Review of Shoshana Zuboff (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
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KeywordsSurveillance Capitalism Google Privacy Submission Knowledge
It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine (time I had some time alone)
I feel fine (I feel fine) (Berry et al. 1987) (better known as members of the popular American band R.E.M.)
According to Shoshana Zuboff, we have arrived at the end of our personal, private world and yet we fail to grieve, or even recognize, its demise. In her most recent work, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Zuboff (2019) describes the Silicon Valley birth of an invisible, terrifying, self-enhancing beast, which she names surveillance capitalism. This beast scoffs at its predecessor, industrial capitalism, a creature who merely managed to consume the natural world. For Zuboff, surveillance capitalism hungers for far more. It craves, controls, and consumes human nature itself.
Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor emerita, has given her career to an examination of capitalism, information technology, the digital rise, and the global shift towards an information civilization (Zuboff n.d.). In her previous co-authored work, The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism, Maxim and Zuboff (2002), like so many others, hoped the rise of the digital would bring about a far kinder and more democratic society. ‘The greatest promise of the new digital technologies lies in their abilities to enhance the capabilities and productivity of advocates with providing deep support making their work efficient, effective and affordable’ (Maxim and Zuboff 2002: 316). With this in mind, Maxim and Zuboff called for the replacement of managerial capitalism with distributed capitalism. ‘A capitalism which utilizes the powerful new capabilities of the digital medium to liberate the vast, but suppressed reserves of relationship value in individual space waiting to be turned into cash through the advocacy and relationship of deep support’ (Maxim and Zuboff 2002: 317).
Interestingly, we did arrive in a world of deep support, but it is not for the betterment of humanity as Zuboff once hoped. Instead, our deep support leads us into the belly of the beast.
The introduction of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Zuboff 2019) includes a description of Aware Home: a live-in laboratory brimming with sensors which monitored both the human participants and the home. The plan, developed in 2000 by Georgia Tech engineers and scientists ‘emphasized trust, simplicity, the sovereignty of the individual, and the inviolability of the home as a private domain’ (Zuboff 2019: 6). Aware Home was meant to demonstrate the power of the human/digital collaboration to improve the lives of individuals while leaving autonomy in the hands of the participants. Laying down the dreams of Aware Home and distributed capitalism, Zuboff now recognizes our rights of knowledge and privacy have been stolen, and Aware Home has become nothing more than a Rockwellian1 portrait of a world once dreamed of. In her effort to explain and recover these rights, Zuboff (2019) repeatedly returns to the questions, ‘Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?’ (181).
Following an engaging introduction, Zuboff begins part one describing Google’s creation of surveillance capitalism and its ongoing evolution. She is careful to note this new capitalism is not an ‘inherent result of digital technology, nor is it a necessary expression of information capitalism’ (Zuboff 2019: 85). According to Zuboff, the beast of surveillance capitalism was birthed as a result of particular people at a particular point in history. Google’s discovery of behavioral surplus in the early 2000s led them away from collecting behavioral data for the benefit of the users, to mining data to control their users. Always remaining one step ahead of the law, Google became the example countless others would follow.
In part two, Zuboff unveils the shocking ways we hegemonically submit ourselves to the beast of surveillance capitalism. She opens with a discussion of Eric Schmidt’s belief in the coming disappearance of the Internet. Schmidt, thinking along the lines of Mark Weiser, the father of ubiquitous computing, imagines a world where we are no longer tied to devices for Internet access, it is simply all around us (Zuboff 2019: 199). According to Zuboff, this untethering is necessary for the future of surveillance capitalism. To produce an ongoing behavioral surplus, surveillance capitalism must invade our most intimate places, moments, and thoughts. Once full access is achieved, the beast becomes digitally omniscient and all-powerful. Guy Debord’s 1967 prediction comes to fruition: ‘The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees as its world’ (Debord 1983: para 43). In blind submission, we sacrifice our intimacy on the altar of deep support and grant the beast permission to invade our lives.
Zuboff lays bare the battle plan of surveillance capitalism and its Achilles heel. ‘There can be no surveillance capitalism without rendition’ (Zuboff 2019: 235). At first glance, resistance appears quite simple, if we choose not to render, we are not consumed. However, Zuboff explains the hidden challenges behind avoiding rendition. Using Roomba, the iRobot vacuum cleaner, as an example, she unveils the frightening attributes of the latest model soon to arrive on the market. While Roomba meticulously and autonomously whisks the dirt and dust from your floors, it also maps your floor plan and sells it to the likes of Amazon, Google, or Apple (Zuboff 2019: 235). If you choose to block the smart features of the vacuum in an attempt to maintain your privacy, it will inhibit the bulk of abilities for which it was purchased. This insanity does not begin and end with your vacuum cleaner. ‘Examples of products determined to render, monitor, record, and communicate behavioral data proliferate, from smart vodka bottles to Internet-enabled rectal thermometers, and quite literally everything in between’ (Zuboff 2019: 238).
…naming and taming are inextricable, that fresh and careful naming can better equip us to intercept these mechanisms of dispossession, reverse their action, produce urgently needed friction, challenge the pathological division of learning, and ultimately synthesize new forms of information capitalism that genuinely meet our needs for an effective life. (Zuboff 2019: 347).
The following section describes a third mutation of the beast, surveillance capitalism’s shift from craving our virtual world, to our real world and finally our social world (Zuboff 2019: 20). For Zuboff, this attack on society is powered by the rise of instrumentarian power. ‘Instrumentarian power aims to organize, herd, and tune society to achieve a similar social confluence, in which group pressure and computational certainty replace politics and democracy, extinguishing the felt reality and social function of an individualized existence’ (Zuboff 2019: 21). Sadly, the beast’s first victims are society’s most vulnerable, our children. The staunch devotion of our youth to social media ushers them rapidly and hegemonically into the beast’s awaiting claws.
Chapter 13 tells a frightening tale of the China syndrome. The Chinese government developed a ‘social credit’ system where ‘the aim is the automation of society through tuning, herding and, conditioning people to produce preselected behaviors judged as desirable by the state and thus able to “preempt instability”’ (Zuboff 2019: 389). The system produces a variety of rankings and lists. One such list currently prevents those with debt or outstanding court orders from traveling via plane, bus, or train, enrolling their children in certain schools or even receiving government or military promotions (Zuboff 2019: 390). After detailing this hair-raising example of the beast’s power, Zuboff suggests the structural differences between the West and China may be our saving grace. Seeing an alternative path, she suggests we yoke ‘the digital to forms of information capitalism that reunite supply and demand in ways that are both genuinely productive of effective life and compatible with a flourishing democratic social order’ (Zuboff 2019: 395).
The final chapter of part three is titled ‘The Right to Sanctuary’ (Zuboff 2019: 475). Here, Zuboff describes the European Union’s 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (popularly known under the acronym GDPR) (The European Parliament and The Council of The European Union 2016). Initially, it seems she believes the regulations could be a possible inroad to combatting surveillance capitalism. However, her hopefulness dwindles as the chapter progresses, ‘everything will depend on how European societies interpret the new regulatory regime in legislation and in the courts…it will be the popular movements on the ground that shape these interpretations’ (Zuboff 2019: 485). By chapter’s end, hope for sanctuary appears lost. Zuboff believes we have become blind and numb to the work of the beast. We willingly allow it to consume our most intimate places and thoughts with no apparent end in sight.
The book concludes with a recap and her thoughts regarding the questions, ‘Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?’ (Zuboff 2019: 521). Ultimately, Zuboff suggests that we must find our inner rage, refuse the inevitability of the beast, and stand against its continuation. For democracy to live on, the people must become those who know, who decide, and who decide who decides. She leaves the reader with a reminder of why the Berlin Wall fell and a clarion call to fight the beast. ‘The Berlin Wall fell…because the people of East Berlin said, “No more!” We too can be the authors of many “great and beautiful” new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home. No more! Let this be our declaration.’ (Zuboff 2019: 525).
Zuboff’s ability to see past the smoke and mirrors and into the heart of surveillance capitalism is impressive and her desire to pause the system long enough for the masses and governments to identify the ills of our current trajectory is commendable. Despite her impressive insight into surveillance capitalism, her inability to recognize the ceaseless evils of capitalism and our nation’s plutocracy is a bit shocking. According to Zuboff (2019: 517), ‘…the combination of markets and democracy has served humanity well, helping to lift much of humankind from millennia of ignorance, poverty and, pain.’ Peter McLaren paints a more accurate picture of market democracy. ‘Capitalism is an omnipresent system in which brutality is a necessity, so much so that democracy refuses to descend there. It is an auction block in which souls are destroyed in the service of profit’ (McLaren 2019: 317). The first souls destroyed are always the marginalized and oppressed, but its evil wounds us all. While the 2020 rollout of California’s Consumer Privacy Act (California State Legislature 2018), an act which includes strict rules for handling and collection of data by tech companies, sounds almost too good to be true, we must still vigilantly examine how the beast of surveillance capitalism will feed on our vulnerable. Throughout US history, the powerful have used surveillance as a weapon for controlling people of color and maintaining societal stratification. Considering the metamorphosis of surveillance weaponry is critical in the examination of surveillance capitalism, a consideration not only overlooked by Zuboff but openly dismissed.
In the end, we are fools not to heed the warnings and recommendations of Zuboff. We must force ourselves to consider what intimate aspects of our lives we are feeding the beast each time we agree to the fine print of the latest device. We must know, decide, and decide who decides. We must name the evil components of surveillance capitalism and capitalism at large. However, taming the beast, as Zuboff suggests, is not the answer. We must defeat the beast, reclaim our homes, our intimate places, and wrench our youth from its claws. If not, it truly is the end of the world as we know it.
Norman Rockwell was an American painter, author, and illustrator known for his idealistic portrayals of everyday life. His work appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, a popular American magazine, for nearly 50 years.
- Berry, B., Buck, P., Mills, M., & Stipe, M. (1987). It’s the end of the world as we know it (And I feel Fine). Nashville: I.R.S.Google Scholar
- California State Legislature (2018). California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displayText.xhtml?division=3.&part=4.&lawCode=CIV&title=1.81.5. Accessed 13 Oct 2019.
- Debord, G. (1983). Society of the spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red.Google Scholar
- The European Parliament and The Council of The European Union (2016). General Data Protection Regulation. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32016R0679&from=EN. Accessed 13 Oct 2019.
- Zuboff, S. (2002). The support economy: Why corporations are failing individuals and the next episode of capitalism. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
- Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. New York: PublicAffairs.Google Scholar
- Zuboff, S. (n.d.) Shoshana Zuboff. https://www.shoshanazuboff.com/new/about/. Accessed 13 Oct 2019.