The Risks to Both the Captain and Passengers Sailing Unchartered Waters

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff is a work that I recommend, particularly to people who think they’re smart enough to know what companies like Google and Facebook are doing but still think that the services companies pursuing this business model provide make the risks of surveillance capitalism worthwhile suffering. In this work, Zuboff describes how Google could be credited with inventing the tools to implement surveillance capitalism.

Google was indeed responsible for the development of the technologies enabling surveillance capitalism and, along with numerous social media companies, continues to pursue a program of surveillance and manipulation. In that sense, Zuboff’s historical description is defensible. Unfortunately, she goes seriously overboard about a patent she says Google was granted in 2003, characterizing the patent as being written so that it could be understood by only an inner group of experts, which she characterizes as a priesthood of computer scientists. That is clearly nonsense.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt that her argument is not disingenuous, her error in understanding probably stems from a basic misunderstanding of patents and the process of applying for a patent in the US:

“The inventors also note that their methods can be understood only among the priesthood of computer scientists drawn to the analytic challenges of this new online universe:
‘The following description is presented to enable one skilled in the art to make and use the invention. . .. Various modifications to the disclosed embodiments will be apparent to those skilled in the art. . . .’ “

“The inventors also note that their methods can be understood only among the priesthood of computer scientists drawn to the analytic challenges of this new online universe:

‘The following description is presented to enable one skilled in the art to make and use the invention. . .. Various modifications to the disclosed embodiments will be apparent to those skilled in the art. . . .’ “

The above cited patent language in no way indicates that the inventors wanted to keep their invention secret from people outside of an elite group. It is just boilerplate language having an entirely different significance.

The part before the first ellipsis simply means that the inventors believe they are fulfilling an “enablement requirement,” a requirement of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which demands that a patent applicant disclose their invention to the extent that a person “skilled in the art” could make and use the invention. The invention will not be patented if it does not fulfill this enablement requirement.

All the language Zuboff cites does is tell the patent examiner that the inventors think their patent application fulfills that enablement requirement. “Person skilled in the art” is a term of art evidently unknown by the author or misunderstood to mean secret group of technology insiders. It does not mean anything so ominous. It usually connotes a person having ordinary knowledge in the field of technology to which the invention relates.

Another point is that, as long as the disclosure in the patent application is essential to someone practicing the invention (that is, as long as what is claimed as an invention was not so obvious or already known that it could have been invented without the disclosure), there is no reason that a person not skilled in the art being able to practice the invention by relying on the patent disclosure would disqualify it from being patented.

The language after the first ellipsis is also quite boilerplate-like and seeks to broaden the scope of the invention, by claiming that variants of the invention not specifically recited in the text of the patent application would be obvious to a person skilled in the art, again with the meaning I note above. This is done to prevent another person from making and using a variation of the invention and then claiming that the variation was not recited in the patent disclosure.

The above misunderstanding often occurs when you step out of your zone of competency and knowledge. Zuboff probably does not know much about patents. Although I am not a patent professional other than translating and reading countless patents and being involved for years with patent litigation, I have enough experience to recognize Zuboff’s misunderstanding. The idea of the enablement requirement is not a secret that only a limited priesthood can understand. Ample information about this requirement is available in forms easy-to-understand by non-practitioners. Zuboff could even have used Google to find such enlightening information.

In any event, the author should not have been using this patent boilerplate language to accuse Google of nasty behavior harmful to society. There is a wealth of evidence of that available in other places.

Regarding looking before you leap into writing, the same can be said of translators working outside of their zone of competency. Bold voyages into unknown waters can result in the translator getting lost and taking readers with them.

This is why field-specific knowledge is necessary for a translator, and why a recognition of the importance of requiring translators to have field-specific knowledge is called for on the part of people who use translations, unless you enjoy getting lost.

Author: Kirameki Translations, Inc.

With decades of experience providing customers in Japan and overseas high-quality IP and industrial translations, Kirameki can make the translation difference you need.