Surveillance capitalism and
its racial discontents

review by Gary Kafer

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019. 704 pages.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff charges head first into the financial, legal, and technological developments that have enabled Google and fellow Big Data behemoths to secure jurisdiction over the procurement and use of personal information. As she contends, it is precisely upon asymmetries of access that surveillance capitalists are capable of accruing power. Surveillance capitalists, she writes,

“know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains for new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain, not ours” (11).

Surveillance capitalism weaves a society that functions not upon the division of labor, but the “division of learning – the axial principle of social order in an information civilization” (180). Under this regime, power contracts in those who possess the authority to acquire knowledge and act upon it, as well as exercise the right to distribute and withhold knowledge accordingly. Imbalanced power relations are a consequence of surveillance capitalism’s capacity to orient bodies and things towards the total control of information, thus separating “the tuners from the tuned” (519). Epistemology is the new terrain of social inequality.

However, what seems in Zuboff’s project a striking and plausible thesis must be held under closer scrutiny. That is, who precisely is the us rendered knowable in surveillance capitalism? Does an emphasis on behavioral extraction shift focus away from structural disparities of wealth accumulation towards the consumer as a self-determined individual? Relatedly, how might we account for processes of racialization historically foundational to the dispossessions of capitalist exploitation within this new regime?

Certainly, these questions are not new to critiques of capitalism and its mutations. However, in her emphasis on the behavioral modification of the consumer, Zuboff loses sight of the broader means by which surveillance is made possible across sites of production, labor, management, distribution, and consumption. Rather than do as she does in positioning behavioral modification as a totalizing force within the instrumentarian regime of control, in what follows, I hold in sight how the impacts of surveillance capitalism are never equally experienced across the social body. This has great significance for imagining futures of collective resistance that don’t take personal autonomy as the guarantor of democratic reform.

Black and white photograph from 1913 of factory workers within the final assembly line at Ford Motor Company.

Surveillance capitalism, Zuboff announces, was invented. It was not an inevitability of technological developments nor a necessary outcome of information capitalism. Rather, it “was intentionally constructed at a moment in history, in much the same way that the engineers and tinkerers at the Ford Motor Company invented mass production in the Detroit of 1913” (85). Google is centered at the crosshairs of Zuboff’s critique. Tracing the company’s technological developments and public-facing rhetoric from the early 2000s onward, Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism was enabled by three key historical conditions that marked the passage from the twentieth to the twenty-first century:

Proposed plan for Google’s new campus in Mountain View, California.

Zuboff reveals how our contemporary economic order has seen a shift in wealth accumulation from the means of production in a classical Marxist sense to the corporatized ownership of behavioral modification. What makes capitalism surveillant here is the way in which big data companies have achieved the “privatization of the central principle of social ordering” (512-513) through the incessant monitoring of consumers, the extraction of their intimate realities, and the transformation of surplus information into revenue. Whereas industrial capitalism required high scales of production with low unit cost, Google moves full throttle on its logics of accumulation, demanding the extraction of greater amounts of behavioral data to satisfy the proliferation of market derivatives. Users are not laborers in the sense of Fordist factory production, but rather “the sources of raw-material supply” (69-70) that circulate the predictive marketplace.

What is at stake in claiming that surveillance capitalism was invented in the twenty-first century? At the risk of sounding glib, taken separately, surveillance and capitalism were not recent inventions developed on Google’s campus. Why then, in their devastating marriage, do these two terms constitute a wholesale break from previous iterations of capitalist exploitation? In claiming the novelty of capitalism’s acquisition of surveillance for profitable ends, Zuboff evades a range of other rich theoretical debates that have traced this much longer history of extractive capitalism, surveillance, behavioral modification, and social engineering. These include:

While these discourses might seem outside the realm of economic analysis proper to Zuboff’s framework, these omissions are in fact strategic, allowing the author to sideline a much longer genealogy of capitalism’s surveillant practices in order to distinguish between a “good” and “bad” capitalism. Indeed, Zuboff maintains that capitalism is not inherently problematic, but is only made so through its amendment by surveillance. This is a fallacy, and serves only to normalize capitalism as a driver of modern civilization at the continued expense of those who are continually subject to its exploitative circuits of discipline and control.

