Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism- The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff
(Originally, I had planned to use a screenshot from The Simpsons’ episode where they mock Google Glass, to show that I’m hip, cool and young! However, that would probably violate somebody’s copyright, and while I like to listen to Charli XCX’s song Break the Rules, I’m very reluctant about breaking rules and laws myself.)
In season four of Netflix‘s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt the protagonist works at an internet start-up company that specifies on programming apps and mobile phone games. When her boss, a young nerdy character, tells her that the firm has been sold and everyone working there would be rich soon, Kimmy is thrilled. But only until it is revealed that, not only does Kimmy have no clue about what the company does, but that the profit it generates stems from surveillance and that the game’s sole purpose is to spy on the user’s personal data. And Cheryl, Kimmy’s AI-robot co-worker, is revealed to be collecting personal data, garnered through surveillance of the people surrounding her, to commodify her personality in a way that encourages others to engage in a personal conversation with her that would reveal even more data. She, for example, uses slang to appeal to one co-worker or presents a troubled personality as a way to engage with Kimmy’s need to nurture people. All this is based on the private, sensitive data collected by the internet company or by the AI-robot herself.
This, obviously, is supposed to be funny and satirical, and thus, it appears to be exaggerated to most viewers. I watched that episode while reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff. And while I was laughing at first, the insight provided to me by the book made this satirical exaggeration seem way more realistic.
The book is split into three sections, and there’s an introduction and a conclusion. Section one describes the origins of surveillance capitalism and the circumstances that shaped it in its early stages. There is, for example, a marked connection to neoliberal politics in the US (and elsewhere) that left room for surveillance and anti-democratic practices in the digital space. This was further enforced after 9/11 when the US government started putting surveillance or “safety” above privacy. One corporation that started out as a search engine around 2000 was Google. Zuboff describes the beginnings of surveillance capitalism on the example of it, showing the reader how the search engine progressed towards a digital corporation that focused on selling private data of its users and using the data to predict the user’s interests in advertisements.
In the second section, Zuboff talks about how companies like Google and Facebook get away with these actions and how they’re slowly invading our private lives. Whenever a company launched a new way of garnering user’s data, they would always just go ahead and do it, without asking for allowance, without abiding to laws. Sometimes, because the situation was unprecedented, there weren’t even laws protecting the users in the first place. Whenever their actions were revealed and led to public outrage, they mostly ignored the situation, or stopped the project after having collected enough data, only to wait until the outrage was over. One of these examples is Google Glass. Launched in 2012-2013, it was presented as a big digital advancement, but it quickly led to concerns about privacy issues. While limited to the US in its first stage, it led to global outrage and even had an impact on popular culture, with the Simpsons putting the issue at the centre of one of their episodes. Homer’s boss, Mr Burns, gives each employee an object similar to the Google Glass, which Homer later on passes on to his wife, Marge. In the end, he finds out that his boss intended to use the internet-connected glasses as a way to spy on the people working in his nuclear power station. Homer then can draw use from that knowledge by finding ways to improve his marriage, and, in the end, everything gets wrapped up nicely (although he does spy on his wife in a therapy session, so that’s wild). The real problem is not assessed. After stopping production of the glasses in 2015, Google relaunched the project in 2017 with a different name, once the outrage had died down. And this has often been the case, be it in the rise of mobile phone apps that act as an AI assistant to the user, but steals their data, or in Android phones and Android apps which often can look through everything on your phone despite not needing it to function. Or apps like Pokémon Go. Clearly, there’s a plethora of examples to draw from. Just know, that I marked and highlighted a lot of passages because it was either super important or super scary information (or both).
The third section then dives further into the possible future we are approaching under surveillance capitalism. Zuboff presents the current situation in China, where they already have digital profiles for the citizens and if you act contrary to what’s best for the “hive”, you might lose your job or your home, which leads to the oppression of individuality. Similar things could happen all over the world but the government would not be in power of such information. Private companies and corporations, like Google, Facebook and Verizon would be. And while it’s stated in the book that there happens to be a certain transfer from people working in government positions into comfortable jobs for internet companies and vice versa, which is presented on the example of the Obama administration, the knowledge garnered about the people/internet users would still fully lie with the private companies. And they would shape the hive to get more and more profit from it. Of course, control about knowledge exerted by any superior power is bad, no matter if it’s an oppressive government or a profit-orientated internet company.
