Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 5 and 6

Bryan Alexander
Apr 23 · 5 min read

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 5: The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete, and chapter 6: Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society. This represents a deeper dive into how tech companies elicit and exploit user data.

In this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions. I’ll also recap what readers have shared.

Ken Bauer reads in style.

How can you respond? You, dear reader, can respond through whichever technological means make the most sense to you. You can comment on each blog post, as some did last week. You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web. (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)

If you want to find previous installments of our reading so far, they are all available under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ . You can also find the reading schedule here.

From readers: Alan Baily offered thoughtful answers to last week’s questions. John Kellden identified a very powerful passage from earlier in the book. On Mastodon, Booklord recommended two readings, Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, and Mcsweeney’s #54: The End of Trust. And a new group, Citizens Against Surveillance Capitalism (CASC), appeared on LinkedIn.

Summary

With Chapter 5 (“The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete”) the book explores how companies compete with each other in this kind of business, and how they bypass public resistance. One method is by rapidly generating innovative services for public consumption, so that a firm can receive as much data as possible. The data is the point, for Zuboff, not so much the service itself. “It’s not the map; it’s the behavioral data from [users] interacting with the map.” (132)

Zuboff lays out a four-stage process in this chapter, using Google’s recent history as a case study. First, there is the launch of a service that generates user data in a new (to the company) way, or an “incursion.” This works as a kind of dispossession, weakening user control over a given part of their life. Second, users grow accustomed to these new tools and their presence, or “habituation.” Third, if public outcry builds, then companies can shift their architecture in small, tactical ways: “adaptation.” Fourth, a company must build on that service, continuing to expand, and drawing attention away from any problems with the original service, or “redirection.”

While this chapter starts with Google, it moves on to others. Facebook learns the four steps quickly, using them to grow into a behemoth. Microsoft turns itself around from a slump and grows new profits based on search and user data, partly obtained from buying LinkedIn. Even Verizon learned the four stages. (159ff).

Chapter 6: Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society is very schematic, offering a series of integer-based concepts. Zuboff outlines six principles Google articulated to justify its strategy.

We claim human experience as raw material free for the taking. On the basis of this claim, we can ignore considerations of individuals’ rights, interests, awareness, or comprehension.

On the basis of our claim, we assert the right to take an individual’s experience for translation into behavioral data.

Our right to take, based on our claim of free raw material, confers the right to own the behavioral data derived from human experience.

Our rights to take and to own confer the right to know what the data disclose.

Our rights to take, to own, and to know confer the right to decide how we use our knowledge.

Our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide confer our rights to the conditions that preserve our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide.(179)

The chapter’s title refers to a division of learning, rather than a division of labor, and this is partially explained by the gap between those who learn new technology skills and those who do not. The term also summons Emile Durkheim’s foundational sociological work, and in addition denotes a threefold question about information and power in firms: who knows, who decides, and who chooses the deciders? In today’s economy as well as society as a whole, the answers increasingly are:

The answer to the question Who knows? was that the machine knows, along with an elite cadre able to wield the analytic tools to troubleshoot and extract value from information. The answer to Who decides? was a narrow market form and its business models that decide. Finally, in the absence of a meaningful double movement, the answer to Who decides who decides? defaults entirely to financial capital bound to the disciplines of shareholder-value maximization.(181–182)

Put more simply: “surveillance capitalism knows, decides, and decides who decides.” (192)

Zuboff then adds “the problem of two texts,” two different digital records associated with users. We can access one, but not the other (183). Think of Google’s record of your preferences, or the Facebook account that persists after the user putatively deletes it, as examples of this second, user-”illegible” text.

The combined effect of these divisions and axioms yields a new elite, one based on computational power:

the competitive struggle over surveillance revenues reverts to the pre-Gutenberg order as the division of learning in society shades toward the pathological, captured by a narrow priesthood of privately employed computational specialists, their privately owned machines, and the economic interests for whose sake they learn.(190)

This week’s favorite line is short:

Such companies are often referred to as “software-as-a-service” or SaaS, but they are more accurately terms “surveillance as a service,” or SVaaS.(172)

Questions

  1. Surveillance capitalism appears without state control, according to chapter 6. If this is right, what kinds of government policies offer the best responses?
  2. In these chapters we see the financial sector continuing to play a key role in the rise of surveillance capitalism. How should societies and states react, if at all?
  3. Zuboff describes digital companies launching new services as invasions akin to robbery and kidnapping (139) or to the Spanish conquests of the Americas (176ff). Elsewhere, “The world is vanquished now, on its knees, and brought to you by Google.” (142) Is that language accurate or hyperbolic?
  4. At one point Zuboff ponders, How different might our society be if US businesses had chosen to invest in people as well as in machines?” (182) Does this mean America should increase computer science teaching as well as job retraining?
  5. What do you make of the surveillance capitalism model so far?

Next week we cross into the book’s second major part, with chapters 7: The Reality Business, and 8: Rendition: From Experience to Data.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ . You can find the reading schedule here.

(photo by Ken Bauer)


Originally published at https://bryanalexander.org on April 23, 2019.

Bryan Alexander

Written by

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of The FTTE report, THE NEW DIGITAL STORYTELLING, and GEAR UP FOR LEARNING BEYOND K-12.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade