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  • The Enemy of Democracy
  • Catherine Liu (bio)
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Shoshana Zuboff
704 Pages; Cloth, $30.40

Shoshanna Zuboff has written a book that names the enemy of democracy, enlightenment, and autonomy: surveillance capitalism. In five hundred and twenty-five pages of carefully footnoted, often repetitive intellectual and business history, economic and social analysis, Zuboff has set out a challenge to us all—understand the enemy or be defeated by it. Zuboff is interested in accumulation and exploitation and is outraged by the tactics Silicon Valley's new generation of keto-dieting robber barons. While her own place in our economic and social world is extremely comfortable, Zuboff, is rightly outraged by the political cost of surveillance capitalism that we have all had to pay. A basic privacy metaphor in this book is the upper middle class home, a "sanctuary" of taste and sensibility, a storehouse of good memories, a well built, well-lit, spacious home that shelters our secrets, our loves, and our losses. When her home is struck by lightning, igniting before her eyes like dry brush, Zuboff likens her inability to deal with the unprecedented nature of the disaster to our collective paralysis in the face of the unrecognizable, violent usurpation of the contours of our existence by the overwhelming, but, in this case, entirely human made forces of surveillance capitalism. Zuboff wants to give us tools to understand what we are facing in a world where Facebook, Google Maps, Apple, Snap, WhatsApp, Fitbit, Facial Recognition Software, the Internet of Things, Smart Homes, and Nest Thermometers are turning everything we do into data that can be mined for prediction, rendered from behavioral surplus, or what the Silicon Valley giants auctioned to advertisers and Cambridge Analytica.

Zuboff's home burns to the ground, a devastating loss for her and her family, but they have the wherewithal and economic resilience to recover. At the end of the book, Zuboff describes the process of rebuilding a sturdy new home, with reclaimed materials. She finds her sanctuary again: the problem is that there are millions if not hundreds of millions of Americans who are precariously housed, whose homes are no sanctuaries, and for whom the bright glow of a smartphone provides users with a fragile sense of belonging and safety, personal space, and distraction. The working class, the homeless, the displaced migrant, the abused teenager, or even ordinary middle managers and isolated caregivers and mothers of young children—these kinds of people are remarkably absent from Zuboff's book. It is easier for her to empathize with a contemporary artist working on surveillance issues than it is for her to imagine the fundamental homelessness of the dispossessed. I am criticizing her class blindness and her bourgeois notion of individualism and autonomy, but I do not think we can dismiss her findings on the basis of that critique. For a devastating account of how surveillance technologies are being used to punish the poor, we should all read Virginia Eubanks' Automating Inequality: How High Tech Tools Profile, Police and the Punish the Poor (2017). Eubanks proves that the poor are the real canaries in the coal mines of surveillance capitalism.

Zuboff is a high liberal social critic: this means she will cite Theodor Adorno before Jacques Derrida or Jacques Lacan. She does not imitate Adorno's opacity: she writes for a general, thoughtful reader, the kind we are told no longer exist. Her values are deeply embedded in the values of a bourgeois ideal of individualism and its relationship to a social whole in which dissent and resistance, critique and negation form the basis of the democratic world she holds so dear. The time she devotes to the study of surveillance capitalism is the time that the world of digital distractions would like to dominate and exploit, destroy and undermine, all in the name of a frictionless field of exploitable interactivity.

The Internet in general and Google in particular were not always built to extract [End Page 9] profit from massive amounts of user...


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pp. 9-10
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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