Are We All Pawns in a Simulated Reality? Ethical conundrums in Surveillance Capitalism


I aim to track 10,000 steps daily on Health. Okay Google, what is the weather like in Ballarat tomorrow? I post my #OOTD at 8:30 am so that I can maximise my exposure to my Instagram followers. iPhone’s geotagging is a breeze, saves me the time to tag places and faces. Hey, you know what we were talking earlier today? Facebook showed me an ad about it, amazing! Spotify’s recommendations are so spot-on! So thankful for cloud storage! The Internet of Things (IoT) enables me to control my smart fridge, smart door and smart toilet from my smartphone.

Picture Credit: The Matrix

Do you love the UX/UI features on your digital devices? Hold up. While Wi-Fi enabled keyless doors or the Nest Learning Thermostat amongst many IoTs may give owners the perception and satisfaction that life is functional and integrated, do these products have any serious drawbacks?

The short answer? Yes, it may come at the cost of your privacy. Internet-connected devices or apps could be monitoring you as of this moment. Corporations and other unwelcomed data miners will try to exploit you by placing products or advertisements according to your behavioural data to encourage consumerism. 

Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is the commodification of ‘reality’ and its transformation into behavioural data for analysis and sales. The ‘Big Five’, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon monopolise the largely uncontested power of data generation. Surveillance technologies allow the formation of Virtual Identity (VI) (Henschke 2017, p.185). VI is an informational representation that is linked and personalised to you. Personalising information is made using Thin Information or metadata. Examples of metadata are but not limited to: logs of your IP address across the Internet, locations of individuals in certain GPS enabled apps or even the average length of your phone calls. Your metadata is aggregated across time to substantiate the probability of prediction of your behaviour (Henschke 2017, p.197). Hence, producing recommendations in Spotify or Youtube are, in fact, made up of your quantified metadata, making it hard for you to disagree with the product placed in front of you. It is only after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal that Facebook called for more governmental regulation.

Yeah, but isn’t this a governmental regulatory issue? What is anthropology relevance here?

Just as tech companies try to learn more about consumers (us) unobtrusively, haven’t anthropologists been trying to do the same with the ‘other’ for the last century? We are repeating history and relearning the mistakes again. I want to stress the importance of procedural ethics here. In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon arrived in 1964 to conduct fieldwork with the Yanomami (Eakin 2013, p.1). Chagnon sets out to prove natural selection theories on violence, staging fights to show his findings and exchanging steel tools for blood samples. Such unrestrained methods produced no value to the anthropological canon and served to further notions of biological racism. 

Ethics is relational. It is difficult to thoroughly plan for contingencies and alternatives because fields, contexts and histories of relations are often emergent through social activities or conversations, with each fieldworker producing different meanings through various mediums and methods (Kohn 2017, p.77). With that said, procedural ethics is still beneficial in providing a framework for considering moral thinking and decision-making. It moves away from reductive binary evolutional thoughts to consider a plurality of ways that meanings can be constructed.

Hence, ethics is an essential reflexive tool to balance the interests of the researcher, institutions and most importantly, our informants. Although procedural ethics is notorious for stifling creativity in the pursuit of endless application forms for the sake of audit compliance, it needs to be considered as to not undermine universal values such as freedom, democracy and privacy.


Eakin, E 2013, ‘How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist – The New York Times’, THe New York Times Magazine, accessed June 12, 2019, from <;

Henschke, A 2017, Ethics in an Age of Surveillance: Personal Information and Virtual Identities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kohn, T 2017, ‘On the Shifting Ethics and Contexts of Knowledge Production’, in L Josephides & AS Grønseth (eds), The Ethics of Knowledge Creation, Berghahn Books, New York, NY, pp. 76–97.

See Also:

Lionel’s piece on Technological Mediation

Anatol’s piece on Ethics of Applied Anthropology

Imogen’s piece on Beyond Academia

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Precarity

Please appreciate this collage I made of Anna Tsing surrounded by mushrooms (not matsutake, but I’m sure they’re delicious).

The Capstone subject Theory and the Anthropological Imagination is the gatekeeper to your Anthropology major dreams. The main piece of assessment last year was a 5,000-word group project, which involved analysing an ethnography with reference to a theorist and a secondary ethnography. My group chose Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, with Kathleen Millar’s Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor on Rio’s Garbage Dump as our comparative text. It was through these two works that I became interested in the notion of precarity: the condition of “life without the promise of stability” (Tsing 2015, p. 2).

Precarity is an important and topical concept for anyone studying anthropology as our world increasingly fixates on industrialisation and capitalist growth at the cost of the environment. How can we overcome this? How do we make a life out of these capitalist ruins, “at the end of the world”? Or, as Tsing and Millar contend, should we rethink precarity – not in terms of instability and fragility, but in terms of freedom, flexibility, placemaking; not “making do” but “making a life”?

Using the matsutake mushroom, a species that grows only in landscapes disturbed by humans, Tsing demonstrates that we must learn to live on this earth not in spite of capitalist ruination, but because of it.

The prevailing narrative is that certain circumstances, such as social or economic disenfranchisement, leave some people with little choice but to take up work situated on the fringes of capitalist economies. This work is termed “precarious labour”, and includes mushroom-picking, rubbish-sifting and subsistence-looting. Precarious labour implies job instability, financial insecurity, a lack of regulations and safety precautions, and is considered illegitimate by most.

However, I’d like to challenge you, as Tsing and Millar do, to reconsider this narrative. Precarious labour, because of its instability, enables people to accommodate the day-to-day emergencies that arise in a life of urban poverty (Millar 2018, p. 69). It offers a sense of escape from the rigid structures and demands of productivity that capitalism enforces and additionally creates a sense of communitas amongst those who work together on the peripheries of traditional capitalist economies or in the “gaps” between. As Millar observes in her ethnography of the dump in Rio de Janeiro, people who engage in precarious labour may gain formal, stable employment, but time after time will return to precarity.

But economic precarity isn’t, and shouldn’t be, as Tsing argues, the only concern for anthropologists. Tsing is a member of the Multispecies Salon, a group of anthropologists, artists and other social scientists who advocate for a multispecies approach to ethnography – a method of anthropological writing that isn’t anthropocentric. Her ethnography accounts for all the beings (“actants”) in the networks comprised of humans, animals, plants, fungi and microbes. Tsing’s argument is that “collaborative survival” – acknowledging our vulnerability and depending on other species – is key to existing in our current world.

Precarity is an increasingly common reality for humans and non-humans alike as industrialisation and environmental degradation force us into fragile circumstances. Rather than clinging onto capitalist ideals of stability and permanence espoused by an increasingly unsustainable narrative, Millar and Tsing demonstrate a constructive interpretation of precarity – how it can offer freedom and flexibility, create communities and relations, and compel us to collaborate with other species.


Millar, KM 2018, Reclaiming the Discarded: Life and Labor in Rio’s Garbage Dump, Durham NC, Duke University Press.

Tsing, AL 2015, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press.

See also:

Kirksey, E 2014, The multispecies salon. Duke University Press.

Millar, KM 2017, ‘Towards a critical politics of precarity’, Sociology Compass, vol. 11 no. 1, pp. 1-11.

The Multispecies Salon

The Anthropo Scene, a comic by Imogen & Sarah.