience brings great value to any marketing problem, particularly if it require innovation driven by insight and technology. Ashok is Founder of Aqumena Marketing Services in Mumbai, India and consults with Morefish.