On "surveillance capitalism"

review by Victor Wallis

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future and the New Frontier of Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2019)

Shoshana Zuboff offers us the “Big Other” as the successor to George Orwell’s “Big Brother.” But where Orwell’s all-seeing monstrosity (from his 1948 novel 1984) was a projection into the future, Zuboff’s phantasm – the “hive” in which surveillance capitalism has us largely trapped – is a documented investigation of current U.S. reality.

Her book takes off from a recognition that the various forms of electronic social networking are, above all else, channels through which “service providers” accumulate commercially relevant information about their users. Zuboff theorizes this observation by arguing that we the users – a category she treats as including all the rest of the population – are thereby commodified. Our habits and feelings become an infinite storehouse of data, allowing the system’s managers to anticipate our every impulse and hence to predict and shape virtually all our routine activities.

The book focuses only marginally on the directly political uses of surveillance technology, referring briefly to post-9/11 censorship. There is no reference to the tracking of dissidents (as with placing individuals inexplicably on a “no fly” list). Nor does Zuboff discuss campaign advertising or, more broadly, the shaping of public opinion on specific political issues. The examples she gives of intelligence-collection pertain almost entirely to the private sector – to selling and buying. In their aggregate, however, these nonetheless have a political impact, insofar as they reinforce daily anxieties and foster a general culture of conformity. One of the more astounding instances she describes is the “Sleep Number bed,” which adjusts the firmness of its mattress in accordance with readings of your heart rate, your breathing, and your body motion. Perhaps even more blatantly intrusive is the car-insurance program that, beyond making continuous while-you-drive adjustments to your premium-charges, prevents your car from starting if you have fallen behind in your payments. As Zuboff notes (239), the plethora of individually targeted goods and services evolves into “a network of coercions, in which mundane functions are ransomed for behavioral surplus.”

Behavioral surplus is what Zuboff pinpoints as the basis for the super-profits of Google, Facebook, et al.; she defines it as “behavioral data available for uses beyond service improvement” (75).[1] [open endnotes in new page] It is the “free raw material [as noted in the book’s prefatory definition of surveillance capitalism] for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sale.” The scramble to capture this surplus is the new frontier of corporate competition, in which, going beyond earlier forms of advertising, businesses are now – through mobile devices, including some that are wearable or implantable – insinuating their wares into every phase of our existence. The result, as Zuboff puts it (10), is that “we now pay for our own domination.” Situating this condition historically, she writes:

“ownership of the new means of behavioral modification eclipses ownership of the means of production as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth and power in the twenty-first century” (11).

This formulation encapsulates what I think is the key issue posed by Zuboff’s treatise: To what extent does surveillance capitalism represent a fundamental break with any earlier embodiment of capitalism? Her 700-page book richly describes all the new practices and devotes ample space to the arguments of those who conceived and engineered them (notably, B.F. Skinner, Alex Pentland, and Google CEO Eric Schmidt). Zuboff unambiguously rejects the overall scenario to which the “advances” in question have led. She sees them essentially as entailing the crushing of individuality by an all-encompassing and highly concentrated force (“the regime of instrumentarian power”) – a development that she pointedly assimilates (citing Hannah Arendt) with the tradition of totalitarianism.

But does all this constitute a departure from or an extension of capitalism’s earlier (“industrial”) stage? The answer to this question has practical implications in terms of whether – and how – surveillance capitalism can be overcome.

In her descriptive narrative, Zuboff highlights what is new and distinctive about the surveillance stage. Everything points toward heightened infringement on the human personality. Even as advertising becomes increasingly customized, the scope for real personal autonomy is drastically reduced. The omniscient “instrumentarian” managers carry out behavior modification on a vast scale. “The indeterminacy of social processes” gives way to “the determinism of programmed machine processes” (221). Along similar lines, we are stripped of the power to set our respective life-courses, as “surveillance capitalism offers a new template for our future: the machine hive in which our future is forfeit to perfect knowledge administered for others’ profit” (443). Again,

“the elemental right to the future tense is endangered by a pervasive digital architecture of behavior modification…” (332).

Correspondingly, as uncertainty disappears, so does freedom – a shift embodied in what Zuboff calls the “uncontract,” which “abandons the human world of legally binding contracts and substitutes instead the positivist calculations of automatic machine processes” (333). Finally,

“Industrial capitalism followed its own logic of shock and awe, taking aim at nature to conquer ‘it’ in the interests of capital; now surveillance capitalism has human nature in its sights” (346).

As this last statement reminds us, Zuboff frequently notes (although without going into detail) the destructive impact that capitalism has had on the natural environment. She also highlights, at every point, the thoroughly capitalistic drive behind the stripping away of individual autonomy. To this extent, her book can be added to the many resources available for informing a radical political critique. But although she recognizes today’s surveillance society as capitalistic, she appears to assume that its surveillance aspects can be transcended without challenging the capitalist framework within which they were introduced. She thus asks, in her Introduction, whether surveillance capitalism will “continue on its current trajectory to become the dominant logic of accumulation in our age,” or whether it will instead turn out to be “a fearsome but ultimately doomed dead end in capitalism’s longer journey” (14).

Excluded from this either/or is the logical third option: that of discarding or overturning capitalism. This exclusion corresponds to Zuboff’s analysis in which the potential for effective agency resides only in the ruling class (a term she does not use). She treats the rest of the population as an undifferentiated mass. She does not draw distinctions within it – either within U.S. society or between the U.S. and other countries – in terms of its subjection to and/or its capacity to eventually manage (or dismantle) the instruments of social control whose applications she describes. She occasionally refers to democracy but presupposes a capitalist framework. She claims that “capitalism responds to the needs of people [which people?] in a time and place” (31). Citing Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “mutations” within capitalism, she writes,

“Mutation is not a fairy tale; it is rational capitalism, bound in reciprocity with its populations through democratic institutions” (52).

It is to Zuboff’s credit that despite her insistence on the contrast between “industrial” (or “rational”) capitalism and “surveillance” capitalism, her account confirms their underlying oneness in the overarching drive for profit and accumulation. Her imagining of a future in which capitalism might shed (even if only in part) its “surveillance” aspects may perhaps be attributed to the insufficient attention she gives to the larger economic trends within which the Google/Facebook/Amazon/Microsoft complex came into its position of dominance. If we look at these larger trends – of capitalist concentration, expansion, and perpetual innovation – we see immediately the expression of a built-in drive which, unless stopped by a massive oppositional force, moves only in a single direction. (An alarming dimension of the surveillance society that Zuboff fails to mention is the prodigious infrastructure of micro-radiation, whose magnitude and consequent threat to public health multiplies with every new technological advance in the instrumentality of control.)[2]

Envisioning a restored “non-surveillance” stage of capitalism is like thinking of returning capitalism to its pre-monopoly or pre-state-interventionist stages. In all these scenarios, one is implicitly assuming that those who ran the earlier version had no common interest with those who instituted the later version. But just as capital becomes ever more concentrated and just as it increasingly relies on state support for its agenda, so also is it now driven, in a period of ecological exhaustion and rising misery, to seek ever greater guarantees of control over its populations. For the populations to challenge those controls, which are what define the surveillance stage of capitalism, they must challenge the power of capital. Not to do so is, at this moment in history, to accept the destruction of life.