Millions of selfies are taken each day. No one knows exactly how many there are but Ofcom estimates that 1.2 billion were taken in Britain last year while Google reckons that the global figure could be 35 billion.

Apart from what this says about modern society (is it the most egotistical/narcissistic society ever?) it has important implications for a number of current concerns. Take two, Big Data and privacy. Do we realise what all those postings on Facebook (48% of selfies according to Adweek), WhatsApp (27%), Twitter (9%) and Instagram (8%) leave a footprint that tracks our lives. At the recent Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House in London some of these footprints were demonstrated. One amusing example was the tracking of people’s cats from the photos they’d posted. But, of course, this could be people rather than cats. The more we track ourselves (health, self, place) and the more we publish it or make it available to third parties, the more we open ourselves to exploitation.

From this week alone there have been at least two instances where eyebrows and questions have been raised in terms of priorities and personal safety when the image of the EgyptAir hijacker and one of his hostages was published, which was soon followed by the unsuspecting woman who attempted to ascend Ben Nevis with nothing more than summer running attire and a selfie stick. What has the world come to? – you could ask.

While in many ways some of our uses of modern technology make for a better life not least in areas like socialising, shopping, travel, and general life management it has some potentially frightening implications too. A recent paper by Shoshana Zuboff, Faculty Associate of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School highlights some of these issues. Zuboff argues that individuals quickly came to depend upon the new information and communication tools in their stressful and competitive lives. And that the new tools, networks, apps, platforms, and media thus became requirements for social participation.

Zuboff goes on to argue that the new relationship between individuals and IT created by data logging and accumulation has an economic dimension, her ‘surveillance capitalism’. The result rather scarily is:

‘Unexpected and often illegible mechanisms of extraction, commodification, and control that effectively exile persons from their own behaviour while producing new markets of behavioural prediction and modification.’

As such

‘Surveillance capitalism challenges democratic norms and departs in key ways from the centuries-long evolution of market capitalism.’ And, ‘This new form of information capitalism aims to predict and modify human behaviour as a means to produce revenue and market control.’

In a similar vein a recent White House report on ‘big data’ concludes,

‘the technological trajectory, however, is clear: more and more data will be generated about individuals and will persist under the control of others’. [Our emphasis]

Rather bleakly Zuboff concludes that

‘Surveillance capitalism is immune to the traditional reciprocities in which populations and capitalists needed one another for employment and consumption. In this new model, populations are targets of data extraction. This radical disembedding from the social is another aspect of surveillance capitalism’s antidemocratic character. Under surveillance capitalism, democracy no longer functions as a means to prosperity; democracy threatens surveillance revenues. [Our emphasis]

We have noted before that history tells us that the benefits of new technology (whether that be from the agricultural, industrial or IT revolutions) accrue to the ‘owners of intellectual capital’. The galling element in this instance it that it is us as individuals, consumers and citizens who we are providing our own data that is exploited and underpins the new surveillance capitalism. And yet again, it seems likely we won’t get many, if any, of the gains.