Modern e-commerce activities have absorbed almost all possible capitalist features. These features include meticulous accounting systems, such as pricing products down to the hundredth of a decimal point, with some promotional prices barely discounting less than one Chinese yuan; also included are typical exploitative relationships, which are evident in various aspects of e-commerce activities, including customer service, installation, and logistics; there are also perennial dumping policies, such as some e-commerce platforms utilizing subsidies to sell goods at ultra-low prices, attracting a large number of consumers.

However, at the same time, e-commerce activities are more aggressive compared to traditional capitalist activities. Contemporary consumers’ pursuit of cost-effectiveness and forward consumption leads them to have little resistance to better consumption opportunities. E-commerce platforms precisely seize this, through constantly changing prices, intricate layers of discounts, and rapidly changing supply information firmly controlling consumers’ senses and nerves, forcing consumers to continuously search for the best transaction opportunities, entering a state of voluntary surrender of freedom to accept surveillance, and finding it difficult to break free.

# Stuck in the Capitalist Cage

It has been over a hundred years since the German version of Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” was published, and Weber’s name is well-known, with refutations frequently heard, but it cannot change the globalization of capitalism. Regardless of how each place has developed a capitalist economic model, be it the Protestant ethic Weber mentioned, Confucianism mentioned by Yu Ying-shih, or the national character mentioned by Geert Hofstede, they cannot change a fundamental fact, which is that capitalism has become a prison for modern life. In Weber’s words, it is entering into unlimited labor for salvation and justification; in Marx’s words, it is entering a world full of exploitation.

Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell mentioned that institutional isomorphism leads institutions globally to converge continuously. Thus, Weber’s rationalism can spread widely worldwide, with a set of behavioral guidelines for understanding and transforming the world based on precise calculations, systematic logic, and theoretical explanations becoming mainstream in today’s world. Subsequently, the rapid development and deification of Western values such as capitalism and democracy followed.

Globalization of capitalism brings about a comprehensive social cage. In 1975, Michel Foucault used the concept of the panopticon in “Discipline and Punish” to explain modern discipline societies. He believed that in the panopticon, prisoners are more restrained because they are uncertain about where the surveillance comes from; and in any organization in modern society, leaders play the role of surveillants, keeping the monitored individual in a state of self-restraint and unease. Capitalism undoubtedly strengthens this surveillance, with consumers, corporate staff, and even entrepreneurs constantly being imprisoned by society and the market. Market control of individuals is comprehensive and all-weather—whether it is a liberal or socialist market—policy changes, production capacity fluctuations, demand changes, any changes in these aspects can present new profit opportunities to people, changing the approaches to maximizing profit. However, the explosion of data and information has made this “economic surveillance” elusive. People rack their brains to understand which industries and products capital will favor; in fact, people themselves have become prisoners.

# Surveillance Mechanisms in E-commerce Activities

In the traditional market model, the market’s surveillance of individuals is often passive. As a source of surveillance, the market constantly prompts individuals in capitalist markets to take commercial actions, but they do not understand the full operation of the market and are constantly in a state of tension. Occasionally obtaining market information allows individuals to glimpse at the market’s current state, but overall, individuals remain in the light while the market remains in the dark, with the supply chain they interact with serving as their limited understanding of the market, leading to a de facto panopticon-style surveillance.

If in this surveillance individuals still retain some freedom of choice and room for rational decisions (or at least what they perceive as rational decisions), in e-commerce consumption, this rational choice is almost impossible—everyone is under surveillance in the commodity market, with most people willingly accepting this surveillance.

Panopticon Model in E-commerce Activities

# The Monitored: Yearning for the Optimal

Economic development has sparked an endless desire among people for high-quality, affordable goods. With the rapid economic development as the premise, customers’ desire for a better life has grown, manifested in consumption behavior as a continuous search for goods and services that can improve their quality of life. In this context, people no longer consume merely to meet basic life conditions but to enhance their existing standard of living. As a result, consumption has evolved from a survival behavior into a lifestyle behavior. This yearning for high-quality, affordable goods continually drives people to seek better transaction opportunities in pursuit of optimality.

# The Monitors: Invisible Optimal

E-commerce platforms precisely exploit the universal economic improvement and the psychology of overconsumption, implementing a surveillance mechanism that does not require their direct intervention. Unlike in prisons where wardens still play the role of surveillants, in modern e-commerce activities, goods and market prices themselves are sources of surveillance.

E-commerce platforms leverage the ambiguity and invisibility of transaction schemes, compelling price-conscious consumers to invest time and effort in research continuously. On the one hand, price changes are no longer solely based on market rules, especially on platforms like, where pricing policies are akin to stock manipulation; with the help of modern information technology, e-commerce platforms can easily change prices daily, even hourly. On the other hand, compared to traditional discounts such as buy-one-get-one, bundled discounts, bargaining, e-commerce platforms’ preferential policies have their unique uncertainties and complexities. The diverse items under e-commerce platforms’ preferential policies are overwhelming; their effective durations are erratic and unpredictable; most importantly, their combined discount patterns confuse consumers entirely—common situations include purchasing more at higher prices, adding trivial items to meet a threshold, different prices for the same item in the same store, and so on.

