A Spectre Is Haunting Europe

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

Shoshana Zuboff

How do big tech companies make so much money? Do the conclusions they draw about us from the vast quantities of metadata that we throw off as we navigate the internet pose a threat to our wellbeing and liberty? These, the most consequential of our lifetime, are the concern of Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard Business School. Trained as a psychologist and philosopher, she sounds the alarm on the effect that the data behemoths - predominantly Google, Facebook and Microsoft - have on our societies and our economies, and attempts to grapple them into an intellectual framework. Unfortunately that framework is a post-modern melange that never establishes principles of good digital behaviour, producing a book that is at once devastating and flaccid; precise in its exposure of appalling behaviour yet unable to put its finger on what Big Other, as she dubs them, is actually doing that is wrong.

The opening chapters lay out the lengths to which large companies will go to stockpile records of our online behaviour: storing gargantuan quantities of search requests, hoarding the world’s copyrighted material under “safe harbour” provisions and sending mapping vehicles down every street to photograph every house and “accidentally” capture personal information from people’s domestic WiFi networks. These are backed up by aggressive legal, political and PR campaigns that grind down regulators and habituate users into accepting that this is just how digital life must be. This important and infuriating catalogue is the most useful part of the book, but the conclusions Zuboff draw get bent out of shape very quickly. She synthesis these actions into a cycle of “behavioural surplus,” in which companies accumulate more data about user behaviour than they need to improve the service and then set about using it to create markets for the users’ future behaviour, which they can predict. It consciously mirrors Marx’s theory of “surplus value,” a preposterous idea in which a mistaken premise - that the value of an item above the cost of raw materials consists only of the value that the worker imparts into it - was spun into a conspiracy theory that capital was extracting value from labour.

Zuboff seems seriously confused about the value of a digital service, and to whom it should accrue. If for example, I use Google’s search engine to navigate the world wide web, Google’s algorithm is run on Google’s hardware, querying the information Google has stored in its network and the results are returned to me free of cash payment. The search term and metadata - the time of the request and the type of browser from which it was sent for example - are facts about the world, not intellectual property that I have created. To describe their value as “surplus” is to impute to them a dollar value that cannot possible be known outside of the demand for the predictions Google makes with the information it has harvested. Zuboff convinces me that there is surveillance going on, but not that there is capitalism happening here. She may well be correct that social media encroaches on the “backstage” area we need to be ourselves where we can surrender to “whistling, chewing, nibbling, belching and flatulence,” but vast numbers of people willingly give up their farting space to a digital service that captures and broadcasts the carefully composed image of it to the entire world, forever. Anyone who doubts only has to witness how many victorious football teams tweet from inside their dressing room. In terms of economic value it is not clear that it is an unfair exchange.

This failure to provide a firm basis for why tech companies should not make full use of all this data is a fatal flaw of this book. She seems to sense this, and embarks on many tangents and dead ends to muster some disapproval. The weird language - atrophied for many years in the best academic institutions - doesn’t help. Many sentences can be read multiple times without giving up any actual meaning: “In the absence of synthetic declarations that secure the road to a human future, the intolerability of glass life turns us toward a societal arms race of counter-declarations in which we search for and embrace increasingly complex ways to hide in our own lives [emphasis hers], seeking respite from lawless machines and their masters.”1 I honestly have no idea what this is trying to say. It is probably why I remember so few of the 500 pages (a bad sign) and why the usual pseudo2 admire it so much (a worse sign). When we end up invoking that old fraud Jean Paul Sartre that we may be left alone by the tech giants so we may “will to will” the whole thing has fallen apart. Guess what? In this life Mark Zuckerberg is also allowed a “will to will”, and what he wills is that we all send him the details of our friends, our likes and our locations that he can profile us and sell us on.

By great serendipity I followed this book with Patrick Dineen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which shares with Surveillance Capital an exploration of Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. Zuboff is bogged down because she fails to realise that the vice she rightly intuits in tech company behaviour cannot be explained in terms of the liberal philosophy propounded since Hobbes and Locke. We have all become accustomed to thinking that people are fully autonomous individuals for whom the state pushes back the impediments of custom and social obligation so that people can more authentically be themselves in liberty. As Dineen explains, the free exercise of this liberty manifests in entrapment in an algorithmic prison that changes our behaviour and inserts itself in our relationships. Zuboff rightly complains when Satya Nadella of Microsoft boasts that our social relationships are now “first class objects in the cloud,” but can’t say why it creeps her out so much. Dineen can offer her a way out of the bind: these relationships are not ours to give away to the cloud, they are first class objects in real life. We cannot digitise these for the same reason that we cannot enter into a contract for slavery, they are an offence against our dignity.

Let’s boil this book down to some useful conclusions: the surveillance by our phones and devices is a real threat to our wellbeing, especially our mental health. Furthermore, the data we offer up to tech companies is much more valuable than we realise, and we should look for a bigger cut. A free operating system is a crappy deal if it is reporting back to Google all the time. The convenience of Alexa is a crappy deal if Amazon use it to shape our purchasing preferences. We should withdraw from these one-sided deals and shop around. And we should start looking for political ways to eliminate the vast stores of metadata Facebook et al hold about their users.

  1. Page 489
  2. Fintan O’Toole being the most egregious