The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 1 and 2

Our online book club just started reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 1: Home or Exile in the digital Future, and chapter 2: August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism.

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

Since we’re just starting, there isn’t much to report from readers. There is a good presentation and discussion with the author in Boston. (thanks to Vanessa Vaile for finding that one)

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. 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.)

Summary

Chapter 1: Home or Exile in the digital Future introduces and sketches out the book to come. It’s both dense and outline in nature, hitting a series of major themes. The first point: we once had a conception of smart homes that were based on their inhabitants’ ownership of data (for example, this Georgia Tech project). Silicon Valley has taken up the former while blasting past the latter.

Zuboff helpfully offers key terms that she will rely on in the rest of the book:

“behavioral surplus” — data generated by users in a system that can be extracted and used in other ways.
“prediction products” — software that lets firms forecast user behavior. Build upon their behavioral surplus.
“behavioral futures markets” — “a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions.” (8)

Just before the chapter begins is a multi-part, nearly one-page definition of the titular term:

Chapter 2: August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism offers a fast yet dense history of the economic and technological developments that led to the present day. Zuboff starts a century ago with the rise of mass production and the development of modernity, culminating in a deeper sense of individual identify capable of being socially supported. She sees Apple as capturing that sense superbly by marketing its digital music platform to very individualized tastes. The flip side of this strategy is that companies can do other things with individualized data besides serving them better, including seeking not only to predict, but modify behavior.

Along the way many societies developed a strong governmental intervention in the economy and society, which Zuboff will refer to in Karl Paul Polanyi‘s phrase: “double movement.” (39) By the late 20th century a reaction to this mixed economy set in, as a more pro-market form of capitalism — neoliberalism — took hold. Shareholder value became central to company operations, so the pressure to boost short-term profits expanded (38). Digital companies in this contemporary context have little concern for regulation and a lot of interest in generating cash quickly — more so that their predecessors.

Yet while this was happening, countermovements arose. Zuboff concludes the chapter with a summary of the right to be forgotten legal movement, including California’s online eraser law.

One note: I just love this line:

[I]t was as if a shark had been silently circling the depths all along, just below the surface of the action, only to occasionally leap glistening from the water in pursuit of a fresh bite of flesh. (42)

Questions

  1. Zuboff finds Google and Facebook to be the leading examples of surveillance capitalism, but isn’t sure if Apple will follow them (23). What do you think of Apple’s role in this new economy?
  2. What role does the financial sector play in the rise of surveillance capitalism? The rise of neoliberalism included huge expansions of that sector in the US and UK.
  3. Is Zuboff criticizing a particular subset of capitalism or capitalism itself? (Evgeny Morozov argues that it should be doing the latter)
  4. What do you make of the surveillance capitalism model so far?

Next week, April 15, we will advance to the next chapters. 3: The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus; 4: The Moat Around the Castle.

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

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(cross-posted to my blog)

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Originally published at bryanalexander.org on April 9, 2019.