The new age of surveillance capitalism

There are two categories of Americans who are under constant surveillance.  One consists of paroled convicts and criminal defendants on bail who are under court order to wear electronic ankle bracelets.  The other consists of everybody.

That is what I took away from reading THE AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, which came out earlier this year.

It’s about the prevalence of the new business of collecting information about people, usually without their knowledge, and using that information to shape their behavior.

If you have a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner, it’s making floor plans of your house.  If you have an OnStar GPS system in your car, it’s taking notes on your driving habits.  If you have a Next thermostat, it’s recording your energy use patterns.  If your children play with Genesis toys, they’re recording your children’s behavior.

Technical experts in Canada, France and the Netherlands found that the Google Street View trucks were not only taking photographs, but using Wi-Fi to collect telephone numbers, credit information, passwords, e-mails, records of on-line dating, pornography, browsing behavior, medical information and video and audio files.

All this information has economic value.  In fact, according to Zuboff, it often has more value to the provider than the fee for the service itself.  What she calls “market capitalism,” where a business makes money by selling a product or a service, is being replaced by what she calls “surveillance capitalism,” where a business makes money by collecting, processing and using data to shape human behavior.

It’s been said that people who use social media and other Internet services, especially free ones, are the product, not the customer.  Zuboff said that, in fact, the users are not even the product; they are the raw material.   The product is the model of their behavior  derived from the data they provide.

Click to enlarge.

The frontier of surveillance capitalism is gathering up seemingly meaningless information—what is called “data exhaust” or “digital breadcrumbs”—and using machine intelligence to correlate this information with human emotion and behavior.

Machine intelligences are not sentient, they have no understanding of the human mind.  They don’t need to. All they need to be able to do is look for correlations, and test them.  They are using the behavioristic psychology developed by B.F. Skinner.  He taught that it isn’t necessary to understand how individual people think and feel.  All that is necessary is to know what stimulus evokes what response.

How often you click on a “like” button on Facebook, how hard you step on the gas when accelerating your car, your willingness to answer questions about your politics and religion—all these things can be used to create a model of your behavior, which then can be tested.

Who would want such a model?  Advertisers,  Insurance companies.  Employers.  Lenders.  Credit rating companies.  Landlords.  And, of course, politicians.

Jaron Lanier wrote about some of these issues in Ten Reasons for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,  His explanations were more brief, more readable and more clear than Zuboff’s 525-page tome (plus 124 pages of end notes).

But Lanier thought that the problem is limited to two companies, Google and Facebook, and could be easily fixed by changing their business models from advertising to fee-for-service.  If you read Zuboff’s book, you will understand that Google, Facebook and their imitators can no more give up collecting, processing and selling personal information than Starbucks can give up brewing strong coffee.  It is is not an aberration.  It is the core of their business model.

The main resistance to surveillance capitalism comes from the European Union and its members.  Foreigners have good reason to think of surveillance capitalism as a form of American imperialism.

Surveillance capitalism companies operate world-wide, but almost all of them are American.  The only foreign surveillance capitalist company mentioned in the book is Samsung, whose voice-operated Smart TV picked up everything that was said in the vicinity of the TV and forwarded to Nuance Communications, a leading voice recognition company.

Surveillance capitalism is changing American politics.  Barack Obama worked closely with Google during his 2008 and 2012 campaigns to use data to send messages targeted at particular groups.  His administration recruited almost as many executives from Google as it did from Goldman Sachs.

Shoshana Zuboff

In the 2016 campaign, the Trump campaign worked closely with Facebook and a company called Cambridge Analytica, which claimed to be able to shape the behavior of voters based on use of data.   I think their targeted negative messages to key Democratic groups kept the Democratic vote down and gave them the margin of victory.

I over-reacted to Cambridge Analytica when I first learned about it.  Just because they claim to be able to do something doesn’t mean they actually can do it.  But they don’t have to accurately predict the behavior of every individual—just enough to tip the balance of an election.

Beyond surveillance capitalism is the surveillance state, which has reached its fullest development in China.  In China, you’re monitored as to work performance, health habits, paying bills on time and the kind of people who hang out with.  All this produces a social credit score which determines your eligibility for a better job, a pay raise, access to education, a bank loan and even access to public transportation.

The USA is a long way from anything like this, but it could come—not all at once, but in fragments and increments.  Your employers, your bank, your landlord, your insurer and the police could all have their own scoring systems for judging you..

None of this is the result of the technology itself.  None of these technologies would be questionable if they were controlled by individuals for their own purposes rather than by third parties for secret purposes.  As a Marxist would say, it all comes down to who owns the means of production.

And of course it’s also true that surveillance capitalism’s technologies confer benefits.  I have friends who swear by Facebook or their smartphones.  I don’t use either myself, but I don’t know what I’d do without Google or the Internet itself  And then, too, I know people with much more urgent survival concerns than what’s done with their smartphone data.

But the direction we’re being taken is more dire than most of us realize.  Shoshana Zuboff wrote—

Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accuses to knowledge.  Surveillance capitalism knows everything about us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain, not ours.

… … Ownership of these new means of behavior modification eclipses ownership of the means of production as the fountainhead of capitalist wealth and power in the twenty-first century.


The message is that surveillance capitalism’s new instruments will render the entire world’s actions and conditions as behavioral flows. Each rendered bit is liberated from its life in the social, no longer inconveniently encumbered by moral reasoning, politics, social norms, rights, values, relationships, feelings, contexts, and situations.

In the flatness of this flow, data are data, and behavior is behavior.  The body is simply a set of coordinates in time and space where sensation and action are translated as data.  All things animate and inanimate share the same existential status in this blended confection, each reborn as an objective and measurable, indexable, browsable, searchable “it.”

From the vantage point of surveillance capitalism and its economic imperatives, world, self, and body are reduced to the permanent status of objects as they disappear into the bloodstream of a titanic new conception of markets.

His washing machine, her car’s accelerator, and your intestinal flora are collapsed into a single dimension of equivalency as information assets that can be disaggregated, reconstituted, indexed, browsed, manipulated analyzed, reaggregated, predicted, productized, bought, and sold: anywhere, anytime.

African-Americans are subject to racial profiling.  They’re commonly treated with suspicion by police because of inferences based on the amount of melanin in their skin.  In the new age of surveillance capitalism, we’re all going to be profiled.  Machine intelligences will draw inferences about us, based on criteria we don’t know or understand, and these inferences will affect our lives, for good and ill.

I don’t know what is more worrisome—the idea that machine intelligences will predict our behavior accurately, or that they’ll predict it inaccurately but their predictions will be used anyhow.

Shoshana Zuboff doesn’t have a good answer as to what to do about all this, and neither do I.  She’s in favor of regulations to protect privacy.  She doesn’t think breaking up Silicon Valley monopolies would solve the problem.  I think all these things would help.  So would enforced transparency on the operation of surveillance capitalism.  If these companies claim the right to know all about me, I have the right to know all about them.

One last point.  An enormous amount of American financial capital and intellectual talent is invested in trying to predict and manipulate human behavior.  Enormous amounts also are invested in trying to predict and manipulate financial markets.  Add to that the financial and intellectual investment in high-tech weapons.  What is left over to meet the real needs of the public?


Shoshana Zuboff home page.

Shoshana Zuboff Explains the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, an interview with The Intercept.

Four industries Big Tech has ruined by Keith A. Spencer for AlterNet.

Remove yourself from the Internet, hide your identity and erase your online presence by Charlie Osborne for ZDNet.  I’m not sure this is practical.  And why should it even be necessary?

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