Combining in-depth technical understanding and a broad, humanistic scope, Zuboff has written what may prove to be the first definitive account of the economic – and thus social and political – condition of our age... For Zuboff, this dread force is not merely a higher expression of capitalism, but a perversion of it, and while some might regard that as special pleading, she is at pains to clarify where it differs from more equitable and mutually beneficial forms... she introduces a number of useful terms into the discussion which do much to move it forward.
The ultimate end of surveillance capitalism is a way of life in which people have surrendered their humanity without realising it.
Such is the prospect envisioned by Zuboff in this groundbreaking book. Zuboff is interdisciplinary in her approach, ranging freely across social science, philosophy and history. Following on from a seminal essay she published in 2014, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism shows how big data companies extract a “behavioural surplus” from the information they mine from their users. Aiming to apply Marx’s account of surplus value in a time when capital is accumulated through knowledge-based technology, she has given us an illuminating critical perspective on the regime of surveillance under which we all now live.
This is an important book, the most thorough take down of Big Tech I have read. It is, however, too long and too eccentric. Descriptions of her personal journey do not add to Zuboff’s authority and nor does the broadening of her case to include the usual demon of neoliberalism and, for some reason, the riots in Britain in 2011. She should do a shorter, punchier version if she really wants to promote resistance and outrage among the ordinary punters because, as Orwell also said, “if there is hope it lies in the proles”.
A Harvard Business School professor emerita with decades of experience studying issues of labor and power in the digital economy, Zuboff in 2015 published a paper, “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization,” which has since become an essential source for anyone looking to reckon seriously with what she described as a distinct, emerging economic logic. Now she has followed up that paper with a doorstop of a book, an intensively researched, engagingly written chronicle of surveillance capitalism’s origins and its deleterious prospects for our society... Light on prescriptivist notions, Zuboff does propose a “right to sanctuary,” based on universalist, if ever more threatened, humanitarian principles, like the right to asylum. But she’s after something bigger, providing a scaffolding of critical thinking from which to examine the great crises of the digital age. Through her we learn that our friends to the north were indeed correct: Facebook is the problem (along with Google, Microsoft, Amazon, et al.). This is the rare book that we should trust to lead us down the long hard road of understanding.
A short, largely unreadable chapter about Cambridge Analytica lists a bunch of known facts and goes nowhere with them. Later chapters about the dire effects of social media on teenage mental wellbeing are not just bloodless, but trite. It’s almost as if she lost interest. I know I did.
That said, Zuboff does a good job of dragging the badge of “world’s biggest tech villain” off Facebook’s chest and planting it squarely on Google’s, where it seems to belong better. As a definitive analysis of the Third Modernity, though, I’m not sure it delivers. The first, by the way, was the Industrial Revolution. I think the second might have been Friends Reunited.