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Eivind Røssaak reviews The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana ZuboffThe Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019. 691 pp.

Review by Eivind Røssaak 

18 December 2019

Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is one of the most comprehensive explorations to date on how Google and Facebook silently and undisturbed have created a new economic order based on “reality mining” for commercial purposes. While the critique of this business model is well known, its detailed history and analysis are not. 

At the turn of the twenty first century, Google’s investors grew impatient with lack of revenue growth. The company did not really have a business model. This changed in 2001–2002. Zuboff pays particular attention to the work of the chief economist at Google, the UC Berkeley Professor, Hal Varian. He laid the groundwork for a systematic exploitation of the company’s massive stores of user query data for “behavioral modification.” “Surveillance capitalism” was born. Google’s unique tracking infrastructure across the Internet is the largest in the world, and Google Maps was primarily launched, according to Zuboff, to extend tracking procedures “offline” in real time. Facebook follows suit. The post-9/11 atmosphere in Washington led to a grand scale “militarization of the world wide web.” “Security,” not “privacy,” was the new mantra, and Congress lost interest in regulating information usage in the private sector. Without the threat of legislation, the tech companies could, and with more confidence than ever, carry on with murky privacy practices to make huge profits in a lawless cyberspace. Zuboff argues “surveillance capitalism” is “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal is not an anomaly but a natural consequence of the new order. This “rogue mutation of capitalism” is marked by “concentrations of wealth, knowledge and power unprecedented in human history.” 

Larry Page (Google), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), and Satya Nadella (Microsoft) are specialists in “applied utopistics.” They may claim to advance the interests of humanity, but a less self-serving account of their practices shows them as representing, “as significant a threat to human nature in the twenty first century, as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth century.” In detail, Zuboff shows that their visions and practices mirror and fulfill B. F. Skinner’s old behaviorist utopia as it reemerges in the social computing and prediction utopia of MIT Professor Alex Pentland’s Social Physics (2014). She recommends stalling “surveillance capitalism” by implementing extensive regulation schemes, and points to EU’s GDPR as a first step.

Zuboff is at her best when she explores the implementation of specific surveillance schemes in Google, Facebook, Verizon, and Microsoft. Her 130-page list of sources is a blessing for all who want to explore this further. However, when she states that “surveillance capitalism was invented by a specific group of human beings in a specific time and place,” she overstates the role of Silicon Valley and underscores other possible histories of information capitalism. Tracing the parallel developments of the techno-cultural history of bureaucracy, cybernetics, the Cold War, the Anthropocene, and “cognitive capitalism” would link the “innovation” chronicled in this book to a far longer and more complex history.