What might it mean to consider surveillance capitalism as simply another iteration of capitalism writ large? In another register, how might we position race as central to the means by which capitalist value is procured through the production and subjugation of marginal populations? In his classic 1983 book Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson makes evident the lingering processes of race that have gripped the slow emergence of a capitalist economic system in Western culture since the feudal era. Robinson challenges the Marxist thesis that capitalism marked a rupture from older economic orders, rather evolving from processes of racialism that characterized the dawning of modern European society: slavery, imperialism, genocide, and colonialism. His term racial capitalism signposts the way that capitalism’s goal was never to homogenize, but rather differentiate through “eras of violent domination and social extraction.”[4] Note how extraction in Robinson’s framework is not a technique belonging only to the modern capitalist era, but rather it is a foundational strategy by which value is accumulated from the fracturing of the social body into labor populations. Preceding Detroit of 1913 we find a bleak history in which race enabled the formation of modern capitalism’s most basic tenets. Saidiya Hartman notes as such:

“Racism was central to the expansion of capitalist relations of production, the organization, division, and management of the laboring classes, and the regulation of the population through licensed forms of sexual association and conjugal unions and through the creation of an internal danger to the purity of the body public.”[5]

Property relations, modes of production, exchange value, and debt structures all sedimented as apparently natural conditions of Western culture through the crucible of racial difference.

The centrality of race to modern capitalism is perhaps most evident in the archives of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Ian Baucom traces the history of global capital accumulation through the accomplishments of the slave economy in brandishing, quantifying, and ordering black populations under a burgeoning credit system. His key site of analysis is the 1781 Zong atrocity, wherein enslaved Africans were thrown overboard so that merchants could collect insurance for lost property. The value extracted from this massacre was speculative. That is to say, the credit that slavers understood to be gained in their actions operated through the “existence of imaginary values” that did not follow exchange but preceded it.[6] As commodities of trade, black people were sites for the extraction of future value that would authorize present action.[7]

J. M. W. Turner, Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on (1840), oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Turner’s painting was inspired by the Zong massacre of 1781.

If chattel slavery and its racial scaffolding are not a hangover from premodern times, but rather coterminous with modern capitalism, then what bearing does this have on surveillance capitalism properly construed? Consider here one of the key terms that coheres Zuboff’s project: rendition. Defined as “the concrete operational practice through which […] human experience is claimed as raw material for datafication and all that follows” (233-234), rendition allows surveillance capitalists to close the gap between experience and knowledge. Equipped with fitness trackers, iPhones, and smart technologies, the body within the principle of rendition is “reimagined as a behaving object to be tracked and calculated for indexing and search” (242). Reaping behavioral surplus is simply a matter of careful biometric analysis.

Google’s Bedtime application, which allows for users to track sleep behavior over long periods of time.

There’s a certain universalism to Zuboff’s understanding of rendition and its ability to lay claim to the totality of human experience written on every body that traverses ubiquitous computing environments. According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism exercises a new species of power known as instrumentarianism—a high-tech perversion of B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning—wherein behavior is modified for prediction, monetization, and control. At imperceptible timescales, our moods, thoughts, and somatic states are scoured for data, which in turn are transformed into revenue by markets that aim to predict and shape our future actions. Behaviors are maneuvered for maximum profit. Such is the work of our new technologies from Silicon Valley companies like self-driving cars, which aim to conceal their latent instrumentarian ideology with promises of connectivity, knowledge, and security. As a universal condition of surveillance capitalism, rendition is intimately pervasive, contouring the psychological and corporeal boundaries of our everyday encounters. As such, Zuboff warns us that “we cannot fully reckon with the gravity of surveillance capitalism and its consequences unless we can trace the scars they carve into the flesh of our daily lives” (22). Readers familiar with critical race studies might give pause here, noting the uncanny reference to flesh that seems to authorize Zuboff’s ability to maneuver the extraction of behavioral data as a universal concern. For her, the datafied body serves as the common horizon of human experience under surveillance capitalism.

Yet, as the history of capitalism’s racial exploitation has shown, flesh, while a conceptual precursor to the body, is not simply a biological trait; flesh is made. As Hortense Spillers famously asserts, the making of flesh is the means by which capitalist power asserts dominance over racialized bodies, reaping value from physical, psychic, and affective labor while denying such bodies access to the domain of humanity.[8] In order for the captive to be rendered amenable for physical, mental, and sexual labor, the body must first be turned into flesh through an intricate apparatus involving corporeal injury and legal subjugation.[9] The scars of behavioral extraction identified by Zuboff find their antecedent in Spillers’ “hieroglyphics of the flesh,” a term which flags the symbolic transfer of physical violence on the captive body to the truth-value assigned to biological peculiarities facilitating differentiation between human populations.[10] If Google has the capacity to scar the body through behavioral extraction, then this proposition only makes sense within a racially inflected discourse that locates the biological as a site for the accumulation of capital.

In Zuboff’s estimation, no one is impervious to the logic of rendition. Indeed, instrumentarianism in her schema is different from totalitarianism insofar as it is not imposed by hierarchical power structures, but rather is located within the material reality of our Internet of Things. We might say that instrumentarianism is immanent insofar as it “thrives within bodies, transforming volition into reinforcement and action into conditioned response” (379). Google has infiltrated the intimate domains of our bodies and minds. No somatic expression is off limits. “There are many new territories of body rendition,” Zuboff exclaims: “organs, blood, eyes, brain waves, faces, gait, posture” (251). But precisely how new are these territories? Colonial optics, Paul Gilroy reminds us, have long forced “the mute body [to] disclose the truth of its racial identities.”[11] Blood has long been used to surveil, quantify, and subjugate black and indigenous populations through the one drop rule and blood quanta laws, respectively. Eugenics and criminology both borrowed from anthropometric systems for analyzing faces, fingerprints, eye color, and more to classify variations in the human race and purported behavioral deviance. Zuboff’s emphasis on the novelty of rendition’s scope not only obscures the history of capitalism’s exploitation of biological substance, but ignores the ways in which contemporary biometric systems continue to reify the specter of race through genomics, neuroimaging, iris scanning, and facial recognition software.[12]

As Zuboff overlooks this much longer history to rendition, she nonetheless continuously flirts with histories of settler colonialism as analogy for strategies of what she terms “digital dispossession” (99). A “political and material process” (158), digital dispossession denotes the subjugation of personal property—one’s experience—for circulation within surveillance capitalism’s market economy as prized behavioral data. Zuboff's case study here is the development of Google Street View and its ethical and legal quandaries. She notes in particular the way in which dispossession becomes normalized by modes of habituation and adaptation wherein the public slowly acclimates to new technologies and their territorial incursions as the given state of things. On these grounds, Zuboff maintains throughout her book a comparison between digital dispossession and colonial exploitation. Achieving conquest through declarations of seizure and the arrogation of privacy as moral righteousness, surveillance capitalists imagine the inevitability of ubiquitous computing through the lens of manifest destiny. In Zuboff’s terms, just as the Spaniards legitimated their invasion of indigenous people in the Americas through appeals to the authority of God and the crown,

“these twenty-first century invaders do not ask permission; they forge ahead, papering the scorched earth with faux-legitimate practices. Instead of cynically conveyed monarchial edicts, they offer cynically conveyed terms-of-service agreements whose stipulations are just as obscured and incomprehensible” (180).

She thus concludes: “we are the native peoples now whose tacit claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience” (100).

Analogy has a politics, and we must give serious attention to what such comparisons achieve. Chandan Reddy is prescient here, reminding us that while analogies may gain their affective force from the resemblance they proffer between seemingly dissimilar subjects,

“they also regulate what we understand as the essential matter and meaning between those subjects by their reduction to the ‘principle’ supposedly shared between them.”[123]

Analogies muddle and disguise heterogeneity, offering the illusion of commonality in place of incommensurability. They draw simple equivalences rather than doing the hard work of mapping the interconnectedness of disparate forms of social, historical, and political experience.

While Zuboff chastises surveillance capitalism for its “radical indifference” to the meaning of human experience—which in turn enables Google and other companies to champion “equivalence without equality” (377)—one wonders if her own analogy falls into the same rhetorical trap. That is, at whose expense is this comparison operating, one that likens “we” as a collective human population under surveillance capitalism to the Taínos who were expropriated, pillaged, and murdered by the Spaniards invaders? We might consider how Zuboff’s analogy is successful only insofar as its logical power draws from what Jodi A. Byrd names the “governance of the prior.” The prior, a symbolic space typically named as the Indigenous, offers “key transitive properties that enable forms of relationality within the intimacies and violences of empire.”[14] In other words, indigeneity, and its forced disappearance, is what sanctions settlers to claim self-determination, sovereignty, and shared national affiliation. Indeed, as scholars have noted, capitalism developed within settler colonial ideologies as a way to institutionalize violence against indigenous peoples in order to justify their genocide.[15] The staking of a collective political and economic body as sovereign or self-determined is only made possible through the erasure of the violences and inequalities necessary for its maintenance.

Only by excluding capitalism’s emergence through Euro-American colonialist expansion can Zuboff claim that the real violence of surveillance capitalism is its power to “disregard social norms and nullify the elemental rights associated with individual autonomy that are essential to the very possibility of a democratic society” (11). Zuboff uncritically assumes here that there is a democratic social order—a collective “we”—that pre-exists and is threatened by the invention of surveillance capitalism. However, this is only ever a “we” that already assumes full incorporation within the democratic national body, a “we” whose inalienable rights precede the rendition principle advanced under surveillance capitalism, a “we” that excludes those whose future has long been foreclosed by state violence, corporate control, and the penal system. In its final analysis, Zuboff’s analogy with indigenous exploitation obfuscates the ways in which social inequalities are inimical to capitalist logics of accumulation, instead maintaining the universal as the privileged field of relation.

Apple has introduced Face ID into iPhone devices, which allows consumers to use facial scans to unlock devices and log in to accounts.