Surveillance Capitalism in the Information Age
Early this year, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism arrived to herald the new form of economic oppression we have watched creep into our lives. Zuboff, a professor emerita from Harvard Business School known for her research on information technology in the workplace, set a monumental task for herself—to develop a constellation of vocabulary that encircles the boundless hype of modern technology companies. Ultimately, I was disappointed by her approach, but she has drawn on such a complicated framework that I should explain it first before I say more.
To start, Zuboff walks us through the recent history of US tech companies—the dotcom bust that traumatised the industry; the success of Apple and its electronics sold on the conceit of consumer choice; and the surveillance-favourable environment created by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and CIA’s investments in the ‘war on terror’. All these factors, Zuboff argues, steered us away from both an egalitarian information workplace and the libertarian dream of a cyberspace frontier. Pressured by ravenous venture capitalists, start-up founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page created surveillance capitalism instead.
Unlike industrial capitalism, which profits from exploiting natural resources and labour, surveillance capitalism profits from the capture, rendering and analysis of behavioural data through ‘instrumentarian’ methods that are designed to cultivate ‘radical indifference […] a form of observation without witness’ (379). The surveillance capitalists found an untapped reservoir of information that their services were collecting for internal analytics and programming, and they saw an opportunity: they could sell that ‘data exhaust’ to advertisers. For them, the humans attached to that data are just accessories.
In her writing, Zuboff often compares the instrumentarianism of surveillance capitalism to the totalitarianism that Hannah Arendt describes in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Zuboff draws links between the charting of cyberspace by surveillance capitalists and Arendt’s analysis of British imperialism as a forerunner of totalitarianism. Ultimately, she denies their equivalence, since totalitarianism arises in a state, whereas instrumentarianism arises in companies. (Though, with all the public–private partnerships going on, I’m not sure that they’re so easily separated.) As a result, Zuboff is more concerned with surveillance by corporations than government surveillance. Her critique of surveillance companies is often to the extent that they begin to resemble a tyrannical, authoritarian state.
Zuboff sees the resulting economic structures as completely unprecedented—a rogue capitalism. Where before companies relied on the original sin of ‘primitive accumulation’, surveillance companies like Facebook and Google rely on the continual process of ‘digital dispossession’ (a concept Zuboff has expanded from David Harvey). We are each continually rendered understandable and profitable for these companies. More than government surveillance designed to quash free will, Zuboff worries that surveillance companies will harness human free will as a means to their ends. They are indifferent to us, yet dependent on the monotony of guaranteed outcomes that we can provide.
Zuboff describes the full cycle of that exploitation, which starts with a company’s ‘incursion’ into an unexploited domain of behaviour, continues with the ‘habituation’ of users to that incursion and finishes with the ‘adaption’ and ‘redirection’ of any attempts at critique or reform. (The coerced data that built Google Street View is the paradigmatic example.) To that purpose, surveillance companies use a rhetoric of exceptionalism to mask our dispossession. They wash their works with the semblance of ethics and accountability to avoid meaningful reform. They put ‘nudges’ in choice architecture, like surveillance-friendly default settings, to take advantage of the limited time and attention of users. They also take advantage of their corporate standing to dabble in human experimentation and political influence, without abiding by the standard research ethics of consent from, and cooperation with, research participants. The list is long and grows ever longer.
Zuboff argues that companies like Facebook and Google are able to do all this because they have monopolised how they are viewed (here, Zuboff borrows from Émile Durkheim’s work on the division of knowledge production and specialisation). Their work is hidden in proprietary closed-source code; they use non-disclosure agreements and vertical organisation to obfuscate their practices. They poach academics from universities. The CEOs of major surveillance companies often have near-controlling levels of shares, which allows them to direct their companies as they wish. The resulting divisions make it hard for anyone other than surveillance capitalists to make authoritative pronouncements about what exactly they do.
