By Shoshana Zuboff
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a masterwork of original thinking and research, in which Shoshana Zuboff provides startling insights into the phenomenon that she has named surveillance capitalism. The stakes could not be higher: a global architecture of behavior modification threatens human nature in the twenty-first century just as industrial capitalism disfigured the natural world in the twentieth.
Zuboff vividly brings to life the consequences as surveillance capitalism advances from Silicon Valley into every economic sector. Vast wealth and power are accumulated in ominous new “behavioral futures markets,” where predictions about our behavior are bought and sold, and the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new “means of behavioral modification.”
The threat has shifted from a totalitarian Big Brother state to a ubiquitous digital architecture: a “Big Other” operating in the interests of surveillance capital. Here is the crucible of an unprecedented form of power marked by extreme concentrations of knowledge and free from democratic oversight. The comprehensive and moving analysis in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism lays bare the threats to twenty-first century society: a controlled “hive” of total connection that seduces with promises of total certainty for maximum profit–at the expense of democracy, freedom, and our human future.
With little resistance from law or society, surveillance capitalism is on the verge of dominating the social order and shaping the digital future–if we let it.
The Essence of Surveillance Capitalism
Karlin Lillington on The Irish Times wrote:
"The headline story is that it’s not so much about the nature of digital technology as about a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to the new variant is 'surveillance capitalism'. It works by providing free services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services to monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent. [...] While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx."
James Bridle on The Guardian wrote:
"Zuboff’s massive The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (at 700-plus pages) will surely become a pivotal work in defining, understanding and exposing this surreptitious exploitation of our data and, increasingly, our free will. [...] She meticulously demonstrates how Google, initially a financially struggling search engine, pioneered surveillance capitalism once it discovered it was sitting on a data gold mine – its users – and could monetise the personal information disclosed by every search. Not that we ever consented. And therein lies the system’s foundation, the prime deception that fuels Zuboff’s slow, focused burn. Google is surveillance capitalism’s chief architect. [...] Keeping us in the dark is official strategy, regardless of whether it means ignoring laws or deliberately doing the wrong thing, as Zuboff shows in a shocking litany of corporate examples.
Sam DiBella on LSE Review of Books wrote:
"Combining in-depth technical understanding and a broad, humanistic scope, Zuboff has written what may prove to be the first definitive account of the economic – and thus social and political – condition of our age. [...] As a consequence of placing her analysis within economic theory and a wider history of both capitalism and totalitarianism, she introduces a number of useful terms into the discussion which do much to move it forward. Much of the debate around Google, Facebook and their ilk, for example, has been framed in terms of privacy [...] Zuboff recasts the conversation around privacy as one over 'decision rights': the agency we can actively assert over our own futures, which is fundamentally usurped by predictive, data-driven systems. Engaging with the systems of surveillance capitalism, and acquiescing to its demands for ever deeper incursions into everyday life, involves much more than the surrender of information: it is to place the entire track of one’s life, the determination of ones path, under the purview and control of the market"
Brett Christophers on Jacobin Magazine wrote:
"Early on, Zuboff carefully describes surveillance capitalism as a capitalism, rather than an offshoot of the capitalism. With that phrasing, she positions surveillance capitalism as having concrete predecessors and as being totally unprecedented, an overextension of capitalism. She argues against a Marxist critique of capitalism as an entire economic system, because she believes Marxism uses an economic determinism that she’d rather avoid (which she juxtaposes to the technological determinism of surveillance capitalists). But, even if you’re not an anti-capitalist, this introduces a fissure in Zuboff’s theoretical edifice. When we look at it, are surveillance capitalists really so different than what Marxist theory would describe? [...] Furthermore, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a very long book. Like The Odyssey, it’s full of epic similes to ground the text—sharks, wizards, tapeworms. They are not subtle, and I found their length and frequency to only obfuscate Zuboff’s urgent message. The complicated interweaving of narrative, memoir and academic description is also not structured in a friendly manner for the reader. Pared-down prose would have done a lot to improve The Age of Surveillance Capitalism."
"Like many commentators on Facebook, Google et al, Zuboff overstates what is actually happening with the data that those companies’ surveillance of us occasions. [...] Still, there is much that Zuboff gets right. She offers a penetrating and persuasive account of how groups like Facebook and Google mine online behavior so as to better match advertisements to users’ interests, and indeed of just how much data such companies possess. [...] What seems much less clear is Zuboff’s contention that in view of these developments in the spheres of collation and use of user data and attempts to nudge consumers toward behaving in ways that suit capitalists, surveillance capitalism amounts to a decisively new economic system. [...] Surely the thing that most meaningfully distinguishes Google’s monitoring of what its users do online from, say, BARB’s monitoring of what television viewers do in their living rooms is the quality, intensity, and accuracy of the former. [...] y point here then is not the one that other critics of Zuboff have made, which is that her characterization of surveillance capitalism as “rogue” legitimates all other forms of capitalism — although that is definitely true. Nor is my point that there is nothing new about surveillance capitalism as Zuboff describes it. Clearly there is. The point is that surveillance capitalism is not a radical departure. It represents the realization or intensification of tendencies that have always been part of capitalism’s DNA but which for a variety of reasons associated primarily with the technical infrastructures of product and service delivery have not until now been realizable."
Keynote speech Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism
Alternatively, you may be interested in this 1-hour interview with Zuboff by Ralph Nader Radio Hour,
Definition of Surveillance Capitalism Given in the Book
Sur-veil-lance Cap-i-tal-ism, n.
1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales; 2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification; 3. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecedented in human history; 4. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy; 5. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth; 6. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy; 7. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty; 8. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.
- "Surveillance Capitalism" - article by Zuboff on Project Syndicate, 3 January 2020
- 'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism - interview with Soshana Zuboff in The Guardian, 20 January 2019
- Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism’s Threat to Democracy; The Harvard Business School professor discusses her new book - interview with Zuboff in New York Magazine, 24 February 2019
- Surveillance Capitalism Exploits the Choices We Make - discussion of the book on Fair Observer, 6 February 2019
About Shoshana Zuboff
Shoshana Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor emerita, Harvard Business School. She is the author of In The Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power and The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and her BA from the University of Chicago.
Table of Contents of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
- Home or Exile in the Digital Future
Part I - The Foundations of Surveillance Capitalism
- August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism
- The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus
- The Moat Around the Castle
- The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete
- Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society
Part II - The Advance of Surveillance Capitalism
- The Reality Business
- Rendition: From Experience to Data
- Rendition from the Depts
- Make Them Dance
- The Right to the Future Tense
Part III - Instrumentarian Power for a Third Modernity
- Two Species of Power
- Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power
- A Utopia of Certainty
- The Instrumentarian Collective
- Of Life in the Hive
- The Right to Sanctuary
- A Coup from Above