Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

One of the achievements of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is the title itself, and the author’s success with bringing that moniker into the consciousness of the general public. Whether coincidence or not, the term “surveillance capitalism” has appeared in countless op-ed pieces in the past few months and has come to crystalize the arguments against the seemingly unrestrained growth and power of entities such as Facebook, Google and Amazon.

With an astute narrative of events blended with reasoned opinion, the author focuses much of her ire against Facebook and Google. Zuboff credits Google with discovering that its users were neither its customer nor product, but whose “behavioral surplus” could be captured as a raw material supply for the new paradigm of surveillance capitalism. Google began life with a Search product and altruistic aspirations, but its later introduction of Gmail, AdWords, AdSense, Maps and YouTube came to overshadow Search and transform the company into the powerhouse it is today.

Both Google and Facebook had IPOs in 2004, and have since had levels levels of growth that are truly staggering. Like Google, Facebook has found new ways to engineer human behavior, introducing their News Feed in 2006 and the now ubiquitous Like button in 2010. In 2006, Facebook had a mere 9.5 million users and required a college email to use its service. It now boasts over 2 billion users.

In its early years, Google brazenly declared that they had the absolute right to exploit human experience as they desired, and transform that experience into behavioral data. In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg declared that Facebook users no longer had an expectation of privacy. With their self-serving libertarian instincts, today’s technologists freely invoke First Amendment principles to justify invasions of privacy as they camouflage their true purpose in scraping data from the lives of the populace.

The author points out that these companies have moved beyond mere data extraction and into behavior modification strategies. For example, Facebook is well aware that “I Voted” buttons shared among friends can substantially increase voting levels in that group. Combining the power of Google Maps with a social game, the Pokemon Go mania in 2015 was initially an experiment to see if software could cause people to perform certain physical actions and travel to designated “sponsored locations,” and it exceeded beyond the developer’s wildest expectations.

A fascinating focus in this book is in the identification of the underlying literature that has influenced the aspirations of today’s technologists. B.F. Skinner and the lesser-known Alex Pentland of MIT’s Media Lab are cited as intellectuals who have downplayed the importance of free will in their work, elevating their belief in the value of social engineering over individual rights. In Skinner’s Beyond Freedom & Dignity, he argues that freedom is essentially an illusion. With his book Social Physics, Pentland extended the ideas of Skinner to espouse technologically enabled utopias. In Pentland’s view, social systems are nothing but an amalgamation of the billions of transactions between individuals, and thus require the technologies of big data to produce true social learning. Zuboff is quick to point out that these utopian views are misguided, profoundly anti-democratic and contrary to the ideals of human individual freedom.

In the late 1980’s, Zuboff’s masterful tome, In the Age of the Smart of the Machine, established her credentials as a leading thinker on the social implications of the new computing age. Her well-researched analysis turned out to be prescient and anticipated the excesses of the current internet age. With the The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Ms. Zuboff continues her encyclopedic knowledge of current computing trends and how the unchecked powers of its adherents and enablers affects individuals and society.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
by Shoshana Zuboff
PublicAffairs, January 2019
691 pages, $38.00

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