Concluding thoughts on Surveillance Capitalism

Over the past three months our online book club has been reading Shoshana Zuboff’s important new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.  That’s meant a lot of writing, a heap of blogging, and a great amount of comments from you all, thoughtful readers.

With this post I’d like to share some concluding thoughts.

(Here are our discussions by chapter: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18.  My thanks to thoughtful readers Alan Baily, Noel De Martin, Barbara Fister, John Kellden, Brian Pech, Mark Spradley, Carl Adam Rosenfield, sibyledu, Ken Soto, Vanessa Vaile, and Mark Wilson.)

Generally Zuboff succeeds in sketching out a dystopian business model, one predicated on turning the details of our lives into corporate profit.  This is most famously or notoriously demonstrated by Facebook and Google.  The structures and strategies Surveillance Capitalism lays out are very useful tools, like the kidnap/corner/compete playbook.

Zuboff gives us new ways to think about the digital world in 2019, drawing out an archaeology of its development and pushing back on current understanding.  In one neat move, for example, she takes issue with the famous “you are not the consumer; you are the product” axiom.  Instead, Zuboff would rather we think thusly: “we are the sources of raw-material supply.” (69-70)

The book is mostly analytical, a wide-ranging and deeply probing exploration of the business model.  Developing a solution to surveillance capitalism is a secondary consideration, and not a very inspiring one.  Zuboff has some hopes for creative and popular resistance, and ultimately sees governmental regulation as the best option.  I’m not sure that this is convincing.

To begin with, as Zuboff acknowledges, governments often engage in surveillance that is arguably more terrifying than Facebooks, as they are backed up with laws and armed might.  Many governments also practice the nudging Surveillance Capitalism decries.  Yes, states can and often do two opposing things at the same time, but the tension should be addressed.  Otherwise the argument runs the risk of asking us to appeal to bullies for protection.

Moreover, the politics involved can become challenging, especially in the United States.  This month several Democratic presidential candidates are going after some of Silicon Valley; regulating tech firms could become an epically partisan issue, especially for a Republican party keen to protect and extend big business.  On the other hand, some Republicans, including Trump, are incensed at what they see as FAANG‘s anti-conservative bias.   The Trump administration is also weighing regulatory options against the digital giants.  A leading conservative blogger called for antitrust action. Is a bipartisan consensus possible?

Put another way, can Congress escape Silicon Valley’s lobbying might, or will it be sufficiently captured to not enact anything meaningful?  Further, if Evgeny Morozov is right, as Barbara Fister suggests, and surveillance capitalism is really about capitalism itself, what kind of political organization is available now to respond? Perhaps thee bipartisan possibility I noted above will fall apart as a socialism-interested left wing feuds with Republicans and centrist Democrats alike.   Or, if surveillance capitalism is about extraction, as Zuboff insists, is a better model anti-colonialism, as Vanessa Vaile suggests?  That could lead to an international politics, whereby some other nations oppose Silicon Valley for fomenting an updated, digital colonialism.

Or should we think about this instead as a health care issue, since so many of the privacy  violations Zuboff abhors occur in the body of mind?  If so,  the odds aren’t good, as Noel De Martin observes.  Indeed, surveillance capitalism may have succeeded in implanting itself too deeply in our psyches to be uprooted, as Mark Spradley ponders.

Zuboff_discovery of behavioral surplusFurthermore, the book notes several times that the surveillance capitalism model doesn’t stem entirely from the technology sector.  Indeed, the financial sector played a key role in shaping and driving it (cf Mark Corbett Wilson’s fine comment).  That sector is enormously powerful, both economically and politically.  How can a society and culture oppose its strategy?  Arguably America failed to do so after the 2008 financial disaster (recall Occupy).  Again, political challenges and complexity are rampant on this score.

Shifting from politics to economics, Zuboff would like us to support alternative funding models.  What are they?  Barbara Fister identifies DuckDuckGo and paid(walled) journalism. Noel De Martin points to Netflix as one where we pay for content – although it’s really a hybrid model, as Netflix mines our viewing habits to surface recommendations.

Can other businesses compete by openly resisting surveillance capitalism?  Carl Rosenfeld thinks this might be happening with VPN providers.  Apple has lately made a play for being taken seriously as a pro-privacy actor. Alan Baily notes that Apple makes hardware and might be too far behind Google etc. to catch up.  Perhaps their alleged shift to being a media company will lead them to follow Netflix’s hybrid path.  The computer gaming industry – immense and weirdly absent from Zuboff’s book – largely sells artifacts and services without managing to stalk our inner data-thoughts (except through canny design); Steam is not great at recommendations.

On a different register, I think Age of Surveillance Capitalism fails to understand why so many consumers volunteer to enter the universe of decreased, monetized privacy.  The book compares this business model to military conquest, but doesn’t account well for our conscious embrace of it.  As Ken Soto points out, low- or no-cost services of high quality are quite appealing to consumers.  Think of how Gmail outcompeted email clients, or how Facebook crafted a better social experience than Facebook.  Google Earth, Google Books: these are effective tools without serious competition.  As Nicholas Carr argues (and it’s not often I agree with him),

While Zuboff’s assessment of the costs that people incur under surveillance capitalism is exhaustive, she largely ignores the benefits people receive in return — convenience, customization, savings, entertainment, social connection, and so on. The benefits can’t be dismissed as illusory, and the public can no longer claim ignorance about what’s sacrificed in exchange for them.

I admit to being torn on this in my personal experience.  Despite my dread of their datamining, Amazon’s recommendation system is better than the suggestions I’ll get from 99% of bookstores.   I use many Google tools (Drive, Gmail, Maps, etc) because the price is good and the quality high.  Facebook still gives me a bigger social network than any other platform, no matter how badly Zuckerberg behaves.  Voice activated tools are handy for me when I’m cooking or driving.  Convenience and quality are powerful forces and help enable the age of surveillance capitalism; the titular book needs to account for them, even though that would weaken its rhetorical stance.

Beyond myself, I think the personal experience of many other people helps explain why Facebook, Google et al can get away with this.  You see, Zuboff posits an opposition between a good life with privacy and the bad life after social media, yet that duality doesn’t withstand scrutiny.  Before Web 2.0 many people already lived with many privacy violations.  The world of work can compromise privacy in a variety of ways, from surveilled email to intense bodily scrutiny; actually, as Katie Fitzpatrick points out, Zuboff seems more concerned with leisure than work.  The war on (some) drugs has habituated many Americans to yielded up our bodily fluids to bureaucratic processing.  The many people who serve in or work closely with the military have a very different privacy experience than the ideal one Zuboff holds out.  In fact, the war on terror has systematically degraded American civil liberties.  Even without war, many who would access some public services are long used to opening up their lives to the gaze of civil servants.  Next to any of these, letting Google trawl one’s email to shape some small ads is far less threatening.  If I can slightly misread Blayne Haggart, the book overstates its claims to novelty.

Where does this leave us?

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a powerful book that should be read.  It does feel incomplete, however, like a business book that falls short of politics, or one crafted with a Manichean zeal that misses the nuances of history and daily life.  I recommend it for its utility and the conversations it should start.

Looking ahead, I think Zuboff outlines an unfolding politics.  We should pursue that thinking.

(And many thanks, once more, to the readers in our online book club.)


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