Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, has the rare ability to take a subject that has been beaten to death and offer a fresh, provocative take on it. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Public Affairs/Hachette, 2019) is such a work.
First, a brief description of surveillance capitalism. It "unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as 'machine intelligence,' and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions that I call behavioral futures markets."
Even more dangerously, automated machine processes not only know our behavior but also shape our behavior. "With this reorientation from knowledge to power, it is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us."
In this nearly 700-page book, Zuboff develops her thesis using Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL), Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) as "the petri dishes in which the DNA of surveillance capitalism is best examined." Her discussion is wide-ranging, from Giovanni Gentile to B. F. Skinner to Alex Pentland (the MIT applied utopianist).
Zuboff is especially concerned about the damaging social and political ramifications of surveillance capitalism. It is, she writes, a "profoundly antidemocratic social force." It is a market-driven coup from above, a "form of tyranny that feeds on people but is not of the people. In a surreal paradox, this coup is celebrated as 'personalization,' although it defiles, ignores, overrides, and displaces everything about you and me that is personal."
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism will undoubtedly be a deeply divisive book, somewhat along the lines of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which Zuboff cites. But it is an important read, one that makes us rethink our all too easy acquiescence to the siren call of surveillance capitalism.
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