Why Survillance Capitalism is not an end game or model!

“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power”

So I took this one for the team, and read every single page of the near 700 pages. It is a slog, even for me as a massive advocate of privacy, PII, identity, security, trust and data.

Massive respect to Shoshana Zuboff for 15 years of thinking, research, dedication and writing on and to the topic. This is half of a life’s dedication. Yes I wrote and published “My Digital Footprint — where your privacy is someone else’s business model” 10 years ago and whilst we now have lots of proof now, the theory has not moved on.

There is a lot written on this book already. If you want a summary of Shoshana work these are some of these better write ups. WIRED, FT, ZDNET, The Guardian, Harvard, Linux Journal, The Verge, Philosophical. For those who want a few videos try these TWIT, Democracy Now

My thinking

I am critical of this book, and can only assume that some who have written the summaries have not read the book, or indeed have not read a lot about this aspect of the digital market. Indeed, some may be too young to remember 1993 and the emergence of the web. I do doubt they have being reading on this since say Resisting the Virtual Life 1995 or Being Digital 1996.

Shoshana book offers a very deep vertical view of the topic — this is brilliant. Make no mistake this is really well researched and the reading list is eminence. The time it takes to get the depth is hard, the finesse of subtle debates is sublime, however it therefore lacks a horizontal and wider macro economic view — it does not consider the market and other wider issues/ factors. You have to read say The Future Of Capitalism by Prof Paul Collier and suddenly many of the arguments don’t hold up.


Shoshana makes a set of unwritten and self-assumed assumptions which I want draw out and then challenge them. Most are very much self criticism of my thinking as well, and how I have evolved over the past 10 years.

Data = Behavior

The core of this assumption is that we are predictable. We gather or collect data and with that data I can predict you. [algorithms are next] TBH I was on the same assumption 10 years ago. I wrote the same. I believed that we were rational and that only 1% was irrational. Since then I have read the works of say Dan Ariely and many other behavioral physiologists. Nudge and Hooked I loved Nick Charter’s work the Mind is Flat . If time is short and you want a generate a quick view about why the link between data and behavior does not work, read about emotional bias. It will raise reasonable doubt.

Why is this important as an assumption to bring out. If this (data = behavior) is not true a large part of the economic theory proposed in the book, that makes up the basis of Surveillance Capitalism (Big Other) falls away. If data does not lead to the prediction and behavioral change then the economics don’t work. We are still be watched — that is not in question, it is the economics of the model that needs to be questioned.

There is some truth in data = behavior but the gap is so significant that to base a market model on it is too unstable.

Algorithm = You

Like the thinking above that data can lead to understanding and the manipulation of behavior, there is a step in between data and effect, which is the algorithm or heaven forbid AI. On this topic you have to read Hannah Fry’s work, Artificial Unintelligence by @merbroussard, We Are Data or Team Human

Why read this material as you will quickly realise it is a fantasy that we either understand the algorithm, we have the models, we understand bias, we can build the system, we know what the effect will be. There is work going on all over the world to understand this. From my perspective this provides a good insight, it is UK’s THE ALL-PARTY PARLIAMENTARY GROUP ON ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE which I am part of. This provides a stack of expect views and insights into the complexity of the issues and our total lack of understanding.

Silo = data

In a way the most obvious assumption is that data rests in silo’s of the BigTech. It assumes it is the only place it can rest. The economic rational for Big Other Fundamentally the economic model proposed ignores GDPR in EU, CDR in Australia, The California Privacy Act and many others — all looking to create a even playing field where data returns to the creator. Data will be in both the Silo and with the individual, this changes basis of the assumptions and the economic model being proposed does not stack up when data is back with the user. Indeed this model, where data has mobility, is far more exciting

Data = Oil

I will only say please read data is data The thinking that links data to the existing basis of existing economic models and law is broken. Shoshana goes a long way but ultimately fits the surveillance capitalism model to the existing economics ( accepting constraints of abundance and non rational man). However when we realise that data is not an existing class but something new, we have to change the assumptions. I have changed my views on this over time and this says where I am now.

You = You

A bit subtle this one but in the data and computing world we find it safer to ignore biology and chemistry. In the book The strange order of things it becomes obvious to the reader that your DNA changes which affect how we think, react and behave. Not only our DNA but our food, diet, disease, bacteria, gut flora and environment. The data we have is so thin that the end game that the book explores is not in reach.

Why important — the simple link between data and behavior economic exploitation as explored above is just not that simple.

Excellence = Truth

The book takes a very high ground and looks like it is trying to prove that Harvard Academic excellence is better than anyone else and has a point to prove. The specific slating of Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist and Alex Pentland (MIT) I find the most disturbing, just to justify points that align to thinking. Both have changed, iterated and refined their thinking over the past 10 years and they continue to hone their views as this is a really complex area.

So overall, I would not recommend reading this as a book unless you are prepared to read much wider and form your own view. Love Shoshana as she has raised the bar and the debate.