Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 13 and 14

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 13: Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power, along with chapter 14: A Utopia of Certainty.

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.  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.)

One development to share: before the United States Senate programmer and Pinboard-creator Maciej Ceglowski delivered a powerful indictment of surveillance capitalism.


Chapter 13 (Big Other and the Rise of Instrumentarian Power) picks up right where chapter 12 left off, continuing to develop the instrumentarian idea.  Zuboff maintains the contrast with totalitarianism, even offering tables:

Zuboff Two Species of Power 1

This lets Zuboff explore links between the surveillance capitalism business model and governmental roles in encouraging or conducting surveillance.  The United States and China are the primary states here, and it is clear that each encouraged surveillance capitalism in their own ways.

Zuboff Two Species of Power 2

With Chapter 14, A Utopia of Certainty, Zuboff digs more deeply into SC’s ambitions.  She sees them as totalizing and also utopian, starting to apply the term “utopistics” to describe how they can be realized.

Much of [Larry] Page’s future vision turns out to be stock utopian fare, themes that have been repeated for millennia. Page anticipates machine intelligence that restores humankind to the Garden of Eden, lifting us from toil and struggle into a new realm of leisure and fulfillment. He foresees, for example, a future society graced by “abundance” in all things, where employment is but a “crazy” distant memory. (p. 401)

In this chapter Facebook and Google offer up vast ambitions to not only organize the world’s information and connect everybody, but to create new mechanisms for decision-making at enormous scale and to spark more human creativity.  Naturally to make this work human behavior must be corralled and constrained, driving humans to behave more like machines, and involving an “all-out war on accidents, mistakes, and randomness in general.” (409)

Chaplin caught in the machineIn this dystopia people will monitor each other closely in a way that reminds me of Foucault’s take on Bentham’s Panopticon:

humans [will] emulate the superior learning processes of the smart machines. This emulation is not intended as a throwback to mass production’s Taylorism or Chaplin’s hapless worker swallowed by the mechanical order. Instead, this prescription for symbiosis takes a different road on which human interaction mirrors the relations of the smart machines as individuals learn to think and act by emulating one another… (p. 414)


  1. If surveillance capitalism can deliver certain utopian goods (“a new realm of leisure and fulfillment. He foresees, for example, a future society graced by “abundance” in all things, where employment is but a “crazy” distant memory”), wouldn’t many people find the privacy rendition to be a worthy trade-off?
  2. At the end of chapter 13 Zuboff calls on us to resist and organize, reawakening democracy.  How can we do this if that democracy is the same state that encouraged surveillance and performs its own snooping and analysis?
  3. Chapter 14 describes the ominous possibility of using “the interface between the computer and the real world… [to enable you to] search the real world for people, objects and activities, and apply policies to them.…” (410; emphases in original).  Yet isn’t this what many human institutions already do, such as human resources departments?
  4. Zuboff describes a creepy-sounding Microsoft patent for a machine that “would alert ‘trusted individuals’ such as family members, doctors, and caregivers” in case of an anomaly.  The tech would also connect with “health care providers, insurance companies, and law-enforcement personnel.”( 412) . That sounds like the experience of being a patient in long-term or mental health care. Is surveillance capitalism inspired by health care’s less humane aspects?
  5. If surveillance capitalism is based on extensive individual details, how can it also flatten personal differences?

Next week, on May 27th, we will advance to chapters 15 (The Instrumentation Collective) and 16 (Of Life in the Hive).

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

(Chaplin screen grab via this Jacobin article)

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18 Responses to Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 13 and 14

  1. Mark Spradley says:

    Zuboff defines the “Big Other” as “the ubiquitous digital apparatus through which surveillance capitalism imposes its will” (p. 376). She takes the term “Big Other” from Jacques Lacan’s “Le Grand Autre” which has been defined as “radical alterity” in Lacan’s “symbolic register.” It is language, but not the language we speak, rather, the language that speaks us, the social order of which we are largely unconscious but which we obey. Lacan is also punning on the French word “Auteur,” “author.” The big Other authors us and has authority over us. Its complement in Lacan’s “imaginary register” is “l’objet (petit) a,” or “the little other,” which represents the unattainable object of desire. Zuboff doesn’t pursue any of these Lacanian themes, but she gives them a nod in appropriating the term. To oversimplify, it’s by monitoring us, learning what we think we desire, and offering it to us in advertisements that surveillance capital is able to modify our behavior.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s been bugging me throughout the book. Do you think she intended Lacan, or it’s just a homophonic coincidence?

