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Tip of the Hat

13 July 2020

Who Knows, Who Decides, and Who Decides Who Decides


Welcome to this week’s Tip of the Hat!

Shoshana Zuboff's book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism provides a comprehensive overview of the commodification of personal information in the digital age. Surveillance capitalism is a specific form of capitalism that focuses on using personal data to predict and control user behavior. Zuboff’s analysis of surveillance capitalism centers around three questions:
  • Who knows?
  • Who decides?
  • Who decides who decides?
In the book, Zuboff provides some context to the questions:
“The first question is “Who knows?” This is a question about the distribution of knowledge and whether one is included or excluded from the opportunity to learn. The second question is “Who decides?” This is a question about authority: which people, institutions, or processes determine who is included in learning, what they are able to learn, and how they are able to act on their knowledge. What is the legitimate basis of that authority? The third question is “Who decides who decides?” This is a question about power. What is the source of power that undergirds the authority to share or withhold knowledge?”

Zuboff offers answers to these three questions in her book: “As things currently stand, it is the surveillance capitalist corporations that know. It is the market form that decides. It is the competitive struggle among surveillance capitalists that decides who decides.” While the current prognosis is grim according to Zuboff’s analysis, the three questions are a powerful tool in which one can discover the underlying power structures of a particular organization or culture.

An interesting thought exercise involves applying these three questions to the library. On a lower level, the data lifecycle provides some answers to "Who knows?" concerning access to patron data as well as the publication and disclosure of data in reports, data sets, and so on to third parties. The "Who decides?" question goes beyond the data lifecycle and ventures into the realm of data governance, where decisions as to who decides the data practices of the library are made. However, the answer goes beyond data governance. Library use of third-party tools and services in collecting or processing patron data bring these third parties into the realm of "Who knows?" as well as "Who decides?" The third-party can adjust their tools or products according to what best serves their bottom line, as well as providing a tool or product that they can market to libraries. Third parties decide what products to put out to the market, and libraries decide which products meet their needs. Both parties share authority, which leads this thought experiment closer to Zuboff's analysis of the market as the decider.

That brings us to the third question, "Who decides who decides?" Again, our thought experiment starts to blend in with Zuboff's answer to the same question. There is indeed a struggle between vendors competing in a niche market that has limited funds. We would be remiss, though, if we just left our analysis pointing to competition between third parties in the market. Part of what is driving the marketplace and the tools and services offered within are libraries themselves. Libraries are pressured to provide data for assessment and outcomes to those who directly influence budgets and resources. Libraries also see themselves as direct competitors to Google, Amazon, and other commercial companies that openly engage in surveillance capitalism. Instead of rejecting the methods used by these companies, libraries have to some extent adopted the practices of these perceived market competitors to keep patron using library services. A library on this path could find themselves upholding surveillance capitalism's grasp in patrons' lives.

Fitting this thought experiment into one newsletter does not give the questions the full attention they deserve, but this gives us a place to start thinking about how the library shares some of the same traits and qualities found in surveillance capitalism. Data from patron activities can provide valuable insight into patron behaviors, creating personalized library services where yet more data can be collected and analyzed for marketing purposes. It's no surprise that data analytics and customer relationship management systems have taken off in the library market in recent years – libraries believe that there is a power that comes with these tools that otherwise wouldn't be accessible through other means. Nonetheless, that belief is influenced by surveillance capitalists.

Decided for yourself - give Zuboff's book a read (or listen for the audiobook) and use the three questions as a starting point for when you investigate your library’s role in the data economy.

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