Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

by | Aug 15, 2019

You know the nagging feeling that something – even a lot of somethings – are wrong, but the language to express what that something is and why it’s wrong eludes you? Enter Shoshana Zuboff and The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Here’s an example: loyalty rewards. Something about a corporation tracking every purchase I make and giving me rewards in exchange for buying certain products they’ve decided I need has always struck me as…off (see what I mean about elusive language?)

In the past, the aphorism has been “if it’s free, you’re the product” but Zuboff’s conclusion, supported by rigorous analysis, is that you’re not the product, you’re the raw materials. The product is your behaviour and the power to nudge it in ways that are beneficial to the owner of the data, and that product – your data – is worth so much to the organizations who profit from it that it’s almost priceless.

As we move through the world today, our behaviour is increasingly tracked, some of it with our knowledge, most of it without. Not only our behaviour, but our emotions, preferences, relationships, and vital signs are increasingly gathered, analyzed, packaged, and sold to companies whose entire business model is to use this extracted data to change our preferences and nudge us in directions profitable to them. Provided the screen for data extraction is even marginally useful or entertaining to the humans using it, this large-scale scraping goes mostly undetected…and – in fact – works best when it’s imperceptible. 

This system is surveillance capitalism, and it goes beyond – way beyond – what we think of as cybersecurity or privacy protection. The concern here is not that someone is going to get your credit card number from an unsecure website and use it to make purchases you’ll be on the hook for. The concern is that many someones have already gotten your physical and behavioural patterns and are using them to make you make decisions that they are benefitting from. 

Your individual freedom to decide for yourself and act on your decisions is grit in the machine of profit. Big Other doesn’t desire your emotional well-being, your self-actualization, or your healthy relationships. It is indifferent to what you decide is the highest and best use of your time, money, and attention. Big Other only cares that you are predictable and profitable. Big Other is designed to create conformity.

Bummer, yes. Hyperbole? Not so much. Granted, there’s a risk in describing something as mundane as that fitness tracker on your arm as an implacable, amoral force intent on turning you into a mindless purchasing battery a la The Matrix and already more than halfway to doing it. But – like Zuboff – I believe these structures of extraction and control are not inevitable, provided we – the raw materials – decide to create a different future. 

Hopefully, this book is a record of what will turn out to be an abortive attempt by corporations and governments to exert total, invisible control on society via our newly but deeply internet-connected lives.

Who should read it?

I know there aren’t many of us who think reading a 2-inch thick tome on the insidious danger represented by surveillance capitalism is a recipe for good times. There are certainly other entries into this topic (notably a 2015 research article by the same author for the Journal of Information Technology, “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization”), but for a fully researched, meticulously crafted study of the historical, cultural, and economic path we’re currently on, the terminology to discuss it, and the tools to recognize it as it shifts and morphs to evade detection, this book is worth working your way through.

If you only have time to read one chapter:

Next time you’re in a bookstore with twenty minutes to spare, pick up this book and read Chapter Eleven: The Right to the Future Tense (pages 329-348). Zuboff uses this chapter to summarize the precisely built foundation of history and terminology in the preceding chapters to answer the question “how did they get away with it?”. These short 19 pages are some of the simplest reading in the book and you’ll walk away better prepared to see the full scope of the problem.

If you only have time to read one paragraph:

“Many people feel that if you are not on Facebook, you do not exist. People all over the world raced to participate in Pokemon Go. With so much energy, success, and capital flowing into the surveillance capitalist domain, standing outside of it, let alone against it, can feel like a lonely and risky prospect.”

(Chapter 11: The Right to the Future Tense, page 342)

If you only have time to read one sentence:

“If we are to rediscover our sense of astonishment, then let it be here: if industrial civilization flourished at the expense of nature and now threatens to cost us the Earth, an information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism will thrive at the expense of human nature and threatens to cost us our humanity.”

(Chapter 11: The Right to the Future Tense)

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