Sound the Alarm

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power Shoshana Zuboff Profile Books, 704 pp, 2019

One night, amid a heavy storm, lightning strikes Shoshana Zuboff’s home. There is smoke. She knows she must leave the house. But first Zuboff runs around closing the bedroom doors. She doesn’t want the bed linen to smell of smoke. Finally, she runs downstairs. As she makes her way out the front door, a fireman grabs her and pulls her out into the rain. Almost immediately, the house explodes into flames and burns to the ground.

Just a few seconds earlier, Zuboff’s biggest concern was preventing the bedrooms (where she assumed her family would sleep later that same night) from smelling of smoke. She had risked her life solving a problem that didn’t need solving. The odour in a bedroom does not matter once the bedroom ceases to exist. As Zuboff admits in her brilliant, important new book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” she had been incapable of perceiving the situation properly because she had never seen it before. It was unprecedented, and she equates quite a lot of our contemporary economic and political debate to closing bedroom doors in a fire.

Only free societies were deemed capable of producing sustained economic growth. In more recent years, however, rapid growth in countries with authoritarian political systems debunked this argument.

Society, she says, has transitioned to “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction and sales”. It is both a result and a profound distortion of the neoliberal paradigm that gained traction starting in the late 1970s. “Surveillance capitalism” extracts data and feeds it to machine intelligence. Those machines make predictions about what people will do later, and then trade those predictions on behavioral futures markets. Customers buy those predictions and use them to sell stuff back to us. Increasingly, that data is instrumentalized to actually shape our behavior in advance.

Neo-liberalism Liked to Equate Free Markets with Free Societies

Any half-conscious person sees signs of these changes everywhere. Even seemingly benign, silly applications provide a window into the fundamental dishonesty of the surveillance capitalist model. Think about Pokémon Go, that foolish cell phone craze of a few years back that had people running around chasing virtual characters. Harmless, right?

Except those restaurants, bars and shops paid to place characters into their stores in hopes of boosting foot traffic and sales. You didn’t go into the coffee shop to find a Pokémon character, you went there because the coffee shop invited you in. Tired from chasing around imaginary cartoons? Perhaps you need a tall mocha non-fat latte to go?

Late twentieth-century neo-liberalism—economics predicated on privatization, deregulation and liberalization —liked to equate free markets with free societies. Starting from 1980 or so, prevailing wisdom had it that regulating commerce amounted to an affront to political freedom. Only free societies were deemed capable of producing sustained economic growth. In more recent years, however, rapid growth in countries with authoritarian political systems debunked this argument, and a growing body of evidence indicates that democratic politics elsewhere have become much less free (not to mention more dysfunctional) over the same period.

In a 2017 study, the scholars Markus Wagner and Thomas Meyer charted 68 mainstream European political parties from 17 countries on a “liberal-authoritarian axis” and measured changes in positioning on issues like immigration, law and order, and nationalism between 1980 and 2014. Their conclusion? “The average center-left party today is about as authoritarian as the average radical-right party was in the early 1980s.”

While neoliberalism’s inurement to regulation, and preference for a weak state, created fertile ground for surveillance capitalism to take root, it has since grown in its own unique way.

Economic and Social Inequalities have Reverted to the Feudal Pattern

Zuboff channels the French economist Thomas Piketty in demonstrating how a stripped-down state and raw capitalism have spurred an unjust social order. “What is unbearable is that economic and social inequalities have reverted to the preindustrial ‘feudal’; pattern but that we, the people, have not,” she writes. “We are not illiterate peasants, serfs, or slaves.” Surveillance capitalists—Zuboff calls Google “the pioneer”—took advantage of neoliberal deregulation to colonize online space “like an invasive species in a landscape free of natural predators.”

They were further aided by the collective panic that followed the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, “when a national security apparatus galvanized by the attacks of 9/11 was inclined to nurture, mimic, shelter and appropriate surveillance capitalism’s emergent capabilities for the sake of total knowledge and its promise of certainty”.

While neoliberalism’s inurement to regulation, and preference for a weak state, created fertile ground for surveillance capitalism to take root, it has since grown in its own unique way. Purveyors of surveillance capitalism do not trade in traditional products and services. “They do not establish constructive producer-consumer reciprocities,” Zuboff writes. Rather, they use their products as “hooks” in order to “lure users into their extractive operations”. More data leads to more power. At some point, a huge firm amasses sufficient data as to make competition impossible. “

A handful of large global firms have reaped the lion’s share of the prof- its that [surveillance capitalism] has yielded,” Zuboff’s Harvard colleague Roberto Mangabeira Unger has written elsewhere. “I conjecture that a major cause of economic stagnation in the period from the early 1970s to today has been the confinement of the knowledge economy to relatively insular vanguards rather than its economy-wide dissemination.”

Even Reasonable Arguments for Deregulation No Longer Make Sense

Surveillance capitalism combines the worst elements of authoritarianism (spying and centralization of power, albeit in the private sector) and laissez-faire economics (increased concentration of wealth, and a neutered state). This is a truly significant change from the earlier economic systems, that even reasonable arguments for deregulation no longer make sense, predicated—as they are—on the assumption that markets are so multifaceted and complex that any attempt to regulate them will fail to account for certain details and cause more harm than good. In contrast, surveillance capitalism, by definition, eliminates uncertainty, meaning that—staying true to principles—even the purest Hayekian would find the current economy ripe for regulation.

Surveillance capitalism combines the worst elements of authoritarianism (spying and centralization of power, albeit in the private sector) and laissez-faire economics (increased concentration of wealth, and a neutered state).

Zuboff’s book divides into four sections. The first outlines the history of surveillance capitalism’s development. In part two, Zuboff tracks how surveillance capitalism has moved from the online realm into the real world (your phone means you are surveilled when physically walking around town). Next, these same systems begin to move into the social world, altering how we interact with one another and increasingly modifying behaviors in advance.

In the final section, Zuboff describes how surveillance capitalism departs from traditional capitalist doctrine even as it traffics in similar rhetoric. The book is long and detailed but sprinkled with colorful anecdotes. Many telling stories show how far the public mindset has shifted in a very short time. It is essential reading for anybody trying to think about the political and economic mess we find ourselves in.

Tech Companies Conflate Commercial Imperatives with Technical Necessity

To be clear, Zuboff, a social psychologist at Harvard, is not opposed to advances in technology. She does, however, abhor the idea that the way the Internet has evolved is in any way natural. The aforementioned Unger frequently refers to a “dictatorship of no alternatives” and Zuboff deploys a similar idea that she terms “invevitabilism.”

Major tech companies have managed to conflate “commercial imperatives with technical necessity,” she writes. They do it on purpose, and we let them get away with it. Things need not have developed the way they have.

To be clear, Zuboff is not opposed to advances in technology. She does, however, abhor the idea that the way the Internet has evolved is in any way natural.

Back in 2000, Zuboff writes, a group of computer scientists at Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology developed a prototype of what they called an “Aware Home”. The idea, as you might guess, was to use computers to optimize the functioning of a house.

Thermostats changed the heating based on the time of day, and how much a given room is utilized, saving the homeowner money, and so forth. By 2018, products emanating from a similar concept—now called the “smart-home”—comprised a $36 billion market.

But there had been a fundamental shift in the meantime, whereas experimenters at the beginning of the century assumed that people would want to keep the functioning of their private lives private, smart homes now collect the customer’s behavioural data for the parent company.

In short, in less than 20 years, the idea of broadcasting details from one’s home life transitioned from preposterous to a new norm. Did consumers ask for—or acquiesce—to this change? By 2023, revenues from the smart-home market are forecast to increase fivefold. “We now pay for our own domination,” Zuboff writes.

Smart Cities Maybe Technocratically Efficient but They Need Not be Democratic
This logic has now broadened in scope. Smart cities are predicated on the idea that urban problems are caused by a lack of data or the inability to analyze it. Political problems all have a right or wrong answer if only we can collect and interpret enough information.

While the Chinese are building a surveillance state, the West looks increasingly content to outsource coercion to the private sector. Though smart cities may be technocratically efficient (trains ran on time in Nazi Germany too), they need not be democratic.

In the late twentieth century, politicians ceded responsibility for economic policymaking, blaming all negative outcomes on the inevitable whims of “the market,” and smart cities lead to even less democratic accountability. Discussion and human consultation are replaced by algorithms. Compromises that appeal to multiple stakeholders are out, certainty is in. Cuts in a transport budget, rerouting a bus line, or rezoning a certain land for commercial use are “smart” because the computer says they are. Anyone who disagrees is “dumb”.

While the Chinese are building a surveillance state, the West looks increasingly content to outsource coercion to the private sector.

In fact, the entire surveillance capitalist business model, including smart cities, depends on thwarting democratic will. When people are actually informed about how their personal information is circulated, they really do not like it. A poll of American adults found that 88 percent support a law— similar to one that exists in the EU—that guarantees a right to be forgotten online.

A separate Pew poll found that 93 percent of people thought it important to control “who can get information about you”. Surveillance capitalism depends on misleading people. As is the case with Pokémon Go, gaining and retaining customers is predicated on disguising the product. One 2008 study found that reading all the online privacy notices a person encounters in a year would take 76 full workdays—a number that has no doubt grown in conjunction with more privacy notices over the past decade.

The House is on Fire

Recent history has shown how a lack of state intervention can distort and limit political freedom, and the unprecedented power amassed by major tech companies makes the situation even more acute. “If we are to regain control of capital, we must bet everything on democracy,” Thomas Piketty has written. The good news is that collective action and democratic politics have curbed the big business excess in the past.

The bad news is that big changes tended to occur only in the wake of profound crises, like World War I and World War II. Unger has argued that future change “requires a change in our basic economic arrangements and assumptions: not simply a different way of regulating the market economy or of doing business under its present institutions,” rather “ a different kind of market economy”. This does not sound like a pain-free process.

Recent history has shown how a lack of state intervention can distort and limit political freedom, and the unprecedented power amassed by major tech companies makes the situation even more acute.

Thus far, the European Union has posed the most effective regulatory challenge to surveillance capital. But as an organization in a near-constant state of crisis, with a notable democratic deficit of its own, without other allies, the clash would seem to favor surveillance capitalism in the long run. For her part, Zuboff is clear: the house is on fire. “Any effort to interrupt or dismantle surveillance capitalism will have to contend with this larger institutional landscape that protects and sustains its operations,” she writes.

Benjamin Cunningham

writes for The Economist, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique and The American Interest. He is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme and a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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