The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

Date Reviewed
July 15th 2020



Many years ago in one of my university courses, the professor prefaced his presentation of an essay with, “I am a retailer of knowledge. This writer is a primary producer of knowledge.”


I am not certain, but I think it was an essay by the political economist Joseph Schumpter. By about the sixth read through, I had tamed the piece to a 'difficult read'. Before that it was mostly opaque, with ideas I hadn't encountered and words I hadn't seen used in that context.


Soshana Zuboff's, 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power', is not that difficult, but sufficient to trigger memory of that essay.


My first impression when I saw the 700-page-tome on the library shelf, was that I wouldn't be reading the whole thing, at least without a couple of renewals, not usually possible with new releases.


My strategy was that I would start with the introduction and the conclusion. The book became slightly less intimidating when I discovered that of the 700 pages, 200 were fine print notes.


But two readings each of the introduction and conclusion confirmed that I was in pretty deep and I was inching through at half the speed of my normally slow read of non-fiction.


One of the jacket quotes compared it to the call to arms of Rachel Carson's 'A Silent Spring', but within the parameters of its subject, which I still hadn't fully grasped.


But since the covid 19 shutdown had just come into effect I had the book for an indefinite period, so I might as well plug away into some other chapters. However difficult, it was not as indecipherable as that long ago essay. She does indeed seem to create, if not words, certainly phrases and uses of words to fit the concepts she is exploring. Zuboff says it is necessary to employ words in a new way to deal with new concepts.


The first one to come to grips with is “surveillance capitalism”. It is a way of parlaying 'surplus' data into information that makes targeting customers for products more precise and reliable to the advantage of those selling the products. She says this data is seen as “free raw material” for this variant of capitalism.


Her primary definition is “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales.” Her subsequent seven criteria basically bolster and put a negative spin on the fundamental effects she believes are at stake.


And another important concept.... “as to this species of power, I name it instrumentarianism, defined as the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behaviour for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization, and control. In this formulation 'instrumentation' refers to the puppet: the ubiquitous connected material architecture of sensate computation that renders, interprets, and actuates human experience.” Instrumentarian society, she explains, is a planned society, produced through total control of the means of behavioral modification.


The required data is mined by the large sophisticated internet based companies. The two 'offenders' she mosts targets for her attacks are Google and Facebook.


Her concern/warning is that this data can present such a comprehensive profile of people that they no longer retain the fundamental level of privacy western, or at least American, society (democratic) has valued and taken for granted.


While the services of the internet are largely “free” she suggests that the personal information and proclivities given up for the privilege of getting information, entertainment etc. are too great. And that you are giving them up is often couched in the legal document you are presented to 'agree' or 'disagree' with, before permission to continue is given.


Her ultimate contention is that the price is too great. She resents what the current known price may be, but alludes ominously to the unknown price and effects yet to be discovered.


A couple of months ago I overheard two young men discussing this element. One was cautioning about dangers while the other countered with “if I am going to be shown ads they might as well be ones that are interesting and relevant to me.”


There may be a generational concern in what they are saying and in Zuboff's concerns. To an extent, the external societal control had been alluded to in Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' and George Orwell's 'Nineteen Eight-four'. For at least three generations the 'horror' presented there was an implied threat or 'slippery slope' to complacency in adapting or yielding to certain practices. “The more that is known about people the easier it is to control them.”


But with the generation growing up with internet these concerns may not seem as threatening or novel as they do for older people, particularly those educated in western experience and thought.


And Zuboff's book is well sprinkled with nuggets of thought and wisdom from the classic western thinkers down through the ages.


Without taking issue with the dangers she both details and alludes to, I am not convinced that they are as dangerous, or more crucially, that humans deserve to be saved from them.


Maybe the invasion of privacy is a justifiable cost for the benefits gained. Ultimately, maybe, humans don't deserve to be saved from it. And along with manipulation of consumers, there may be benefits from comprehensively and exponentially growing collections of data.


I am convinced that Rachel Carson was warning of an existential danger. I don't have the same feeling with this book. It is about a value. But that doesn't mean that people shouldn't be cognizant of what is happening and make decisions for themselves accordingly.


It may not be an exaggeration to say that compilations of data by outside sources could effectively paint a more accurate picture of yourself than you are aware of. It knows you better than you know yourself, making it easier to push the right buttons.


She explores in detail and suggests extrapolation from the infinite growth in personal data on people.


