Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a ground-breaking book - calling for the Net to return to the people


The hot book of the moment is Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. It’s the culmination of a building wave of scepticism, critique and even outrage at the way our social media behemoths have been behaving.

And particularly, how they have mightily profited from capturing our behaviour - selling the meaning of our clicking and interaction onto corporates and bureaucracies, who can then target us with messages that shape our actions, world-view and values.

As the blurb of surveillance capitalism succinctly puts it:

Surveillance Capitalism: A new phase in economic history in which private companies and governments track your every move with the goal of predicting and controlling your behaviour. Under surveillance capitalism you are not the customer or even the product: you are the raw material

The challenges to humanity posed by the digital future, the first detailed examination of the unprecedented form of power called "surveillance capitalism," and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control us.

The heady optimism of the Internet's early days is gone. Technologies that were meant to liberate us have deepened inequality and stoked divisions. Tech companies gather our information online and sell it to the highest bidder, whether government or retailer. Profits now depend not only on predicting our behaviour but modifying it too. How will this fusion of capitalism and the digital shape our values and define our future?

Shoshana Zuboff shows that we are at a crossroads. We still have the power to decide what kind of world we want to live in, and what we decide now will shape the rest of the century. Our choices: allow technology to enrich the few and impoverish the many, or harness it and distribute its benefits.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a deeply-reasoned examination of the threat of unprecedented power free from democratic oversight. As it explores this new capitalism's impact on society, politics, business, and technology, it exposes the struggles that will decide both the next chapter of capitalism and the meaning of information civilization. Most critically, it shows how we can protect ourselves and our communities and ensure we are the masters of the digital rather than its slaves.

We have profiled quite a few digital renegades from Facebook, Google, Twitter and all, in the Daily Alternative over the last two years, who have tried to warn us about how much our awareness is being shaped by social media tech:

The best interview with Zuboff so far we’ve found is in The Intercept. An excerpt:

Zuboff: Now we have markets of business customers that are selling and buying predictions of human futures. I believe in the values of human freedom and human autonomy as the necessary elements of a democratic society. As the competition of these prediction products heats up, it’s clear that surveillance capitalists have discovered that the most predictive sources of data are when they come in and intervene in our lives, in our real-time actions, to shape our action in a certain direction that aligns with the kind of outcomes they want to guarantee to their customers.

That’s where they’re making their money. These are bald-faced interventions in the exercise of human autonomy, what I call the “right to the future tense.” The very idea that I can decide what I want my future to be and design the actions that get me from here to there, that’s the very material essence of the idea of free will.

I write about the Senate committee back in the ’70s that reviewed behavioral modification from the point of view of federal funding, and found behavioral mod a reprehensible threat to the values of human autonomy and democracy. And here we are, these years later, like, La-di-da, please pass the salt.

 This thing is growing all around us, this new means of behavioral modification, under the auspices of private capital, without constitutional protections, done in secret, specifically designed to keep us ignorant of its operations.

More here. The most comprehensive reviews of Surveillance Capitalism we’ve found are from Evgeny Morozov in The Baffler, and Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books. Some core paragraphs below.

Evgeny Morozov: Beyond demanding new rights and laws, Zuboff—a reformist, not a revolutionary—offers little by way of a concrete agenda. This policy lacuna might stem from how surveillance capitalism and its primary fictious commodity, human experience, are defined. Clearly, no one advocates socializing human experience.

But if we were to define the fictitious commodity as data, sensible political demands, such as those for new kinds of data ownership, become possible. In dismissing such demands as merely reinforcing the status quo, Zuboff refers only to plans, such as those of the World Economic Forum, to treat data as an asset class. But what about proposals for more egalitarian regimes of data ownership, which, transcending private property, do not even appear on the corporate radar?

To attack Zuboff for the paucity of her policy agenda, however, is to overlook how its very meagerness comports with the scale of the problem it targets. Presupposing that the problem is the modification of human behavior, she extends the analytical template supplied by the liberal theory of individual rights—to “sanctuary” and “future tense”—into new domains. This response is logical within Zuboff’s framework: new forms of capitalism violate individual rights; in such cases, society traditionally created new rights; that’s what we must do now.

Nicholas Carr: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a long, sprawling book, but there’s a piece missing. While Zuboff’s assessment of the costs that people incur under surveillance capitalism is exhaustive, she largely ignores the benefits people receive in return — convenience, customization, savings, entertainment, social connection, and so on. The benefits can’t be dismissed as illusory, and the public can no longer claim ignorance about what’s sacrificed in exchange for them. Over the last two years, the press has uncovered one scandal after another involving malfeasance by big internet firms, Facebook in particular. We know who we’re dealing with.

This is not to suggest that our lives are best evaluated with spreadsheets. Nor is it to downplay the abuses inherent in a system that places control over knowledge and discourse in the hands of a few companies that have both incentive and means to manipulate what we see and do. It is to point out that a full examination of surveillance capitalism requires as rigorous and honest an accounting of its boons as of its banes.

In the choices we make as consumers and private citizens, we have always traded some of our autonomy to gain other rewards. Many people, it seems clear, experience surveillance capitalism less as a prison, where their agency is restricted in a noxious way, than as an all-inclusive resort, where their agency is restricted in a pleasing way. Zuboff makes a convincing case that this is a short-sighted and dangerous view — that the bargain we’ve struck with the internet giants is a Faustian one — but her case would have been stronger still had she more fully addressed the benefits side of the ledger.

And from Campfire Convention, a report and audio of a recent presentation by Zuboff, headlined by the key point: “We are a new kind of political collective that has not yet been named”: