The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
|January 15, 2019|
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power is a 2019 non-fiction book by Professor Shoshana Zuboff which looks at the development of digital companies like Google and Amazon, and suggests that their business models represent a new form of capitalist accumulation that she calls "surveillance capitalism".
While industrial capitalism exploited and controlled nature with devastating consequences, surveillance capitalism exploits and controls human nature with a totalitarian order as the endpoint of the development.
Zuboff states that Surveillance Capitalism "unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data [which] are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later." She states that these new capitalist products "are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets."
In a capitalist society, information, such as a users likes and dislikes gathered when accessing a platform like Facebook, or from any other kind of sensor that serves as an internet touch point to data-stream, is information that can be used by that company to better the experience of a user by feeding them information that data obtained from their previous activity would have shown them to be interested in. It can also infer many things about the individual that extend far beyond the terms and conditions of use. This in many ways can be done through the use of an algorithm that analyses information. The danger of surveillance capitalism is that platforms and tech companies claim ownership of private information because it is free for them to access, claiming private experience as 'raw material' for data factories. There is very little supervision or actual laws by governments and users themselves. Because of this, there has been backlash on how these companies have used the information gathered. For example, Google, which is said to be “the pioneer of surveillance capitalism”, Zuboff (2019) introduced a feature that used “commercial models…discovered by people in a time and place”, Zuboff (2019). This means that not only are commercials being specifically targeted to you through your phone, but now work hand in hand with your environment and habits such as being shown an advertisement of a local bar when walking around downtown in the evening. Advertising attempts this technical and specific can easily have an impact on the one's decision-making process in the activities they choose and in political decisions. Thus the idea that these companies seemingly go unchecked whilst having the power to observe and control thinking is one of the many reasons tech companies such as Google themselves are under so much scrutiny and criticism.
Furthermore, the freedom allotted to tech companies comes from the idea that “surveillance capitalism does not abandon established capitalist ‘laws’ such as competitive production, profit maximization, productivity and growth”, Zuboff (2019), as they are principles any business in a capitalistic society should aim to excel in, in order to be competitive. Zuboff (2019) claims in an article that “new logic accumulation…introduces its own laws of motion”. In other words, this is a new phenomenon in capitalistic operations that should be treated as such and be instilled with its own specific restrictions and limitations. Lastly, as invasive as platforms have been in terms of accumulating information, they have also led to what is now called a “sharing economy”, Van Dijck (2018) in which digital information can be obtained by individuals carrying out their own surveillance capitalism through the aid of platforms themselves. Thus “individuals can greatly benefit from this transformation because it empowers them to set up business”, Van Dijck (2018). Small businesses will also benefit in potentially growing faster than they would have without knowing consumer demands and wants but would need to pay corporations for access to knowledge. This leaves surveillance capitalism as an exceptionally useful tool for businesses, but also an invasion of privacy to users who do not want their private experience to be owned by a company.
The 44th President of the United States Barack Obama also listed it as one of his favourite books of 2019, which journalism researcher Avi Asher-Schapiro noted as an interesting choice, given that the book heavily criticises the revolving door of personnel between Google and the Obama Administration and the use of surveillance data by the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns to target voters.
Sam DiBella, writing for the LSE Blog, criticised the book's approach which could "inspire paralysis rather than praxis when it comes to forging collective action to counter systematic corporate surveillance."
- Bridle, James (February 2, 2019). "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff review – we are the pawns". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved January 17, 2020.
- Naughton, John (January 20, 2019). "'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism". The Guardian. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
- Gray, John (February 6, 2019). "The new tech totalitarianism". New Statesman. Retrieved February 21, 2021.
- Zuboff, Shoshana; Möllers, Norma; Murakami Wood, David; Lyon, David (March 31, 2019). "Surveillance Capitalism: An Interview with Shoshana Zuboff". Surveillance & Society. 17 (1/2): 257–266. doi:10.24908/ss.v17i1/2.13238. ISSN 1477-7487.
- van Dijck, José; Poell, Thomas; de Waal, Martijn (October 18, 2018). "The Platform Society". Oxford Scholarship Online. doi:10.1093/oso/9780190889760.001.0001. ISBN 9780190889760.
- "Our Favorite Nonfiction Books of 2019". The New Yorker. December 18, 2019. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
- Binder, Matt. "Obama praises book that slams his White House for its Google relationship". Mashable. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
- Ghosh, Shona (December 29, 2019). "Obama's 'favorite books of 2019' list includes a title that slammed his administration's incestuous relationship with Google". Business Insider. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
- DiBella, Sam (November 10, 2019). "Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff". LSE Phelan US Centre. Retrieved January 16, 2020.
- "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff". Financial Times. Retrieved January 16, 2020.