“Freedom” an idea so dear to western Liberal thinking, is another word for “ignorance”. So much of the magic, joy and surprise on which our lives are based is founded on ignorance.


This idea is credited to renowned German physicist Max Planck, passed on and elaborated on by his doctoral student Max Meyer and thence to American psychologist B.F. Skinner, whose controversial ideas are both praised and reviled.


Author of this book, Zuboff, reintroduces this idea in conjunction with her warning of the dangers of rapid and infinite data (knowledge) gathering by internet giants.


And the knowledge most “feared” is that relating to human behaviour.


The caution emanating from Planck is “freedom is merely ignorance waiting to be conquered”.


To a large extent this vestibule has been protected by humans resisting the logic of investigating human causal behaviour with the same vigour of curiosity applied to other sciences.


In Planck's words “The outside world is something independent from man, something absolute. The quest for the laws that apply to this absolute appeared as the most sublime scientific pursuit of life.”


The shielding of human motivation from this examination comes down to 'the less we know the freer we are to believe whatever we want' and so “freedom is ignorance.” Better more complete knowledge is more confining.


Sheltered in this ignorance is so many of things we marvel at; our sacred ability to chose, believe, perceive credit, demerit and responsibility. There are no great geniuses, villains, saints, athletes. They are all products of causes as mechanical, chemical and inevitable as those in the “hard sciences”. Our heroes don't have feet of clay, but of causes and when exposed the marvel and reverence, as well as credit, evaporates in reasons.


“The achievements for which a person himself is to be given credit seem to approach zero......the behaviour we admire is therefore the behaviour we cannot yet explain.”


Demolished would be the human sense of superiority over other species as our “specialness” gets rendered as merely complexity. One of the last vestiges of such thinking would be 'imagination' ultimately succumbing to a sequence of linked causes.


Planck, through Meyer to Skinner, “freedom of action in the animal world signifies the same that is meant by accidents in the world of physics, Such accidents are simply phenomena for which there is insufficient an understanding. And so it goes with freedom. The liberal idea of freedom persists in an inverse relationship to the growth of scientific knowledge , especially in the field of psychological science.”


“Free will is simply one for which “the vortex of stimuli” that produced it cannot yet be adequately specified.”


And further “essential for a technology of behavior was a stubborn allegiance to these antique notions among people determined to preserve “due credit” for their actions.”


The history of religious development would suggest a vested interest in maintaining ignorance or insisting that cause is non-secular.


Skinner, says Shuboff, “argues that knowledge does not make us free but rather releases us from the illusion of freedom”...freedom and ignorance are synonyms. Skinner wanted computational abilities that would perfect behavioral prediction and control. Essentially perfect knowledge would supplant politics in decision making.


“Our attachment to notions such as freedom, will, autonomy, purpose and agency are defense mechanisms that protect us from the uncomfortable facts of human ignorance.”


While complete knowledge would seem to make opinion and belief irrelevant, since opinion is dependent on the uncertainty or a degree of ignorance, history suggests that some people do not abandon either in the face of overwhelming countering knowledge (flat earthers).


Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, in his 'Notes from Underground' says that people insist on rebelling against reason for as basic a reason as escaping the confinement of it and asserting independence or freedom.


Looking back at George Orwell's 'Nineteen eighty-four' the danger may be less the dictatorship of government (big brother), at least not directly, but the dictatorship of ever more complete irrefutable knowledge, eroding the opportunities for opinion.


She describes the rise of the “near mythical” entrepreneur toward the end of the 20th century coinciding or creating ever increasing income divergence, anti-democratic social consequences solidified by political capture that protects the interests of wealth.


She describes current capitalism as 'raw' when it should be 'cooked by a democratic society.


A new breed of economic power now claims “every click an asset to be tracked, parsed and monetized by some company.”


She describes the data products as predicting what people will do. Much of it may have initially been gathered incidentally and its usefulness only discovered later. She uses the term “behavioural surplus data”, a zero cost asset. Supplies of it are increasing along with machine intelligence to process it.


Google, she says, is reading our minds to better match ads. It has moved from serving users to surveilling them, she adds.


“The unprecedented success of Google, Facebook, and then Microsoft exerted a palpable magnetism on the global economy, especially in the U.S. where the politics of lawlessness were most firmly entrenched.”


And “the rapid migration to surveillance revenues that is now underway recalls the late-twentieth century shift from revenues derived from goods and services to revenues derived from mastering the speculative and shareholder-value maximizing strategies of financial capitalism.”