      • Mark Spradley says:

        Maybe she would call it “resonance.” On p. 440 she says, “Such is Pentland’s resonance with Skinner’s social theory that without ever mentioning the behaviorist’s name, a later section of the book is titled “Social Physics Versus Free Will and Dignity.””
        Skinner developed a bad reputation after Chomsky unseated him and cognitivism replaced behaviorism in most psychology departments. Zuboff suggests Pentland was avoiding bad associations by not naming him. Behaviorism came back, not in psychology, but in economics.
        Perhaps at this point, Lacan has developed a bad odor in many University departments while, if any computer scientists read this book, I doubt they would ever have heard of Lacan.
        I just finished reading the book about an hour ag0, but in the bibliography I’ve underlined lots of online articles I want to read. That will take me a week at least.
        Thanks again for reading this book in your book club. I think it’s important, but unfortunately, its size alone will keep most people from even starting it.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Thank you for the kind words, Mark.

          Nicely put about behaviorism coming back in business practices.

          Where will you share your thoughts about your readings of those articles?

          • Mark Spradley says:

            I have no place to share them but here.
            Correction: reading the online articles in Zuboff’s bibliography will take me many weeks.

  2. Mark Spradley says:

    I only just recognized that Mario Savio was referencing this sequence in the Movie “Modern Times” of Charlie Chaplin in the gears of the machine in his famous “Machine Speech” on the steps of Sproul Hall on May 1st, 1964. That was the speech that inspired the Berkeley protest movement and gave it its watchwords. The idea that the machine was a threat was understood intuitively by many of Mario’s generation: “And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!” But it’s hard to find anyone in generations X, Y and Z who finds the apparatus of Big Brother “so odious [that it] makes you so sick at heart” (Savio, 1964). How would one do that today, anyway? Perhaps by blowing up the big Facebook and Google data centers and bringing down the cloud. There are parts of Chapter 16 relevant to this and I’ll comment there.
    Your question 2 above must refer to “Section V. A Fork in the Road” where Zuboff says one fork begins with “reawakening our astonishment, and sharing a sense of righteous indignation” which might lead to “a synthetic declaration for a third modernity based on the strengthening of democratic institutions.” I can’t imagine Mario Savio saying that. So far, I don’t see any possibility of generations X, Y and Z feeling righteous indignation toward Google or Facebook like those Berkeley students felt in 1964.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good call with Mario Savio, Mark.

      For generations Y and Z, do you find the most prominent activists – AOC, Greta Thunberg – so successful at using digital media for their purposes that they can’t turn on it?

      • Mark Spradley says:

        It’s true that neither protests against climate change nor promotions of the Green New Deal would reach many people without the internet. Unfortunately, data centers already may be the largest consumers of energy and, if blockchain becomes widespread, they’ll have to expand oil drilling and build many new nuclear power plants. Solar and wind power are a joke. Their whole infrastructure and the whole building materials industry is fossil based, as is the consumer electronics industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the textile industry, not to mention cars, airplanes and container ships. All those numbers from Scandinavian countries that make them sound so Green are lies. Nothing will change until climate change is catastrophic. For one, we would have to return to cruelty to animals as a way of life. Oil has replaced substances from animal bodies in almost every instance. My slogan is: Divest from Fossil Fuels and Breed More Mules.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Not sure I follow. Head back to circa 1890 transportation tech?

          • Mark Spradley says:

            The U.S. Army had a large mule breeding program and sent more than 200,000 mules to Europe during WWII; however, by the end of the war, mules had been replaced by jeeps and the Army gave up its breeding program.
            For well over 2000 years, donkeys have been the beast of burden for and represented the lowest classes, mules did the same for the middling classes, and horses for the aristocrats.
            Mules are the most sure footed and trustworthy equine. They can live over 50 years. Often they were a families most prized possession for two or three generations with whom they lived intimately.
            Early organic chemists called their coal tar and petroleum distillates “aromatic” because the smell of benzene was sweet and much preferred to the stench of boiling animal fats which were the substrates for the old “aliphatic” chemistry.
            Just extracting petroleum releases as significant an amount of CO2 as burning it does.
            All the beautiful, vibrant colors that paint our world come from petroleum. 99% or more of the drugs we take are synthesized from petroleum. In 1997, the amount of synthetic textiles made from petroleum surpassed the amount made from cotton, and the gap continues to widen. Petroleum based building materials are quickly replacing wood. How would we make steel without petroleum coke? How would we generate the necessary heat?
            When students at Stanford were protesting to make the University divest from fossil fuels, did they consider that most of the clothes they were wearing were made from petroleum, that their clothes arrived in America along with their laptops on diesel belching container ships and were distributed throughout the nation on diesel belching trucks? Or that they themselves had come to school on airplanes that inject high levels of greenhouse gases directly into the upper atmosphere?
            Facebook, it was just announced, has invested $416 million in a massive solar project in Texas. How many years will it take to offset the amount of carbon generated in making the solar panels and building the array? By then, the panels will need to be replaced, but few plans have been made for recycling them. Picture huge piles of dead panels next to the huge piles of old tires that dot country roads throughout the world.
            The grid and the cloud are not sustainable. The internet won’t save the world, it will just promulgate the lies of greenwashing to save itself. Oh yes, and make Swedish teenagers into superstars for trying to save the world from global warming.
            Sweden and South Africa are deeply linked: they have the deepest mines in the world where they have worked their peasant classes to death for hundreds of years. The purity of Swedish iron made viking swords invincible. Bars of Swedish iron were the currency with which slaves were bought by Europeans from the earliest days of the Atlantic slave trade. Iron brought Sweden to military supremacy in the 30 years war. After that, Sweden quit fighting and just sold Bofors cannons to the rest of the world. Sweden remained neutral in WWII because every combatant country mounted Bofors anti-aircraft guns on their battements and naval destroyers. Bofors CEO, Alfred Nobel, set up a fund that has been giving money to the wrong people for the wrong reasons since he kicked the whole thing off with dynamite. Sweden leads the world in technology for extractive mining as well as for electricity grids. Sweden is building Facebook’s biggest data center. And Sweden wants to export its socialism to save the world, give away free music and movies from its pirate bay–no no, they hunted down the boys who founded that, threw them in jail and threw away the keys–and, of course, Sweden wants to lock up that rapist, Julian Assange, who made Hillary Clinton lose the election.
            We should unplug our computers, ditch our cars and go back to breeding mules. Once climate change brings on constant and massive catastrophes, we’ll have to anyway.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Belated thanks, Mark, for taking the time to patiently answer my question at such generous length.

            I agree about the deep, deep importance of oil to our civilization – and that it’s largely unremarked upon.

            I don’t think that kind of regression is the likeliest way forward… but I’m still thinking of alternatives.

    • Vanessa Vaile says:

      IndustriALL Global Union uses the worker caught in the gears image in calls to action against precarious work. It also appears regularly on other precarious labor posts.

  3. Mark Spradley says:

    The further comments will be on chapter 17, not 16.

  4. Mark Spradley says:

    In chapter 14, Section III, Applied Utopistics, Zuboff plays on terms from Object Oriented Programming (OOP) such as “first class object” hoping to arouse in her readers the horror of objectification, the treatment of persons as if they were things, which motivated people to protest in the ’60s. She throws about terms from OOP as if they are dehumanizing, but she’s never explicit about this because it would be a category mistake. I’m bothered by this in the same way I was bothered by her use of the term “declaration,” but in that case she failed to mention that the term also had a technical meaning in programming. The weakness of Zuboff’s merely suggestive use of technical programming terms as if they are dehumanizing points to her own conclusion that only regulatory agencies with machine resources and expertise will be able to intervene meaningfully in the inevitability SC.

  5. Alan Baily says:

    13/14-1 – Relative to delivering utopian goods, It would be “they” who would decide what is utopian. You would only get the goods that “they” decided to provide. weren’t we supposed to have a three-day work week by now? Utopia never comes.

    But the goods would only be what “they” decided was utopian. This whole process gently hurds us into only wanting what “they” can provide. It is definitely not worth the trade-off. Weren’t we supposed to have a three-day workweek by now. Things never come as promised.

    13/14-2 – Democracy may have ushered in this surveillance but democracy is a fluid process. If the people decide something, they can redecide it at a future time. The process is open for people to exercise their democratic rights on almost any issue. More people don’t vote then could elect a third party candidate.

    13/14-4 – Surveillance capitalism is not inspired by any human aspect. It is only there to make money. Being under surveillance 24/7 as an excuse for providing adequate healthcare is not a tradeoff I would like to make. Is that the kind of world we want to live in where “someone” knows every act of your entire existence?

    13/14-5 – Surveillance capitalism would flatten personal differences in that it would “train” everyone to want the things that “they” could provide. Many fewer “outliers” are people who might be different and interesting.

    15/16-1 – I’m not sure why the question is phrased in terms of the government “maintaining” surveillance capitalism as that is exactly what is should not be doing. The government should be there to protect us from “unreasonble search and seizure” and this should be extended to the digital world.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Alan, belated thanks for a rich and thoughtful reply.

      It’s a dark reply as well. I’m guessing Zuboff resonates deeply with you.

      I wrote government maintains surveillance capitalism because, first, it does so much to grow surveillance on its own. Second, it provides services SC enterprises draw upon, from public education to interstates.

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