Shoshana Zuboff “The Age of Surveillance Captialism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of AI” – book review

The phrase “surveillance capitalism” has been appearing in the newspapers recently as a way of describing the business practice of Google and Facebook.

The phrase was coined by Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Captialism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of AI. The book begins with a definition of surveillance capitalism

Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n.

  1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales
  2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification
  3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history
  4. The foundational network of a surveillance economy (…)

If this language scares you, you are unlikely to enjoy the rest of this book. Otherwise, read on!

Zuboff is a social psychologist by training and she taught for a long time at the Harvard Business School. She has written several books about the way human life has been transformed by technology. But this book is certainly different from most articles on the subject that I’ve encountered so far.

Zuboff begins by describing an example of a connected home designed in 2000 at Georgia Tech.

              “It was meant to be a “living laboratory” for the study of ubiquitous computing”. They imagined a “human-home symbiosis” in which many animate and inanimate processes would be captured by an elaborate network of “context aware sensors” embedded in the house and worn by the computer’s occupants. “

It sounds like a very familiar idea -after all, isn’t the aim to be living in a connected home? There is one crucial difference, however.

“The scientists and engineers understood the new data systems would produce an entirely new knowledge domain. (…) it was assumed that the rights to that new knowledge and the power to use it to improve one’s life would belong exclusively to the people who live in the house.”

Compare this to the connected home products we have on the market today.

“Each thermostat comes with a ‘privacy policy’, a ‘terms-of-service agreement’, and an ‘end-user licensing agreement’. These reveal oppressive privacy and security consequences in which sensitive household and personal information are shared with other smart devices, unnamed personnel, and third parties for the purpose of predictive analyses and sales to other unspecified parties. (…) [the device] takes little responsibility for the security of the information it connects and none for how the other companies in its ecosystem will put the data to use.”

Apparently if you were to read the contracts involved in setting up one of these devices and its linked ecosystem, you’d be reading a thousand contracts.

The world has changed. We are being told that giving up on our privacy for a more connected world is “inevitable”. In this book, Zuboff points out it is anything but. In 2000, no one expected us to be making this trade-off. It is the increasing development of surveillance capitalism that has caused this illusion.

Surveillance capitalism unashamedly attempts to gather all our data. Though some of it is used to improve its products, most is used as so-called “behavioral surplus” – which is either sold to other companies or used for marketing purposes. The goal would be to create a market in which human actions can be completely predicted by means of behavioral modification, in other words, the aim is to automate us and create a market – which is completely predictable. Zuboff calls this approach “instrumentarianism”  – an attempt to see humans only as a means of behavioral data for prediction purposes.  This approach creates a divide between those who have the data and those who do not. Knowledge is power. In 2016, one fifth of the world’s advertising spending was at Facebook or Google.

Zuboff starts by analyzing the history of surveillance capitalism in Silicon Valley. She provides insight into why Google became so dependent on data surplus. After the dotcom bubble ( a financial crisis affecting tech companies), Google became desperate to find a way of monetizing their product. They had been initially unwilling to introduce paid-for advertising, as they believed it would ruin the quality of their search results. However, when they realized that they could use the targeted data they were harvesting (initially for the improvement of the search engine) to create personalized advertising that would be relevant to the users… the revolution began.

“The corporation thus created out of thin air and at zero marginal cost an asset class of vital raw materials derived from users’ non-market behaviour.”

Zuboff notes that Facebook followed a similar pattern. In fact, Sheryl Sandberg was a Google executive before she moved to Facebook to become Chief Operating Officer. Again, the model is to harvest personal data in order to provide targeted advertising.

Zuboff describes what these companies are doing as transforming something personal – human experience, into commodity that can be sold and predicted – ie. human behaviour.

The behaviour of companies whose model is based on surveillance capitalism is described in stages:

  1. Incursion

The company claims its right to the data. Google starts taking photos of all public spaces for StreetView without asking anyone’s permission.

Facebook starts posting ads referring to products you’ve discussed in a private conversation in messenger.

There is outrage, there are lawsuits. People are justifiably upset. It turned out Google’s StreetView was ‘accidentally’ intercepting personal data from wifi transitions.


However, resolving a lawsuit takes time. During that time, the services provided by the tech company continue unabated. People used StreetView. They liked it

  • 3. Adaptation

Google apologized for the breach in personal data and promised reform, but no-one was questioning the usefulness of StreetView anymore.

  • 4. Redirection

If you are using an Android device, your phone sends continuous updates to Google’s servers regarding where you are. You are now used to that idea. Now that the goal has been achieved, the company can focus on its next goals, following the same pattern.

It’s not just Google or Facebook who behave like this. Think of Microsoft.

              “One software engineer(…) described it as ‘ a privacy morass in dire need of reform’ as he detailed how the system ‘gives itself the right to pass loads of your data to Microsoft’s servers, use your bandwidth for Microsoft’s own purposes, and profile your Windows usage.”

And it’s not just the typical tech companies. Telecom and cable companies also attempt to harvest data for their own purposes. And their own purposes are not just improving your internet. They use cookies to gather data about all the websites you visit. Verizon in the US used cookies to enable advertisers to directly target your phone.

Of course, there are other companies only too willing to mine your data for information – often providing you with, for example, a credit assessment in return. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to this sort of transaction.

This, in turn, leads to the polarization of power. Those who have the data can attempt to predict the behaviour of those giving the data: in effect, owners of data can dehumane the data sources. Zuboff points out that this dichotomy between the knower and the source of knowledge almost undoes the institution of a contract between two human beings. After all, the point of a contract is trust. You do not know how the other person will behave. Surveillance capitalism is trying to replace trust with absolute certainty about human behaviour.

A side occupation of surveillance capitalism is the pursuit of endless rendering of data. In order to better predict human behaviour, surveillance capitalists are keen to gain maximum data points about their subjects. Hence the GPS on your phone, health monitoring the push for “smart” fridges, ovens, TVs, etc. These will provide data points on your habits and moods.

In fact, Zuboff goes so far as to call rendering “the original sin” of surveillance capitalism.

Zuboff is also interested in the cooperation between surveillance capitalism and the state.She notes the interesting paradox that while in the 20th century it was always assumed that the state would assume the role of “Big Brother”, surveilling our actions and our faults. She postulates that the 21st century is facing “Big Other”, private companies attempting to do much the same thing.  The state, which, in Zuboff’s opinion, should be defending its right to citizens’ privacy, has become invested in the findings of surveillance capitalism. Under the pretext of surveying terrorist behaviour, the government has yielded almost completely under the pressure of these companies.

Whether you entirely agree with Zuboff’s conclusions or not – and some are certainly more convincing than others –  this is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest on how data harvesting and management is affecting our everyday lives.

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