- The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff
By Shoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs (The Hatchett Group). 2019. 704 Pages. https://www.publicaffairsbooks.com/titles/shoshana-zuboff/the-age-of-surveillance-capitalism/9781610395694/
The foundation of sociology coincides with the uprooting of traditional society during the emergence of industrial capitalism. Durkheim (1964), Marx (1992) and Weber (1978) each had a take on the disruption created by early capitalism. Polanyi's (2001) "double movement" brought a new stability after decades of strife. This reaction emerged spontaneously at the local and national level. Ultimately it had to be institutionalized in the post war order (Kalleberg 2011).
In her new book on Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard Business School emeritus professor Shoshana Zuboff introduces us to a new wave of modernity, equally disruptive, but uniquely difficult to overcome. According to Zuboff, this new wave capitalism is not content to commoditize our experiences, but seeks also to control and direct or behavior by channeling those experiences through predictive analytics. Zuboff argues this is what makes the current iteration of capitalism so insidious, where "...the means of production are subordinated to an increasingly complex and comprehensive 'means of behavioral modification." (Zuboff 2019:8). What will inform the double movement this time, if the exploitation system itself is so thoroughly controlling us?
One of the important contributions Zuboff makes is to move beyond the traditional concerns with capitalist exploitation and disruptions of technology. She notes that "...technology is not and never can be a thing in itself, isolated from economics and society." (Zuboff 2019:14). Instead, it is what Weber refers to as "economic orientation." (Weber 1978). She argues that Google is perfecting surveillance capitalism the way that General Motors honed managerial capitalism. But she also notes that individual companies are not where the primary problem resides. For instance, Google's early innovations, or exploitations, have quickly transitioned to Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. Zuboff suggests that traditional anti-monopoly practices "...could easily result in the establishing multiple surveillance capitalist firms..." (Zuboff 2019:23).
What makes this book particularly helpful for thinking through this new machine age is that she both generalizes the situation and puts it in historical and social context. Much has been written about the monopoly power of info-tech companies (Galloway 2018; Webb 2019) or the inherent biases of "algorithms" (Noble 2018). She likens this age to capitalist primitive accumulation, where material is taken from those unable or unwilling to assert their rights, and is then commoditized for profit. According to Zuboff, we are as innocent to what is happening as those exposed to the first colonizers.
Much like those being colonized, we are quickly waking up to the reality around us. The role of Facebook, and other social media, in manipulation the US election is highlighted in her book. Suddenly our experiences are not just available for suggesting our next commercial acquisition, but now put the foundations of our democratic society at risk. Everything about us is exposed and for sale. These behaviors are fed into sophisticated predictive models. They, in turn, shape our views and those around us. And it is not as simple as turning of the access. We can opt out of Facebook and Twitter, even stop buying on line. But our email is accessed by these companies, and every internet search is recorded forever. Under US law there is no need for our permission to access this information or marketize it.
At this point in the story, it is helpful to inquire as to how we got here. The strength of Zuboff's social science approach comes through again here. It is not the technology per se that is at the root of the problem. She situates it at the resurgence of neoliberalism. Hayek (1988) and Milton Friedman led the intellectual assault on the post war institutional status quo. Meanwhile, Jensen and Meckling (1976) turned this into the "shareholder value movement" and the rise of private equity. Public and private companies no longer had...