This is all, for Zuboff, a worrying arsenal arrayed against the quintessential project of contemporary liberalism—the individual. She sees surveillance capitalism as an extension of the psychological research of B.F. Skinner: his theory of ‘behaviourism’ counted people as reducible to their behaviours and reflexes. Skinner aimed to improve social cohesion and workplace efficiency, regardless of individual will. Zuboff outlines episodes that exemplify surveillance capitalism’s affinity for behaviourism, like the development of biometrics and Rosalind Picard’s research into affective computing for autistic users being subsequently co-opted by surveillance start-ups. All this goes to show that surveillance capitalism is inexorably working to weaken our sacrosanct right to personal autonomy.
While Zuboff criticises behaviourism and surveillance capitalism for suppressing our sovereignty of self, her goal is also to imagine a valiant, collective resistance to surveillance capitalism. So how does the sovereign self work in a collective process? It’s hard to see how democratic process, where we all abide by the will of others to some degree, would avoid many of the individualistic critiques that Zuboff makes of surveillance capitalism. We don’t hear much on this from Zuboff, and similar subtle contradictions ultimately dilute much of her messaging. She claims that surveillance capitalism is unprecedented and incomparable to ideologies like totalitarianism and behaviourism, but makes frequent analogies to both. She’s against determinism and ‘inevitabilism’, yet her theory of history is directed by descriptions of ideology (Evgeny Morozov explains her historical approach well in his review.)
Early on, Zuboff carefully describes surveillance capitalism as a capitalism, rather than an offshoot of the capitalism. With that phrasing, she positions surveillance capitalism as having concrete predecessors and as being totally unprecedented, an overextension of capitalism. She argues against a Marxist critique of capitalism as an entire economic system, because she believes Marxism uses an economic determinism that she’d rather avoid (which she juxtaposes to the technological determinism of surveillance capitalists). But, even if you’re not an anti-capitalist, this introduces a fissure in Zuboff’s theoretical edifice.
When we look at it, are surveillance capitalists really so different than what Marxist theory would describe? Marxist economics defines capitalism by its ability to consume more and broader areas of human life. Companies have been manipulating human behaviour with innovations like company towns, company scripts and union-busting for centuries, and the service economy has forced workers to wear a smile for decades. That surveillance capitalists hide their exploitation under a rosy veil is not new either. Muckraking journalists like Frances Kellor and Upton Sinclair had to uncover the horrible working conditions of industrial capitalism, hidden as they were under the ‘scientific management’ of Taylorism and Fordism. Zuboff does touch on these topics, but they also make her claims to surprise feel out of place. Capitalists who systematically lied to make a profit are already littered all over US business history and ignoring them is an odd omission.
Furthermore, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a very long book. Like The Odyssey, it’s full of epic similes to ground the text—sharks, wizards, tapeworms. They are not subtle, and I found their length and frequency to only obfuscate Zuboff’s urgent message. The complicated interweaving of narrative, memoir and academic description is also not structured in a friendly manner for the reader. Pared-down prose would have done a lot to improve The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
So, who is this book for? It’s tempting to compare it to magnum opera like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century or Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism that appeal to the curious as well as the academic. But, for me, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism doesn’t make the bar. Two of Surveillance & Society’s recent triptych of reviews of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism critique its representation of legal constructs and its centring in the Global North, although they still find it a useful reference. I do see people specifically curious about how a liberal politic analyses this new form of exploitation or who are mostly unfamiliar with modern surveillance as benefiting the most from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. For academics, it may be a convenient way to refer to the societal problem of surveillance, but not, perhaps, as a foundational source material. As Kirstie Ball notes in Surveillance & Society’s third review: ‘this book was not written for us. It is intended as a wake-up call for the educated business reader to recognize the massive power of the tech platforms’. With that in mind, Zuboff’s framing of surveillance capitalism as a rogue capitalism suddenly makes sense—the book is proof of the knots that a writer has to tie themselves in to ask capitalists to critique capital.