Throughout all this, Zuboff doesn’t fail to mention some small actions of resistance, like the people in Spain, who fought to have the right “to be forgotten” by the internet, or the small village in the UK who didn’t let Google Street View cars into their town. Summarising the book is difficult, and I hope that I somehow did it justice with these paragraphs. Zuboff presents a lot more information and context, but it’s also important to note that there are some glimpses of hope in there, and the book’s object isn’t to kill our hopes for a better future. It’s meant to be a wake-up call. Obviously, it has been a tough read, and it has taken me a long time to finish it, since Zuboff provides us with so much information and context. For example, she compares the way surveillance capitalists like Google have “invaded” our digital (and more and more our real lives) to the way the Spanish conquistadors have invaded the Caribbean islands from the native people. There is a lot of (super-interesting) theory introduced, I especially liked the way Zuboff established her theory of an “instrumentarian power” by introducing and analysing a lot of theory on totalitarianism from different sources, like the works of Hannah Arendt or just by looking at the states that had a totalitarian system, but also fictional works that depict a totalitarian state. While all of this was informative and useful for the book, it sometimes slowed down the reading process for me, because there was only so much information I could digest at a time. Plus, I had to stay really focused all the time to not miss any important pieces of information. In the end, the information given was necessary to understand the entirety of the sub-chapter or section, so I definitely can’t say that Zuboff should have edited bits of it out, and to be completely fair, it has to be said that there also is a lot of more perceptible information given.
One prime example is the chapter on the way young people are endangered by the progressing “success” of surveillance capitalism. In this chapter, Zuboff opens with the answers young people had in response to a survey on their social media use, and how it may lead to certain anxieties about other’s opinions about them in young people. The chapter goes on to show how surveillance capitalists abuse the way young people nowadays are more prone to explore their identity online. What struck me was the way Zuboff doesn’t write young people on the internet off as internet addicts, or does the classic “You young people and the internet” thing some 40+ year olds like to do, despite being way more addicted to WhatsApp than any of us because they just have to send everyone they know the weird “happy 1st of May” picture. She takes the digital natives serious, while also acknowledging and raising awareness on how we and those younger than us grew up simultaneously to the rise of surveillance capitalism and are closest to its frontier, thus the most endangered by its progress. Surveillance capitalism and the future of the instrumentarian hive envisioned by it do not allow for individualism, in fact, it is its biggest threat. Individualism does not go along with the “hive” that serves to surveillance capitalist’s profit.
What separates this book from other books on any form of capitalism lies in its variety of presented information, but it also has a more persuasive writing style instead of just giving a plain stream of facts and numbers. Oftentimes I felt reminded of the way Naomi Klein writes (yes, sometimes I read books that are not stupid and meaningless). While the vast amount of information may make this book less accessible than just a short essay or newspaper article on the topic of surveillance capitalism, the writing style seems to make up for that at least to some extent. So, if you’re looking for an easy read, this book might not be the right pick for you. But if you’re an avid reader of non-fiction lit (#litty) and up for a book that might take a longer time to read and might be a challenge but ends up providing you with a lot of important information, then I can definitely recommend you this work.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power not only is a book of utmost relevance, but it evidently also has been a lot of work and research for the author. Shoshana Zuboff has invested a lot of time on this topic, and despite a fire in her house, that destroyed most of her research, she did not give up. This effort should be honoured and, in a way, this review is meant to do just that. Before reading the book, I wasn’t aware of how serious the situation with surveillance had gotten. I didn’t perceive it as an important issue that concerns the world and its population right now. I thought that surveillance was some person on the FBI or the NSA watching me through my webcam while I wasted my life on the internet or cried to one of Mitski’s songs. But, in the end, we have to ask ourselves, whether we want our every move to be predicted and then used for the profit of Google, or Facebook, or Microsoft (and, let’s be real, this is just the tip of the iceberg), and maybe think about how important this issue really is. Because that’s really what surveillance capitalism is: They take your data and make money off of it, while pushing more and more into your life. So, if any of this matters to you, please read the book. It’s a wake-up call to all of us, because we cannot lose much more time if we want to stop the instrumentarian future predicted by Zuboff. The topic of surveillance may be a funny throwaway theme in popular culture, but it is absolutely real and absolutely scary. In the last paragraph of the book, Shoshana Zuboff speaks of our ability to “reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home”. And like the surveillance capitalists declared the digital space as theirs, she says that her book should be our declaration in taking action against them. Once again, I can only strongly recommend to read her book.
– Robin was listening The Altar by Banks while writing this article