Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work and asks the author 10 key questions
If you can’t read Zuboff’s new book in full, this article/interview may convince you that you should anyway. It may be one of the most important things you read all year.
For example, the idea of “data ownership” is often championed as a solution. But what is the point of owning data that should not exist in the first place? All that does is further institutionalise and legitimate data capture. It’s like negotiating how many hours a day a seven-year-old should be allowed to work, rather than contesting the fundamental legitimacy of child labour. Data ownership also fails to reckon with the realities of behavioural surplus. Surveillance capitalists extract predictive value from the exclamation points in your post, not merely the content of what you write, or from how you walk and not merely where you walk. Users might get “ownership” of the data that they give to surveillance capitalists in the first place, but they will not get ownership of the surplus or the predictions gleaned from it – not without new legal concepts built on an understanding of these operations. ❧
It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. These processes are meticulously designed to produce ignorance by circumventing individual awareness and thus eliminate any possibility of self-determination. As one data scientist explained to me, “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way… We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.” ❧
Larry Page grasped that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood, that it could be extracted at no extra cost online and at very low cost out in the real world. For today’s owners of surveillance capital the experiential realities of bodies, thoughts and feelings are as virgin and blameless as nature’s once-plentiful meadows, rivers, oceans and forests before they fell to the market dynamic. We have no formal control over these processes because we are not essential to the new market action. Instead we are exiles from our own behaviour, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. Knowledge, authority and power rest with surveillance capital, for which we are merely “human natural resources”. We are the native peoples now whose claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience. ❧
In this way they have come to dominate what I call “the division of learning in society”, which is now the central organising principle of the 21st-century social order, just as the division of labour was the key organising principle of society in the industrial age. ❧
The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict. The first conflict is over the distribution of knowledge: “Who knows?” The second is about authority: “Who decides who knows?” The third is about power: “Who decides who decides who knows?” ❧
Historians call it the “conquest pattern”, which unfolds in three phases: legalistic measures to provide the invasion with a gloss of justification, a declaration of territorial claims, and the founding of a town to legitimate the declaration. ❧
No one is forced on Twitter, naturally, but if you aren’t on Twitter, then your audience is (probably) smaller, while if you are on Twitter, they can steal your privacy, which I deeply resent. This is a big dilemma to me. Beyond that, I simply don’t think anybody should have as much power as the social media giants have over us today. I think it’s increasingly politically important to decentralize social media. ❧
This is an important point! And nothing puts a finer point on it than Shoshona Zuboff’s recent book on surveillance capitalism.
The combination of state surveillance and its capitalist counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown and unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates into asymmetries of power. ❧
This piece has gotten a lot of attention over the years. I have heard a lot of people saying that they had been "inspired" by it. I fear that what they meant was that they were inspired by the one pull-quote that people tend to quote from it, and ignored the rest. So if someone has linked you to this page, or if you've googled that pull-quote and ended up here, let me give you some context. I wrote this in 2005, which was was more than a year before Facebook was open to the general public.
The world was different then.
When I hear people say that they were "inspired" by this, I fear that the result of such inspiration was most likely to cause them to participate in the construction of the Public-Private Surveillance Partnership. These people told themselves that they were building tools to "bring people together" when in fact what they were doing was constructing and enabling the information-broker business models used by companies like Facebook and Equifax, where people are not the customers but rather are the raw materials whose personal details are the product.
I was talking about decentralization and empowerment of the individual. They went and build the exact opposite.
It's not a great feeling to think that someone may have read your words and then gone on to construct the dystopian hellscape that we're now living in, where Twitter is the prime enabler of actual Nazis and Facebook's greatest accomplishment has been to put a racist rapist in the White House.
If all the people who claimed to have been "inspired" by this piece hadn't been, and had just kept writing middleware for banks or whatever, the world might have been a slightly better place.
The Bundeskartellamt has imposed on Facebook far-reaching restrictions in the processing of user data.
According to Facebook's terms and conditions users have so far only been able to use the social network under the precondition that Facebook can collect user data also outside of the Facebook website in the internet or on smartphone apps and assign these data to the user’s Facebook account. All data collected on the Facebook website, by Facebook-owned services such as e.g. WhatsApp and Instagram and on third party websites can be combined and assigned to the Facebook user account.
The authority’s decision covers different data sources:
(i) Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp and Instagram can continue to collect data. However, assigning the data to Facebook user accounts will only be possible subject to the users’ voluntary consent. Where consent is not given, the data must remain with the respective service and cannot be processed in combination with Facebook data.
(ii) Collecting data from third party websites and assigning them to a Facebook user account will also only be possible if users give their voluntary consent.
Shoshana Zuboff's interdisciplinary breadth and depth enable her to come to grips with the social, political, business, and technological meaning of the changes taking place in our time. We are at a critical juncture in the confrontation between the vast power of giant high-tech companies and government, the hidden economic logic of surveillance capitalism, and the propaganda of machine supremacy that threaten to shape and control human life. Will the brazen new methods of social engineering and behavior modification threaten individual autonomy and democratic rights and introduce extreme new forms of social inequality? Or will the promise of the digital age be one of individual empowerment and democratization?
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is neither a hand-wringing narrative of danger and decline nor a digital fairy tale. Rather, it offers a deeply reasoned and evocative examination of the contests over the next chapter of capitalism that will decide the meaning of information civilization in the twenty-first century. The stark issue at hand is whether we will be the masters of information and machines or its slaves.
Can’t wait to get this…
On first blush, I’ll note that the cover looks a lot like that of Pikkety’s Captialism in the 21st Century. Certainly an interesting framing by the publisher.