As for the grander goal of overthrowing surveillance capitalism, while Zuboff accurately describes its horrors, her writing lacks a convincing account of collective action and organisation to counter it. There have been so many hopeful lessons recently, like the workers whose walkouts stopped Google collaboration with the US military or the recent San Francisco local ordnance that outlawed facial recognition software. Other than a short section on artistic projects that obfuscate data and a legal case in Spain, those lessons are missing from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
I worry that I have seemed uncharitable throughout this review. I truly started reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism with enthusiasm; I attended a talk held by Shoshana Zuboff at the MayDay Rooms in London earlier this year, and she is an engaging and charismatic speaker. But as I read, I grew dismayed by her research’s translation to the page. Make no mistake, the dangers of surveillance capitalism are real and coherent, and I’m glad for the attention that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has given to systematic corporate surveillance. With cautionary books like this, however, there’s a fine line between praxis and paralysis (as we’ve seen in debates over how to cover the climate crisis). I fear that for many The Age of Surveillance Capitalism will serve the latter. It’s a decent history, but a bad call to arms.
Top US admiral bristles at criticism of ‘woke’ military: ‘We are not weak’
Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, rebuffed pointed interrogations by GOP lawmakers who grilled him over his decision to recommend sailors read a book deemed by some conservatives as anti-American.
The U.S. Navy’s top admiral also defended moves to address and root out racism and extremism in the forces as well as its efforts to bolster inclusion and diversity, which have prompted criticism from some conservatives and Republican lawmakers.
“Do you personally consider advocating for the destruction of American capitalism to be extremist?” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., asked Gilday during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, referring to a passage from Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to Be an Antiracist,” which argues capitalism and racism are interlinked.
Banks continued to interrogate the admiral over specific quotes from Kendi’s book, which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller in 2020, and statements he had made elsewhere in the past.
Visibly distraught, Gilday fired back:
“I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” he said. “This is a bigger issue than Kendi’s book. What this is really about is trying to paint the United States military, and the United States Navy, as weak, as woke.”
He added that sailors had spent 341 days at sea last year with minimal port visits — the longest deployments the Navy has done, he said.
“We are not weak. We are strong,” Gilday said.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., also challenged the admiral by citing specific quotes from the book and asked him how those ideas laid out by Kendi would further advance or improve the Navy’s power.
Gilday responded by arguing the importance of transparency and open dialogue about racism.
“There is racism in the Navy just as there is racism in our country, and the way we are going to get out of it is by being honest and not to sweep it under the rug,” he expounded, adding that he does not agree with everything the author says in the book.
The key point however, he said, is for sailors “to be able to think critically.”
The exchange was the latest in vociferous complaints from some conservative leaders and lawmakers who suggest the armed forces are becoming a pawn for the country’s culture wars and “wokeness” ideology, as the military takes steps to address issues of racial inclusion, extremism, racism and white supremacy.
And only last week, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., accosted Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin about Kendi’s book, which Cotton said promoted “critical race theories” at a different Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where Austin was testifying.
Days earlier, Cotton and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas — two combat veterans — launched a “whistleblowers” online platform to report examples of “woke ideology” in the military.
“Enough is enough. We won’t let our military fall to woke ideology,” Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, said in a tweet.
Also in February, Austin instructed a one-day stand-down across the Defense Department pausing regular activities to address extremism and white nationalism in the ranks — an issue Austin declared as a priority after a number of rioters at the U.S. Capitol in January were found to have military backgrounds.
The stand down completed in April was an effort to better understand the scope of the problem of extremism in the ranks, Pentagon press secretary John F. Kirby said in a briefing then.
Earlier, Austin had revoked a ban on diversity training for the military.
More recently, in May, a U.S. Army animated ad focused on soldier diversity — featuring the real story of a soldier who enlisted after being raised by two mothers in California — drew criticism and political backlash from some conservative lawmakers.
“Holy crap,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a tweet. “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea. . . .”
Cruz was referring to a TikTok video that compared the U.S. Army ad with a Russia campaign that showed buff soldiers doing push-ups and leaping out of airplanes, adding that the contrast made the American soldiers “into pansies.”
The confrontation Tuesday is also the latest in reproaches by Rep. Banks, who is a Naval Reserve officer, and other GOP members over Gilday’s recommendation to include Kendi’s book in the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.
In February, Banks sent a letter to Gilday arguing that the views promoted in the book are “explicitly anti-American” and demanded Gilday explain the Navy’s decision to include it on the reading list or remove it.
Gilday responded to Banks in a letter obtained by Fox News saying that the book was included on the list because “it evokes the author’s own personal journey in understanding barriers to true inclusion, the deep nuances of racism and racial inequalities.”
Lamborn and Rep. Vicky Hartzler, D-Mo., also wrote a letter to the admiral to convey their concern about the inclusion of Kendi’s book as well as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and Jason Pierceson’s “Sexual Minorities and Politics.”
The GOP lawmakers argued the books “reinforce a view that America is a confederation of identity categories of the oppressed and their oppressors rather than a common homeland of individual citizens who are united by common purposes,“ Lamborn and Hartzler wrote, according to Fox News.
Looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021
Our understanding of events refines with time. New developments reframe the issues, and prompt reassessment of the solutions applied, their design and outcomes. What does looking back on the 1991 reforms in 2021 tell us?
For three decades, India celebrated and criticised the 1991 reforms. The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout. The reforms, they insist, were ‘home-grown’. In the years leading up to 1991, technocrats in government had been thinking and writing about how India’s economic policies had been blocking the country’s rise to potential and the structural changes needed. If the broad range of reforms—including tearing down the industrial license permit raj, an exchange rate correction, and liberalising foreign direct investment and trade policies—could be launched within a matter of days of a new government joining office, they argue, it is because the blueprints were ready, waiting for the go-ahead from the political leadership.
The reformers of 1991 say that the idea wasn’t only to tide over a Balance of Payments (BOP) crisis; the changes they brought in went beyond the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) conditionalities for the bailout.
At least two well-regarded technocrats that were important in the 1991 reforms disagree—publicly and in off-the-record conversations. In a media interview last month, one of them, the economic adviser in the reforms team, Dr Ashok Desai, suggested that if there were any reformers in government before the IMF “forced” India to liberalise in 1991, “they hid themselves very well”. According to him, after the BOP crisis was resolved, finance minister Dr Manmohan Singh turned “dead against reforms”.
The multiple versions of the reforms story make it difficult to separate fact from romance. It cannot be disputed, though, that the 1991 BOP crisis was a turning point for the economy. India had tided over BOP crises earlier with loans from the IMF, repaid them prematurely, and avoided going through with the bailout’s conditionalities. 1991 was singularly different because India was on the brink of default, which is likely to have forced politicians to set politics aside and listen to technocrats. Any default on external obligations would have meant hurting India’s credibility grievously and an inescapable sense of national shame. The government probably took the view that there was no choice other than to take corrective steps. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao named Dr Manmohan Singh, who had been a technocrat in government and was well regarded in global policy circles, as his finance minister. Dr Singh clearly had the Prime Minister’s, his party’s and the IMF’s trust. Records irrefutably show that the Congress party’s acceptance of the reversals in the interventionist economic policies of the first four post-Independence decades was not secured by the Prime Minister. He had delegated the task of tackling doubts and resistance within the party to his ministers, in particular, the finance minister and the commerce minister, and an aide in his office. The finance minister defended the reforms on the floor of the house in Parliament.
Taxpayer-funded NPR mocks ‘CaPitAliSm,’ prompting calls to ‘defund’ media outlet
National Public Radio (NPR) ignited a social media firestorm Thursday night over a tweet that appears to mock capitalism, despite taxpayer dollars accounting for much of the organization’s annual budget.
The outlet posted a story titled “And Now, Crocs With Stiletto Heels” that explores a curious new collaboration between luxury fashion brand Balenciaga and Crocs, the rubber slipper company responsible for fashion faux pas among the millions of comfort-clinging owners nationwide.
The caption accompanying the article, which was written in both uppercase and lowercase letters, appears to mock the collaboration: “CaPitAliSm bReEds InNovAtiOn,” it reads.
The tweet’s language sparked outrage on social media, with figures like conservative Tim Young calling out the irony in NPR’s three-word post.
“You wouldn’t exist without capitalism, clown who is tweeting on behalf of NPR,” he wrote.
“Job at public news station wouldn’t exist wo capitalism,” another user echoed. “Are you guys ok?”
“Our tax money shouldn’t pay for this,” one person expressed.
“It’s still a hell of a lot better than communism at breeding innovation, even if some of the products are silly,” one woman fired back.