Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 5 and 6

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 5: The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete, and chapter 6: Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society.  This represents a deeper dive into how tech companies elicit and exploit user data.

Zuboff_Ken Bauer

Reader Ken Bauer begins in style.

In 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, as some did last week.  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.)

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

From readers: Alan Baily offered thoughtful answers to last week’s questions.  John Kellden identified a very powerful passage from earlier in the book.  On Mastodon, Booklord recommended two readings, Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, and Mcsweeney’s #54: The End of Trust. And a new group, Citizens Against Surveillance Capitalism (CASC), appeared on LinkedIn.


With Chapter 5 (“The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete”) the book explores how companies compete with each other in this kind of business, and how they bypass public resistance.  One method is by rapidly generating innovative services for public consumption, so that a firm can receive as much data as possible.  The data is the point, for Zuboff, not so much the service itself.  “It’s not the map; it’s the behavioral data from [users] interacting with the map.” (132)

Zuboff lays out a four-stage process in this chapter, using Google’s recent history as a case study.  First, there is the launch of a service that generates user data in a new (to the company) way, or an “incursion.”  This works as a kind of dispossession, weakening user control over a given part of their life.  Second, users grow accustomed to these new tools and their presence, or “habituation.”  Third, if public outcry builds, then companies can shift their architecture in small, tactical ways: “adaptation.”  Fourth, a company must build on that service, continuing to expand, and drawing attention away from any problems with the original service, or “redirection.”

While this chapter starts with Google, it moves on to others.  Facebook learns the four steps quickly, using them to grow into a behemoth.  Microsoft turns itself around from a slump and grows new profits based on search and user data, partly obtained from buying LinkedIn.  Even Verizon learned the four stages. (159ff).

Chapter 6: Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society is very schematic, offering a series of integer-based concepts.  Zuboff outlines six principles Google articulated to justify its strategy.

We claim human experience as raw material free for the taking. On the basis of this claim, we can ignore considerations of individuals’ rights, interests, awareness, or comprehension.

On the basis of our claim, we assert the right to take an individual’s experience for translation into behavioral data.

Our right to take, based on our claim of free raw material, confers the right to own the behavioral data derived from human experience.

Our rights to take and to own confer the right to know what the data disclose.

Our rights to take, to own, and to know confer the right to decide how we use our knowledge.

Our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide confer our rights to the conditions that preserve our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide.(179)

The chapter’s title refers to a division of learning, rather than a division of labor, and this is partially explained by the gap between those who learn new technology skills and those who do not.  The term also summons Emile Durkheim‘s foundational sociological work, and in addition denotes a threefold question about information and power in firms: who knows, who decides, and who chooses the deciders?  In today’s economy as well as society as a whole, the answers increasingly are:

The answer to the question Who knows? was that the machine knows, along with an elite cadre able to wield the analytic tools to troubleshoot and extract value from information. The answer to Who decides? was a narrow market form and its business models that decide. Finally, in the absence of a meaningful double movement, the answer to Who decides who decides? defaults entirely to financial capital bound to the disciplines of shareholder-value maximization.(181-182)

Put more simply: “surveillance capitalism knows, decides, and decides who decides.”  (192)

Zuboff then adds “the problem of two texts,” two different digital records associated with users.  We can access one, but not the other (183).  Think of Google’s record of your preferences, or the Facebook account that persists after the user putatively deletes it, as examples of this second, user-“illegible” text.

The combined effect of these divisions and axioms yields a new elite, one based on computational power:

the competitive struggle over surveillance revenues reverts to the pre-Gutenberg order as the division of learning in society shades toward the pathological, captured by a narrow priesthood of privately employed computational specialists, their privately owned machines, and the economic interests for whose sake they learn.(190)

This week’s favorite line is short:

Such companies are often referred to as “software-as-a-service” or SaaS, but they are more accurately terms “surveillance as a service,” or SVaaS.(172)


  1. Surveillance capitalism appears without state control, according to chapter 6.  If this is right, what kinds of government policies offer the best responses?
  2. In these chapters we see the financial sector continuing to play a key role in the rise of surveillance capitalism.  How should societies and states react, if at all?
  3. Zuboff describes digital companies launching new services as invasions akin to robbery and kidnapping (139) or to the Spanish conquests of the Americas (176ff).  Elsewhere, “The world is vanquished now, on its knees, and brought to you by Google.” (142) Is that language accurate or hyperbolic?
  4. At one point Zuboff ponders, How different might our society be if US businesses had chosen to invest in people as well as in machines?” (182) Does this mean America should increase computer science teaching as well as job retraining?
  5. What do you make of the surveillance capitalism model so far?