Another danger she points to is “only surveillance capital commands the material infrastructure and expert brainpower to rule the division of learning in society.” She adds that there is an “arms race” among tech companies for the 10,000 professionals who know how to wield the technologies of machine intelligence to get the knowledge from data. The concentration of knowledge is a concentration of power. The danger and tardiness to respond, she says, is something new and unprecedented.

And here I am beginning to see this as an existential danger. My resistance may relate to less immersion and involvement in the internet than younger generations and more confident in my ability to resist. I barely use any social network programs so maybe discount the addictive nature and control of them and the devices they are presented in.


“Technology firms in the U.S. have, this far, continued their run of relative lawlessness, unimpeded by any comprehensive social or regulatory vision.”


This effort has drained institutions of the teachers of these skills. Zuboff questions the use of world brainpower for these goals. Some have suggested a similar capture of premier graduates of universities by the financial community.


One example she gives of meticulous recording and transmission of behaviour involves devices put in cars to help insurance companies record driving behaviour and calculate risk, ostensibly to reduce “your costs”.


“Our behaviour, once unobservable, is declared as free for the taking, theirs to own, and theirs to decide how to use and how to profit from.”


Zuboff points to all the computerized devices going into 'smart homes' and how those could be potentially monitored for behaviour of the occupants. They could “join the migration to surveillance revenues.”


The process, she says, is enhanced by attachment to human “unrelenting hunger for recognition, appreciation and most of all, support.”


The 'digital assistant' invites users to trade off convenience of services for continuous monitoring and capturing of data.


While Zuboff's primary focus is on capitalism, the systems can be repurposed to manipulate political values and emotions. The goal in all of this is that the gatherers of data know more about the subject than he/she knows about his/herself.


She cautions that the current and expanding regime is more than just refinement of past tactics of persuasion. “At no other time in history have private corporations of unprecedented wealth and power enjoyed the free exercise of economies of action supported by a pervasive global architecture of ubiquitous computational knowledge and control constructed and maintained by all the advanced scientific know-how that money can buy.”


And “where is the hammer of democracy now, when the threat comes from your phone, your digital assistant, your Facebook login?”


She gives some credit wrapped in warning. “Despite the many benefits and immense accomplishments of industrial capitalism, it has left us perilously close to repeating the fate of the Easter Islanders, who wrecked the ground that gave them life.”


She doesn't describe it as evil “this result was ineluctably driven by its own inner logic of accumulation, with its imperatives of profit maximization, competition, the relentless drive for labor productivity.”


She says that where industrial capitalism thrived at the expense of nature, surveillance capitalism

will thrive at the expense of human nature (our humanity).


“Like today's surveillance capitalists, Skinner was confident that the slow drip of technological invention would eventually push privacy to the margins of human experience.”


He also thought democracy “a political system that merely perpetuates the illusion of freedom while impeding the dominion of science.”


He was no less merciful on the “free market that rewards destructive competitiveness between people and classes.”


But his crowning castigation is reserved for religion “as the worst cure of all, enshrining ignorance and crippling the advance of science.”


Zuboff says that power used to be identified with ownership of the means of production where now it is ownership of the means of behavioural modification.


Surveillance capitalism, she says, offers solutions to individuals in the form of social connection, access to information, time-saving convenience, and too often, the illusion of support.


And in one controversial idea that hits at politics Zuboff states that “capitalism and socialism are equally tainted by their shared emphasis on economic growth, which breeds overconsumption and pollution.”


While all are targeted by the strategies of the tech companies it is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence and emerging adulthood when peer and group interests strongly relate to acceptance, belonging and inclusion. She sees it as catering a potential addiction and compulsion first exploited in gaming.


Now with Facebook the more a user posts “likes” the more precisely the company can build a profile revealing predictive value to be used for marketing appeal. Targeted are empathy, belonging and acceptance.


Young people are the pioneers that may lead to the breakdown of tradition allegiances to individuals, democracy and agency for moral judgement. Currently we are distracted, resigned and numbed to these influences, she says.


She calls surveillance capitalism, despite apparent innocuousness “profoundly anti-democratic”. Unlike the aim of the past to dominate 'nature', it is now to dominate 'human nature'. Compounding this is the increasing malaise around democracy generally.


Her exhortations seem to be to rally people to rise nobly to the concerns she addresses. More cynically should people be saved or allowed to be painlessly consumed in the inviting whirlpool.