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Shoshanna Zuboff's new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a wake-up call about how tech companies monetize every moment of our lives – and threaten our free will in the process.
When Pokémon Go debuted in app stores in 2016, it was seen as a mostly harmless foray into the world of augmented reality. In the game, virtual figures of Pokémon characters are placed around your local area and you have to physically go there to capture them and rack up points. The game soon became a runaway success, inspiring breathless coverage about its health benefits and community-building power. But Pokémon Go was also a great, cute and colourful way to collect vast amounts data from millions of people.
In Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the author holds the augmented reality game up as just one example of a new form of capitalism – one that trades predictions about our seemingly innocuous behaviour, such as where we’ll go, what we’ll see on our way and what we’ll do, for profit. “I think everyone is kind of feeling this problem, without knowing what to call it, or to think about it,” Zuboff says. “There’s nothing inevitable about technology or capitalism. The idea that digital surveillance is inevitable – that’s just invalid, and we can’t let them get away with it.”
Zuboff’s central argument is that technology corporations, building on the data extraction and predictive power originally demonstrated by Google, have found a way to turn human behaviour into raw material that can be used to make predictions about future behaviour. That predictive capability is sold onto other corporations, and increasingly encompasses not just our behaviour online but everywhere – from where we go after work to what kind of clothes we like, the coffee we buy and the people we know. That means turning our behaviour – even the intimate, personal moments, such as a wedding proposal or a miscarriage – into something that can be monetised, used to direct us towards certain locations or to act in certain ways.
For some, this might not sound so bad – after all, convenience has always been a selling point of innovation – but Zuboff argues that this will shape our world irreversibly, making it harder to have any sense of self that isn’t open to being harvested for value. In a world where devices with an internet connection are always collecting information about our behaviour, we will have to give up privacy, and even the idea of free will. As Zuboff defines it, surveillance capitalism takes every aspect of the human experience, gathering information from every device that we own, and turns it into a way to predict and shape our future actions for corporations to make a profit.
In her book, Zuboff lays out a comprehensive account of this new form of capitalism, tracing it from Google to Pokémon Go, the Internet of Things and beyond. “Surveillance capitalism is about a lot more than targeted ads following you around the internet,” she says. “Industrial capitalism transformed nature’s raw material into commodities. Surveillance capitalism lays its claims to the stuff of human nature.”
The book splits into three parts, taking the reader on a journey from early economic theory on capitalism into the future, where a world of constant connection, from our homes via smart speakers and kitchen appliances to our streets via “smart” sidewalks, is inevitable (unless we stop it now). Part One traces the early origins of surveillance capitalism, from the economic conditions that made the growth of companies such as Google possible through its invention of targeted advertising (as well as many other factors). Part Two examines how these kinds of advertising started to become predictive, moving from the digital sphere into the physical world, as greater proportions of the human experience become data points for companies to exploit and eventually modify.
"The idea that digital surveillance is inevitable – that’s just invalid, and we can’t let them get away with it.”
The final part describes how power that is continuously felt and exerted through our infrastructure, which Zuboff refers to as “instrumentarian power”, seeks to combine those predictive patterns with desired outcomes. The end goal is making society – offline as much as online, if such a distinction is even necessary anymore – a place to be modified and controlled. In her view, Google is to surveillance capitalism what General Motors was to mass production: the archetype of a new kind of capitalism. “I believe that if it had come out in in 2015, or even in 2016, a lot of people might have been much more skeptical about what I’ve written in this book, about its key themes and the major arguments,” she says. “I think they would have thought I was paranoid, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case today – in fact, I think the situation has flipped.”
One reason for that is increasing awareness of how these companies operate in the wake of recent revelations such as Cambridge Analytica scandal. “What we’ve read about when it comes to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, that’s really sort of a garden variety day in the life of a surveillance capitalist,” says Zuboff. For many, it was most likely one of the first times that a tech corporation’s wrongdoings had been so clearly laid bare. “The idea of milking personal information for behavioural surplus, to shape and modify behaviour towards self serving and profit making ends – that’s the bread and butter of surveillance capitalism,” she says.
The language in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is academic and Zuboff’s arguments are dense (her writing also tends towards the dramatic, which can feel overwhelming). However, while her analytical tools are primarily economic, historical and political, she also leverages psychological theory to great effect. Turning inwards, speaking to young people, she probes what the potential effects of continuous surveillance could be for generations that have always grown up with these new forms of technology, and suggests that this could have a chilling effect on the ability to change our behaviour and beliefs.
While she tends to focus her analysis on Facebook, Google and Microsoft, she doesn’t limit her critique to these companies. Rather, she views them as “the petri dishes in which the DNA of surveillance capitalism is best examined.” Google’s aim to organise all the information on the internet and make it accessible, for example, fundamentally changed our society and shaped the internet’s trajectory.
Reading Zuboff's book cannot be said to offer any sense of relief from these fears, but it at least articulates the increasing sense of concern around the power of technology, and puts it into a framework. She describes it like getting onto a plane with the feeling that you’ve left something behind.“Then, you think, oh – it’s my car keys,” she says. “Of course, you’re not necessarily in a better position because you still don’t have your car keys, but at least now you know what the problem is.”
The book itself is less a call to arms than a general wakeup call. What you’re left with is the feeling that the sticky fingers of surveillance capitalism extend far beyond the usual suggestions, like deleting your social media, and that there is very little that an individual can do. “I didn’t intend to provide people with a five-point action plan,” Zuboff says. “I intended to awaken that sense of outrage and injustice in all my readers – if the only solutions that we can produce is the solution of how to hide, then we’ve lost.”
For readers who have spent 500 pages slowly working themselves into an informed but paranoid mess, this may feel lacklustre. Zuboff’s argument moves from theoretical to persuasive – that as a society, we have to collectively wake up to the bleakness of a continuously surveilled future. In Chapter Eight, she sums it up: “Every discussion of data protection and data ownership omits the most important question of all: why is our experience rendered as behavioural data in the first place?”