Totalitarianism and conditioning: reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, chapters 11 and 12

Our online book club continues our reading of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapters 11: The Right to the Future Tense and 12: Two Species of Power.

Age Of Surveillance_coverIn this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions.   I’ll also recap what readers have shared.

How can you respond?  You, dear reader, can respond through whichever technological means make the most sense to you.  You can comment on each blog post.

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  You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web.  (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)

Geoffrey Fowler reports that Amazon’s Alexa system records more audio than people might think, and it’s not the only device doing to (thanks to Scott Robison) Chris Gilliard (a fine Future Trends Forum guest) recommends better black and black women representation at a New York Times data privacy project.

Regulation of surveillance capitalism seems to be in the air. Kent Anderson called for the FDA to regulate social media for its health dangers.  Three members of Congress launched a bill to get the FCC regulating “certain businesses that use ‘high-risk automated decision systems’ (such as those that predict a person’s work performance, financial situation, or health)…”  And one critic fears TikTok’s potential exploitation of user data.


Chapter 11: The Right to the Future Tense shifts the book’s ground a bit, making a philosophical case for the individual’s sovereign right to think through and control their own future.  That right underpins many other rights.  Hannah Arendt and John Searle are cited as a major figure for this line of thought.  Naturally, surveillance capitalist enterprises would now foreclose that futuring right, based on their rising predictive powers.  Without that right we cannot project; instead, we become merely objects.

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[T]he elemental right to the future tense is endangered by a panvasive digital architecture of behavior modification owned and operated by surveillance capital, necessitated by its economic imperatives, and driven by its laws of motion, all for the sake of its guaranteed outcomes. (332-333).

Zuboff concludes by calling for new laws to regulate these architectures (334), then asking us to think about how surveillance capitalism will reshape human society.

Chapter 12: Two Species of Power explores that reshaping by defining a new term: “instrumentarianism…

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the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behavior for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetization, and control.” (352) Zuboff takes care to distinguish instrumentarianism from totalitarianism in the latter’s fascist and Stalinist forms, arguing that each reshaped society in unprecedented yet different ways.

The chapter then shifts disciplines from political science to psychology, while remaining within history, in order to further develop an earlier point about BF Skinner.  Zuboff describes Skinner’s model of behaviorism, laying out the Harvard professor’s vision of a society controlled from above, wherein human life is meticulously shaped by behavior modification.  The chapter ends by linking behaviorism with totalitarianism, comparing two contemporary books: Skinner’s Walden Two (1948) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Zuboff finds a common concern with controlling people in each, but separates them at some length.

I was struck by how closely Zuboff’s investigation of Skinner and his influence echoes the work of Audrey Watters.


  1. Where have you experienced the predictive powers of companies conducting this kind of strategy?
  2. Which companies are conducting such a future foreclosing?
  3. During her discussion of totalitarianism Zuboff claims that contemporaries had a hard time understanding the nature of those nightmare regimes (for example, 357).
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      Is this true? I don’t have my library back yet, but do recall Franz Leopold Neumann’s Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933–1944 was published in the early 1940s.

  4. Is gamification an example of instrumentarianist control?
  5. What role do educational institutions play in this rising instrumentarianist order?

Next week, May 20th, we will move on to chapter 13: Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power, and chapter 14: A Utopia of Certainty.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: .  You can find the reading schedule here.

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One Response to Totalitarianism and conditioning: reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, chapters 11 and 12

  1. Pingback: Reading List for the Digital Surveillance State, Surveillance Capitalism, the Persuasion Industry, and the Rise of SuperAI – Meme Innovation

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