Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 3 and 4

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 3: The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus, and chapter 4: The Moat Around the Castle.

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 participate?  You, dear reader, can respond to your reading through whichever technological means make the most sense to you.

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  You can comment on each blog post, as some did last week.  You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web.  If you want to make extra sure I see your contributions, ping me on Twitter or through this site. (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)

If you want to find previous installments of our reading so far, they are all available under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ .  You can also find the reading schedule here.

From our readers: Ken Soto wondered why Zuboff doesn’t address the powerful services largely available to users for free.  Barbara Fister reminds us that many tech leaders didn’t plan all of this, that other digital business models are available, and that neoliberalism may be the real villain here.  She also wonders about Apple in this milieu.

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  And Brian Pech found this good Zuboff interview with Leo Laporte. On Facebook Carl Rosenfield asks “Is the current economy, based on exploitation, redeemable?”

Summary

Chapter 3: The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus retells the history of Google with a focus on how the company developed a surveillance capitalism model.  A key development in that story is Google’s post-dot-bomb crisis, when hungry investment dollars flooded in, seeking profit while other digital businesses collapsed.  Venture capital put enormous pressure on what was just a search engine company to yield spectacular returns.

Google responded by rethinking what Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus,” the range of data users generate in interaction with the service, especially beyond core interactions.  Initially Google used that data to improve products.  But VC pressure yielded a new model, turning that data into ads and other ways of bringing in income.  Google created user profiles, which could be plugged into predictive models (78). The more data, the better the results, so the company began a campaign to hoover up as much data as it possibly could.  Zuboff dubs this strategy “the extraction imperative.” (87) . Google then disguised this motivation by supplying altered language.

Zuboff_behavioral surplus accumulationThe model then moved to Facebook, personally due to Sheryl Sandberg’s move between the companies (leading Zuboff to name her the “Typhoid Mary of surveillance capitalism”, 92). Other companies then followed suit (96).

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Chapter 4: The Moat Around the Castle describes how Google built and protected this behavioral surplus system.  One key part is a sense that political authorities were not capable of understanding or regulating the system, which Zuboff compares to 19th-century robber barons in terms of a “dedication to lawlessness,” intellectual powered by libertarian writers. (106) Another is the rise of neoliberalism and its drive to expand the market while reducing state activity. That led to close relationships between business and government, including a rotating door between Google and the Obama administration (120ff).

One law which makes Google’s innovations work is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996), which protects platform providers from legal actions against the content they carry.  In Zuboff’s analysis, section 230 also “shelters this extractive surveillance capitalist operation from critical examination.”  (110-112)

Zuboff_discovery of behavioral surplus

One passage from this week’s chapter pair really caught my eye:

…ignorance is a condition of this ubiquitous rendition; that decision rights vanish before one even knows that there is a decision to make; that there are consequences to this diminishment of rights we can neither see nor foretell; that there is no exit, no voice, and no loyalty, only helplessness, resignation, and psychic numbing; and that encryption is the only positive action left to discuss when we sit around the dinner table and casually ponder how to hide from the forces that hide from us. (95)

Questions

  1. Zuboff takes issue with the famous “you are not the consumer; you are the product” axiom.  Instead, she’d rather we think thusly: “we are the sources of raw-material supply.” (69-70) Do you agree with the author here?
  2. What is the role of the financial sector in the rise of surveillance capitalism?
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  3. Reader Carl Rosenfield asks “Is the current economy, based on exploitation, redeemable?”
  4. Is Sheryl Sandberg one of the primary bad players, a typhoid Mary, in Zuboff’s terms?
  5. Are there other business models besides surveillance capitalism that you think are viable now?

Next week (April 22 – 5) we will move on to chapter 5, The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete, and chapter 6: Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ .  You can find the reading schedule here.

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8 Responses to Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 3 and 4

  1. Hello Bryan, I’d like to give my opinion on your last question: “Are there other business models besides surveillance capitalism that you think are viable now?”

