All grew so fast his life was overgrown,
Till he forgot what all had once been made for:
He gathered into crowds but was alone…
I think we are in times of rapid change in all aspects of modern human life. Google was founded 20 years ago, the first iPhone was released just 13 years ago, and Instagram launched only 9 years ago — yet these tools and services have already revolutionized the daily lives of billions of people. Despite this widespread adoption, it feels to me like we are still in the infant stages, at least psychologically, when it comes to understanding whats going on. It seems weird to say - but I think no one, not even Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or any other executive in Silicon Valley can truly grasp the long-term consequences of this transformation in technology and how personal interaction will change within this new digital landscape.
In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Soshanna Zuboff explores the business models and economic imperatives that have taken over the tech industry. These novel and effective forms of revenue generation have spurred the rapid innovation we have become so accustomed to in recent years...like, really accustomed to. It feels like, for most people, these incredible feats of software engineering are accepted in stride. Google now displays augmented reality simulations of a tiger when you do a search for 'tiger'. You can order satellite imagery on-demand using an app on your phone. Spotify gives you access to every song ever made...for free. It's crazy to realize some times that we live in the future predicted by science-fiction just 50 years ago. Zuboff wanted to highlight the hidden costs to us, as consumers of this shiny new technology, that have funded this tornado of innovation. The unsettling aspect of this business model, called 'Surveillance Capitalism', is that it relies largely on subtlety and misdirection in order to be effective. Zuboff takes a very aggressive stance in opposition to these tactics, and in general she is extremely critical of the entire industry. It felt like one of those books where even though it is composed almost entirely of objective, empirical facts...you have a very clear understanding of the author's opinions, fears, and biases by the end of it.
The book is quite long, and for a number of reasons it took me close to 6 months to finish reading it. One reason is because it is dense, content-wise; Zuboff wastes no sentence on superfluity, she relentlessly drives home her primary ideas with example after example. In the odd moment where she does decide to exercise some artistic flair, it's hilarious. Like an AI trying to imitate a freshman English major:
But the lessons of that day had not yet been fully tallied when fresh answers—or, more modestly, the tenuous glimmers of answers as fragile as a newborn’s translucent skin—rose to the surface of the world’s attention gliding on scented ribbons of Spanish lavender and vanilla
Zuboff, p. 135
No amount of context could make that paragraph any less weird. Similarly, on the subject of inequality:
This is existential toothpaste that, once liberated, cannot be squeezed back into the tube. Like a detonation’s rippling sound waves of destruction, the reverberations of pain and anger that have come to define our era arise from this poisonous collision between inequality’s facts and inequality’s feelings
Zuboff, p. 108
Honestly, adding the term 'existential toothpaste' to my vocabulary might have made reading this 700 page book worth it.
But in all seriousness I'm pretty torn over how I feel about the novel overall. On the one hand, I can appreciate the immense amount of work and research that went in to compiling a book of this depth and scope. Not only that, but the topic is essentially brand new; Zuboff coined the term "surveillance capitalism", and several other concepts in the book are the result of her analysis and novel theories. With this in mind, I can understand why you'd want your theories to be supported by a strong body of work, especially considering the gravity of Zuboff's claims. But on the flip side of the coin, I felt like it was too long and not focused enough. For example, the chapters on behaviorism and it's academic history felt unnecessary. More importantly, I think a lot of Zuboff's claims were too extreme and verged on fear- mongering. Her writing was melodramatic and I found myself rolling my eyes too many times at some of the conclusions drawn. Maybe I'm too much of a realist, but I think the tone could've been dialed back a notch.
The primary thesis of surveillance capitalism is that, in our digitally connected society, our privacy is being stolen from us by tech companies,and that it is possible to prevent this if we act. The methods of data capture have been facilitated by the internet and all the technology that's been built on top of it. These capabilities are largely unregulated currently because tech companies made the decision to "ask forgiveness, not permission" when building all these tools and the market infrastructure to support them. Why would they wait for the bureaucracy of government to tell them what they were allowed to do, when such immense profits awaited them?
In the last 10 years, surveillance capitalism has begun to overtake consumer industries and dominate capital markets - Zuboff provides a plethora of examples that illustrate this. A common refrain that's heard these days is that "every company is a software company", implying that software has become a vital component to every industry fighting to stay relevant and profitable in the digital world. Not just that, but the rise of software and the internet has opened up possibilities for innovation and "disruption" in every sector you can think of. Zuboff believes that, in our unsustainable capitalistic society which values growth above all else, there is no chance for a company to simply just "sell a product" anymore:
The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product or service as a sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. Where you might least expect it, products of every sort are remade by the new economic requirements of connection and rendition. Each is reimagined as a gateway to the new apparatus, praised for being “smart” while traditional alternatives are reviled for remaining “dumb.”
Zuboff, p. 565
In essence, "smart" devices are capable of sensing, recording, and understanding the surroundings. Some of this data is used to make the device (or product, service etc.) better at what it does through feedback loops and the ability to 'learn' users habits. But what makes digital data acquisition so valuable is that its not a consumable resource. Data can be infinitely copied, and reused by whomever has access to it in order to extract more value from it. This is the "behavioural surplus" that Zuboff refers to; surveillance capitalism is only concerned with extracting this data and either selling it as raw material, or transforming it through analysis and selling these behavioral insights. Some of the examples provided in the book were actually astounding to me, and it was startling to find out the extent to which this motive has pervaded across industries...like the vacuum industry:
Nothing is exempt, as products and services from every sector join devices like the Nest thermostat in the competition for surveillance revenues. For example, in July 2017 iRobot’s autonomous vacuum cleaner, Roomba, made headlines when the company’s CEO, Colin Angle, told Reuters about its data-based business strategy for the smart home, starting with a new revenue stream derived from selling floor plans of customers’ homes scraped from the machine’s new mapping capabilities. Angle indicated that iRobot could reach a deal to sell its maps to Google, Amazon, or Apple
Zuboff, p. 555
The other common misconception is that these practices should be expected, and tolerated, since these internet services are free. Things like Google, Facebook, Youtube, and every other service out there that provides us with indispensable value needs to make money somehow—behavioural data leading to targeted adertisting is the primary way this happens. However, as evidenced above by the expensive vacuum cleaner which also spies on your home, this is certainly not the case. Even after we pay these companies for their products and services, they still "unilaterally claim human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data" to put it in Zuboff's terms. Their unrestrained access to this data is granted through our acceptance of their "terms of services" and "end user license" agreements: Faustian bargains we must agree to in order to share our cat photos and look at spongebob memes.
Perhaps the most unsettling example of the reach of surveillance capitalism is with Internet Service Providers. Zuboff spends a fair amount of time looking at how ISPs in the United States have been given the rights to track your internet usage, sell your data to third-parties, and serve personalized ads to you, all without explicit permission. This was a reversal of an Obama-era legislation that Trump signed in 2017, after years of lobbying and pressure by these network carriers. The primary reason is that the major carriers like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast all want to use the exorbitant amounts of data they can collect on their users and profit off of it, in much the same way that Google and Facebook are able to. This is fundamentally flawed as Google is a free service we can choose not to use, and Internet Service Providers are paid to provide internet. Not only that, but internet service is not exactly a competitive marketplace...many areas might only be served by one or two providers. So now, the laws have been changed so that U.S citizens are paying ISPs to sell their private information to advertising companies.
The reversal meant that although federal laws protected the privacy of a telephone call, the same information transmitted by internet immediately enters the ISPs’ surplus supply chains. This roust finally signaled the end of the myth of “free.” The Faustian pact that had been sold to the world’s internet users posed surveillance as the bitter price of free services such as Google’s Search and Facebook’s social network. This obfuscation is no longer tenable, as every consumer who pays his or her monthly telecom bill now also purchases the privilege of a remote and abstract but nevertheless rapacious digital strip search
Zuboff, p. 414
To me, this is like if you had to tell the municipal utilities how you were using the water and electricity you were consuming. And they get to sell that information to whomever's interested. It's ludicrous. And scary. But it's also important to understand that the "surveillance" in surveillance capitalism is not like traditional surveillance. You, as an individual, do not matter to these companies. Your writing, actions, and beliefs are not recorded for human consumption — they are fed into machines as fuel for algorithms and machine learning. Your reaction to your grandmother's passing on Facebook is simply a record in a database somewhere. As Zuboff writes, the products of surveillance capitalism "manage to be derived from our behavior while remaining indifferent to our behavior". I think this is a crucial fact to understand and keep in mind, as we tend to anthropomorphize these giant tech companies when we claim they "spy" on us.
Zuboff insists that these business models aren't necessary components of our digital society, and this marketplace for personal data is unethical and undemocratic. While I agree with the fact that we must act to regulate these markets and prevent the unsolicited capture of our digital information - I don't agree with her proposal that this future we've found ourselves in was avoidable.
Key to our conversation is this fact: surveillance capitalism was invented by a specific group of human beings in a specific time and place. It is not an inherent result of digital technology, nor is it a necessary expression of information capitalism. It was intentionally constructed at a moment in history, in much the same way that the engineers and tinkerers at the Ford Motor Company invented mass production in the Detroit of 1913.
Zuboff, p. 208
I feel that claiming things could have turned out differently is a pretty baseless statement to make. It is impossible to prove or deny, and it's also mostly useless to debate these hypothetical outcomes. In my opinion, any large scale changes to society and human behaviour are actually statistical certainties, once you've factored out the external environment. This may seem like nihilistic fatalism, but I'm talking about all of humanity, not individuals. I think each and every one of us still has plenty of agency to screw things up, at least in our own lives. :)
Zuboff never really backs up this claim anywhere else in the book. She doesn't even spend much time discussing alternative business models or different ways of spurring rapid innovation. Just because these business practices were "intentionally constructed at a moment in history" does not imply it was not inevitable. No one blames the specific gust of wind on the specific day that knocks over an old, rickety fence...the fence was bound to fall over eventually. The important thing is to learn from the fences that fall around us, the old ways of doing things, and the assumptions that can no longer be made anymore. We must figure out how to build a new, better fence, now that we know how strong the wind is.