In the modern civil system, no party can force transactions, and dumping policies are strictly prohibited by law. Yet, in e-commerce activities dominated by uncertainty, consumers are subject to a coercive force. They willingly allow themselves to be monitored by the commodity market, trapped within it, constantly seeking the best transaction opportunities and struggling to break free.

# The Monitored and the Monitors: Failed Jailbreak

In traditional capitalist markets, although laborers and consumers are on opposite sides of capital, it is challenging to form a united resistance force. Among laborers, there has always been a call for the unity of the working class to break the oppression and exploitation of capitalist production relations. However, in reality, the prospects of labor unity are bleak. Labor migrations from Central Europe to Eastern Europe have in the past squeezed the opposition forces of Eastern European laborers and so far have failed to form a unified front. For consumers, on the one hand, due to ubiquitous information asymmetry in traditional markets, consumers lack sufficient market information to utilize, let alone share; on the other hand, limited availability of low-priced goods leads to competition among consumers, making it equally difficult for them to unite in traditional sales models.

However, in e-commerce platforms, due to the advancement of information dissemination technology, partial price transparency, and public access to market supplies, consumers easily establish communication and sharing of information with each other. Through high-speed and efficient information communication technology, consumers systematically record and share information such as commodity prices, discounts, and buying channels, forming a substantial consumer alliance. This alliance can take the form of forums, such as “What’s Worth Buying” and “Shopping Party” discount sharing websites, where everyone is both a publisher and a receiver of information; or podiums, such as consumer-led product review websites and video channels, where after publishing product information, the publisher provides information for other consumers.

The consumer alliance seems to help consumers escape from the control of capitalists, assisting each other to obtain low-priced, high-quality goods. However, regardless of the form, it only binds them more deeply. In the forum model, after selecting a product, consumers continuously review the shared discount information from others and confirm with the e-commerce platform whether they can get a similar price, only to be further attracted and controlled. In the podium model, consumers, based on their desires, determine the type and range of products, continuously searching for the so-called “most cost-effective” products in the podium. Some content showcasing high-end products and promoting lavish consumer views may even influence consumers’ shopping concepts, tempting consumers to buy more expensive products than their actual needs.

After developing a habit of participating in forums and podiums, consumers unconsciously check other consumers’ shares and usage experiences frequently, even without the need to purchase themselves. In this scenario, the consumer alliance becomes undercover prison guards of the e-commerce panopticon, further entangling consumers themselves. In the pursuit of aligning with other consumers and even better prices, to pursue products of higher quality at the same price advocated by other consumers, consumers voluntarily and automatically engage in searching and selecting e-commerce products. Although the initial intention of consumer collaboration may be to help consumers escape the price traps of e-commerce, in practice, during this process, consumers view more advertisements, engage in more overconsumption, and form stronger dependency on e-commerce platforms.

# “Voluntary Surveillance” in Modern E-commerce Activities

# Case One: HomePod

At the beginning of the semester, I wanted to buy a HomePod for my parents to listen to music at home, and occasionally control the “clean and tidy clothes hanger” on the balcony. So, I kept an eye on the price of the HomePod mini on Before the Double Twelve promotion, the original price on was 749 yuan, on JD International it was 649 yuan, with an additional 59 yuan for taxes, making it only 708 yuan, but the drawback was that it only had JD’s overseas repair service, not supporting a 2-year warranty in mainland China. Considering this, I was still hesitating, and since the renovation at home was not finished yet and there was nowhere to place the HomePod, I temporarily set it aside and waited for the Double Twelve promotion.

# 8:00 PM on December 11

On the night before Double Twelve, December 11, JD had already released the Double Twelve coupons, including “20 yuan off for orders over 300 yuan,” “40 yuan off for orders over 500 yuan,” and so on. However, when I opened the HomePod page, the coupons were not applicable. Then I checked the JD International self-operated store, and surprisingly there was an additional 50 yuan coupon, making it 658 yuan, almost a hundred yuan cheaper than the previously booked 749 yuan price. I was immediately excited and proceeded to use the coupon to place the order.

# 8:20 PM on December 11

After placing the order, I suddenly felt a bit hollow. It wasn’t the joy and satisfaction of buying new furniture that I felt, but rather the worry of potential betrayal, wondering if there was a cheaper way to make the purchase - if there were other ways to benefit more from this shopping. So, I kept opening my phone, checking the purchase records, looking at the prices in the self-operated store and on JD International, and reading various promotional articles on price comparison websites. When I saw on the “What to Buy” website that the price of the HomePod I purchased was marked as the lowest price, I almost breathed a sigh of relief.

# 10:00 PM on December 11

But I still couldn’t let it go. At 10:00 PM that night, I checked JD again for the price. I saw that under the self-operated store’s HomePod mini, it showed “20 yuan off for orders over 300 yuan,” and upon opening the checkout page, adding the PLUS member’s 20 yuan off for orders over 500 yuan, it was 709 yuan. I was a bit hesitant, but I secretly felt that it was still different from the 658 yuan, causing some anxiety, so I messaged my family for their opinion.

# 10:10 PM on December 11

A few minutes later, I still couldn’t give up: if the HomePod could use the “20 yuan off for orders over 300 yuan” Double Twelve coupon, why couldn’t it use the “40 yuan off for orders over 500 yuan”? I opened the self-operated store page again, and as expected, the “40 yuan off for orders over 500 yuan” coupon was also marked as available. 689 yuan, a difference of only 31 yuan from the 658 yuan. I hesitated again.

Five minutes later, I cancelled the JD International order, re-ordered from the self-operated store, and for an additional 31 yuan, purchased a better warranty service.

# Case Two: COMFAST Network Card

On websites like “Bilibili” and “What to Buy,” there are tutorials and experiences about setting up a 10-gigabit home network and Network Attached Storage (NAS), constantly tempting me with the desire for high-speed storage and networking. After researching information on 10Gb networks multiple times, I realized that buying a whole set of 10Gb equipment, including switches, network cards, and USB network cards, was expensive. It would be better to use a Thunderbolt interface directly, place the NAS in the room, and connect it to the MacBook at any time.

However, I realized that the videos and articles I watched might have misled me into thinking that I needed a large amount of high-speed storage, exaggerating my storage needs. For me, a small upgrade, from gigabit to 2.5Gb network, was sufficient for my daily use - I didn’t need a 10Gb network, nor did I have fast enough storage devices to support high-speed network transfers. I just needed to buy two network cards and connect my NAS device to my computer to achieve the desired outcome.

# Evening of December 31

On the evening of the 31st, I searched for 2.5GbE network cards on JD’s self-operated platform. I found that the comments on EDUP products were average, while COMFAST products had relatively good reviews. I noticed that one network card was priced at 99 yuan, participating in the New Year’s Eve activity of “30 yuan off for orders over 200 yuan,” and could also be paired with a student discount of “30 yuan off for orders over 200 yuan,” requiring only an additional two yuan to purchase two network cards at the price of 69.3 yuan each. So, I added the network cards to my shopping cart and waited for the 8:00 PM coupon activation on January 1.

# 7:55 PM on January 1

To avoid missing out on the JD platform’s coupon activation, I set an alarm for 7:55 PM on January 1. At this time, the COMFAST network card page showed in-stock, and the promotion would take effect in 5 minutes. I also opened the EDUP network card page to see if there were more favorable prices, but I only saw that the product was in stock without any additional discount information.

# 8:00 PM on January 1

I had already added the network cards and the additional item to my shopping cart. As soon as 8:00 PM arrived, I clicked the order button to prevent someone else from placing the order first. Unexpectedly, the order button turned gray and was unclickable. I checked my shopping cart and found that the network cards I added were out of stock.

I did a search and found that another affordable EDUP network card was also out of stock, meaning it was unavailable.

I realized that the JD suppliers did not want users to purchase this product at a 40% discount but were unwilling to adjust the coupon range, so they prevented consumers from buying by showing it as out of stock. It made me wonder if the supplier intentionally included the network card in the qualifying range to attract my attention in advance, making me constantly pay attention and browse related products.

In the end, I purchased a MSI Z490i UNIFY on Idle Fish for 1150 yuan, a motherboard that met my high-speed storage pseudo-need through a combination of Thunderbolt and high-speed NVMe SSDs. Ultimately, the e-commerce platform gained traffic and sales, while I, out of anger, lost more money on unnecessary overspending - according to the original plan, two 2.5GbE network cards would have satisfied my desire for a network upgrade.

# People Are Willingly “Enjoying” the Surveillance of E-commerce Platforms

Compared to traditional sales models, modern e-commerce platforms are more attractive, with greater user stickiness, and the purpose of consumption is no longer to meet basic needs but for the act of consumption itself. The selection of products and price comparison is no longer aimed at finding suitable goods that can improve one’s quality of life, but rather to obtain the lowest discounted prices, the highest product quality, and the best after-sales service. If the New Maxims ethic represents “the purpose of life is profit,” then in the modern e-commerce environment, “the purpose of the customer is to consume.”

Consumers seem to be trapped in the circular prison of e-commerce platforms, finding it difficult to escape and even reluctant to leave. Amidst the complex product information, discount offers, stacking promotions, and the encouragement by other customers, consumers always try to find the most favorable trading opportunities. However, due to the subjective nature of factors like the product’s significance, after-sales service, and urgency, consumers fall into a more complex psychological struggle. To buy or not to buy is a question; how to buy after making the decision generates even more anxiety. Hence, undecided consumers continuously engage in rounds of product price comparisons and repeatedly check the product pages, losing their time, energy, money, and most importantly, their freedom. They can no longer freely choose brands and products based on their needs, freely allocate their time to pick products at will, or freely think because their minds are filled with fantasies of finding the “best value for money” products.

Consumers are imprisoned, yet they seem to delight in it.