Darkening of the digital dream

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on February 17, 2019 Published on February 17, 2019

Title: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism Author: Shoshana Zuboff Publisher: Hachette India Price: ₹799

Frankenstein Facebook, Google the gobbler; what’s happening with the digital age? A new book calls for a pushback

Heard of the Tainos? They were an indigenous tribe of the Caribbean, the first New World population Christopher Columbus met during his 1492 tour. As history tells us, the Tainos were colonised by the Spanish, who destroyed their ethnic cultures. For sure, when the Tainos first laid their eyes on their colonisers, they did not necessarily figure out what was going to happen them. Unable to imagine their own impending destruction, the people “reckoned that those strange creatures were gods and welcomed them with intricate rituals of hospitality,” writes Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. The experience was so unprecedented that it was almost unrecognisable.

There is a lot in common between the Tainos of the pre-Columbian Caribbean islands and today’s digital citizens or the people — which include pretty much all of us. Most of us are not able to make sense of what we experience in the digital world and due to the sheer accidentality of the invasion of digital technologies into our life we end up normalising the abnormal and in many cases go to the extent of deifying the power of new technologies, such as machine learning or AI.

We are forced, cajoled and hypnotised to live in a world where digital technologies and the companies that control them exert immense power over the way societies function — a system which Zuboff candidly calls Surveillance Capitalism, where human experience becomes behavioural data that companies and governments own, control, trade and exploit.

Prediction products

How do they do that? Zuboff answers in nearly 700 beautifully written pages, which form one of the best works on the past, present and future of the digital world and beyond. A Professor Emerita with Harvard Business School and a former faculty at Harvard Law School, Zuboff has tracked the (r)evolution of digital technology since its start. As early as in 1988, her book In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, she posed pertinent questions around the impacts of automation, computer-assisted monitoring of people and how the information (data-driven) structures powered by the machines end up subverting traditional roles and, in that process, endangers the way people work, live and feel.

That was nearly a decade and a half before Facebook was founded, and over a decade before Google was born. Now, according to Zuboff, the game has changed. Surveillance capitalism, which follows industrial capitalism and forms an extension of information capitalism, converts human experiences (emotions) into data and uses it to build what Zuboff calls ‘prediction products’. Whatever data that are not used for making products and profits become “proprietary behavioural surplus” and this go to advanced manufacturing processes known as “machine intelligence”. What happens next is very interesting. Zuboff says these inputs finally take the shape of prediction products that are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioural predictions. She calls it a behavioural futures markets.

How do these prediction products work? If you are a Facebook user, you’d experienced it. According to Zuboff, many advertisements you see on your Timeline are psychologically curated. An advertisement for “buying pimple cream at 5:45 P.M. on Friday” (when you’re most likely to do it) or clicking “yes” on an offer of new running shoes as the “endorphins race through your brain after your long Sunday morning run” are samples.

Is this all about profiling us in order to make us buy products? Well, the idea of surveillance capitalism goes beyond all that. Here, technology companies succeed in choreographing almost all your elements — communication, shopping, bereavement, relationships, adherence to causes, expressing anger, building careers, and so on. They curate you. And the most interesting part here is that most users willingly offer themselves to be curated as they don’t feel they are under the spell of the 360-degree power of the technology giants such as Google, Amazon or Microsoft. Zuboff minces no words in calling the spade a spade: “Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism.”

We are not surveillance capitalism’s “customers”, Zuboff warns. She argues that we are in fact the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus: the objects of a “technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction operation”. So who are the real customers of surveillance capitalism? Enterprises that trade in its markets for future behaviour. Considering that there is a strong drive towards translating analogue societies digital in markets where such a transformation has not happened already, and that the size of the global smart-home market is expected to reach more than $150 billion in just about five years from $36 billion in 2018, the size, strength and reach of internet-based companies are going to boom, with their tentacles reaching every segment of human activity.

Checks and balances

That looks like an inevitability today, or so we are believed to believe and behave. That’s a classic TINA (There Is No Alternative) argument, to be frank. If humanity has to progress creatively, we must place checks on the unchecked growth of the digital giants by making them accountable for their mistakes and misgivings. When the Cambridge Analytica user profiling scandal broke out, regulators across the globe pulled up Facebook and the company was forced to amend its policies. Regulations such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now make data protection paramount in the transactions of internet based companies.

Still, it is a fact that tech giants have become too big to fail. But before their enormity endangers humanity as we have known it so far, citizens (consumers) must act. The book, which has three parts, tries to create a formidable thesis in this direction by first explaining the foundations of surveillance capitalism (Part 1) and then tracking its advance before explaining what Zuboff calls the instrumentarian power for a third modernity in Part 3. By instrumentarian power Zuboff means the power of networked computer-enabled infrastructure which the author in her much famous 2015 paper had termed the Big Other.

So how exactly do we tackle these powers? “The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but above all it was because the people of East Berlin said, “No more!”, writes Zuboff, adding that we too can be the authors of many great and beautiful new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home. She ends on an optimistic note, and that’s one of the reasons why this mighty tome is a riveting read. This is a classic work, which with good reason Tom Peters equates with the likes of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Zuboff visits almost all the visionary thinkers in this meticulously researched work, from Karl Marx to Thomas Piketty, from Max Weber to WH Auden, extracts of whose poems delightfully introduce each chapter.

Clearly, this book is our best bet today in our bid to ‘not’ become the Tainos of the digital age.


Shoshana Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor emerita at Harvard Business School and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She received her PhD in social psychology from Harvard University and her BA in philosophy from theUniversity of Chicago.


Published on February 17, 2019

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