    I think the fundamental problem with surveillance capitalism is that the goal of the product is not aligned with the goal of the business model, and I believe any other business model doing that is destined to cause problems sooner or later. For example, if we put Facebook as an example, the goal of their product is to connect people. However, the business model relies on advertising, which is not aligned with the raison d’être of the product. It could even be said that it hurts the experience, so they are forced to work around that. And because that’s what they’ll maximize, users end up using a product that goes against their interests.

    So I believe any business model that’s aligned with the product and the value that’s given to the users can succeed. And it’s entirely possible that such a business model is not compatible with venture capital because it doesn’t lend itself to uber-growth. But I’d much prefer to see a future with 100K independent profitable companies than 100 monopolies ruling the market.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a subtle point, Noel.
      Do you see any other digital businesses that better align service and revenue? For example, paid web content?

      • Yes, I think paid web content or streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify are better aligned. But of course, they still fall back to surveillance capitalism when they try to maximize profits.

        In the end, how much is surveillance capitalism linked to maximizing profits? Most businesses can potentially increase their revenue with surveillance capitalism. And today it’s become so ubiquitous that most do it without second guessing.

        I just think there is a difference between a company that does it to increase profits and a company that is built on top of it.

        • Mark Spradley says:

          You make good points, Noel.
          Every company has an intranet to connect employees in the task of providing whatever product or service the company provides. Facebook wants to connect people just to connect them. And they think it’s a very high minded motivation, like when Priscilla Chan–first year pediatric resident seeing nothing but children dying from Leukemia everyday–cried on national TV and vowed that Marc’s billions would cure all diseases by 2100.
          Zuboff never mentioned, as far as I can recall, that the website for the governments of Thailand, the Philippines and other countries is just their Facebook page, and the only internet platform the citizen’s iPhones can connect with is Facebook. Facebook hands over the keys to connection as if once people are connected, they become good. Marc and Priscilla didn’t know that bad guys need to be connected too, or that bad guys won’t use their connections to cure the world’s diseases.
          I have never joined Facebook. I believe in paying subscriptions: NY Times, Washington Post, NYRB, Wired, The Atlantic. I have donated to the Guardian, but I think they will have to go subscription. I have money deducted from my account for Wikipedia monthly, but I’d rather subscribe. I don’t use YouTube enough to subscribe, although I have a channel: Mark W. Spradley.

  2. Also you can actually have ad revenue without spying on people. Publications did it for over a century. DuckDuckGo does it. So does the New York Times in the EU. They had to drop their programmatic ads to comply with the GDPR and …. didn’t lose a penny. They’re not the only ones who have discovered they can run ads without going through magical ad tech shenanigans.

    I’m not convinced by the evangelical mission statements of these companies. They wanted to amass power and money conjured out of code and other people’s stuff from the start. It just took a while to figure out how the money piece would work – witness the dot-bomb of 2000.

    The financialization of everything seems at least a fraternal twin of surveillance capitalism. Banks also make money out using other people’s stuff while producing nothing but systems for circulating other people’s stuff. And both the financial industry and tech companies run on code so complex they don’t even know what’s really going on or how to fix it. Hence, 2008 and the next global financial crisis, coming soon thanks to lack of accountability, global opacity around money flows, and amazingly stupid deregulation.

    We badly need regulation of both industries and both are way too powerful and at the same time too powerless to fix the problems they cause. Too big to not fail but too big to rein in.

    I totally agree with Zuboff’s reformulation of where we are in the formula – raw material, lives to be mined to produce a thing that is sold to customers.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Belated thanks for this excellent response, Barbara.
      I didn’t know the NYTimes was doing well in post-GDPR Europe. Fascinating.

      I wonder how we as a species can built international regulation of this behavior, given not only current political problems, but also the difficulties in getting any digital global cooperation.

    • I can’t help seeing a parallel between surveillance capitalism and extraction economies? Data mining that accrues that profits those extracting and processing reminds me of the cultural geography model of “colonial debtor economies.”

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

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