Next week we cross into the book’s second major part, with chapters 7: The Reality Business, and 8: Rendition: From Experience to Data.

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

(photo by Ken Bauer)

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!
This entry was posted in book club and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 5 and 6

  1. So far behind but remaining undaunted. Emboldened by regained ability to hoof it to the local library and back, I checked out a clutch of books the day before my copy of Surveillance Capitalism arrived. Not a good idea.

    • It’s a very daunting size!! Like a lot of books I read these days (more fiction than non) it could have been tightened up and made more effective with judicious trimming and tightening.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Yes, there seems to be some repetition and extra adumbration.

        If it helps, the book is about 25% footnotes.

  2. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s column in the Guardian has some ideas about how governments can and should face the problems. So does Bruce Scheier in his books – lots of solid recommendations there.

    I’m not totally clear (it’s been a while since I read the book) about the money shifting industry and the data extraction industry but the neoliberal shift in government’s role enabled both and apparently is working to undo any regulatory checks on the financial industry which learned it can wreck everything and walk away whole with nothing but an “oops” – which is a word Facebook uses a lot. “Wow, never saw that coming” after ensuring all the possible barriers to it were removed. Giving ISPs the power to monetize our lives and demolishing net neutrality are signs of regulatory and legislative capture. Since these companies are based in the US we owe the world not just apologies but rigorous legal remedies. Vote accordingly.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Fascinating idea, Barbara, linking financial deregulation under Reagan and Clinton to the opening up of space for surveillance capitalism.
      (In the UK, they referred to Thatcher’s deregulation of that nation’s financial sector as “the Big Bang”)

      Good point about ISPs. I don’t think we’ve seen much of them in Zuboff so far.

  3. PS: “surveillance as a service” is so true. True in just about every edtech solutionism we’re offered, too. Let’s build a huge surveillance apparatus, make teachers into free tech support, and mine every piece of the next generation’s daily experience while claiming the Skinner box we’re putting them into is individualized and personalized learning. It’s disgusting.

  4. Mark Spradley says:

    I didn’t know about Bryan’s bookclub until I had read to here and, on May 25, googled Zuboff’s “six critical declarations” because I felt like she made them up and now was strongly suggesting they were in some kind of early google mission statement and had footnoted them with a reference to an article on early google which said nothing about them. Luckily, on April 23, Bryan had posted them. He had assumed this and called them, “six principles Google articulated to justify its strategy.” So his bookclub was my only hit. Unfortunately, I was a little disoriented when I found the site and I made my post about chapter 6 under chapters 1 and 2. So now, on June 11, I am posting them below in their correct place. I just repeated much of the content, but here’s what I posted then:
    In Chapter 6, Zuboff lists “six critical declarations pulled from thin air when Google first asserted them.” In your summary, you list them as “six principles Google articulated to justify its strategy.” Zuboff’s footnote 10 on p.179 seems to refer to a source for these declarations in David Hart’s 2004 essay, “On the Origins of Google,” but that source has nothing remotely resembling them. Was it Zuboff who pulled these from thin air?
    Too bad she didn’t tie her use of “declaration” into declarations in programming languages or declarations in an application program interface, the status of which may soon be under consideration by SCOTUS in Oracle’s copyright infringement case against Google.
    Does anyone know of a source for these six critical declarations other than Zuboff?
    Hart explains how page ranking was Page and Brin’s big breakthrough. They weren’t tracking users for targeted advertising yet.
    Zuboff went out of her way to make it sound as if she were directly quoting those six “declarations” from an old Google mission statement and that the public had been so blown away by Google’s miraculous search engine that nobody noticed them at the time.
    Zuboff makes very good points, but I feel like she’s overcompensating for not understanding the technical issues involved by inventing her own critical theory jargon.
    If she could have, for example, connected her technical use of “declaration” with the “declaration” function that Oracle claims Google stole from it, she might have bridged the two different discursive universes, which is what needs to be done to make a critical intervention out of this problematic.
    You have my thanks for your website and for hosting discussion of this book.

    • Tan Sage says:

      Today, I did the same web search (not Google) and came to the same conclusions about the reference footnote as Mark Spradley. I searched on the words in the first declaration and found this page after I had read the article about the origins of Google at Stanford from the reference. Nowhere in that article were the six declarations mentioned. Having such an important reference not showing the declarations is a massive oversight if the book is to base its whole argument on the origins of surveillance capitalism on them. The team that was employed to write the references should be put into question, as well as the provenance of all the other references in the book. Perhaps the declarations were “redacted” from the linked page after her book was published, but that is bordering on paranoia. Much more likely is that the reference is wrong and needs to be fixed in the next release.

  5. Benjamin Swartout says:

    Did anyone find these declarations anywhere other than Zuboff’s book?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *