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  • How Free Is Too Free?Surveillance Capitalism, Market Democracy, and the Dangers of Modern Freedom
  • Michelle Orange (bio)

criticism, citizenship, freedom, independence, surveillance, capitalism, democracy

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
By Shoshana Zuboff
PublicAffairs, 2019
704p. HB, $38
What is Democracy?
Directed by Astra Taylor
Zeitgeist Films, 2018
108 minutes

After a fallow period of about fifteen years, in 2014 I returned to driving. Having let my license expire out of pure indolence, I embarked on a process that ended with a road test in deepest Brooklyn. I had no car and no plans to buy one, but within a couple years I was doing more driving than anyone I knew. A needy dog five pounds too big to fly and a sick parent five hundred miles away sent me again and again to the closest rental depot, where I would be handed keys to a compact car of limited but occasionally stark variation. For the same price, I might settle into a vehicle loaded with sixty-seven computers and a heated steering wheel, or a shitbox with no USB port and a tire set to blow on a major Ontario highway. I would study the rental agent's face as she clacked in the relevant data, looking for some sign of my fate.

I developed a fondness for the lesser Fords—Fiesta, Focus, Fusion—solid little numbers with a smooth ride and decent mileage. Much had changed since I last sat behind a wheel: Today's cars flash with digital screens and inscrutable features; Google Maps lights the way. Together with the friction went the pleasure of striking down an open road—of feeling free and selfish, gobbling time and space and finite resources. If the fantasy of personal liberty cars once represented was just that, today even the illusion is gone: To drive is simply to travel at greater speed within one's digital carapace, fielding and obeying its endless stream of signals and commands.

Besides, the roads were never, ever open. I learned to game the logistics, to leave one major city before dawn, arrive in the other before the evening rush. Still, every artery and capillary teemed. Gridlock unnerved me less than the relentless flow. Who are all these people? Where are they going? Having gained some fresh vantage on a clotted freeway, more than once I heard myself muttering that it was all too much. This must be it, I thought: the look and feel of too much freedom.


In an 1819 essay, the Swiss-born writer and politician Benjamin Constant proposed that the ancient ideal of democracy had no place in the modern world, and a new line between personal and political freedom must be drawn. In Sparta and Athens, he writes, the individual exercised power as a member of the collective, but the collective in turn constrained her every move: "All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance. No importance was given to individual independence, neither in relation to opinions, nor to labor, nor, above all, to religion." Democracy is good, but "individual liberty … is the true modern liberty," with political liberty as its guarantee. Modern individuals need authorities "only to give us the general means of instruction which they can supply, as travelers accept from them the main roads without being told by them which route to take."

At any rate, true democracy does not scale well. Higher population equals less political influence per capita; to find fulfillment, her place in a bulging order, the modern must define herself as an individual first, a citizen thereafter. [End Page 156] Writing at the close of the Napoleonic wars, Constant celebrated commerce as the instrument of both personal and political power: War precedes commerce and commerce replaces war, giving those weary of conflict's burdens a better option, "a milder and surer means of engaging the interest of others to agree to what suits his own."

Constant also recognizes the danger of modern freedom, the notion that "absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right...


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pp. 156-159
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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