The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 1 and 2

Our online book club just started reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 1: Home or Exile in the digital Future, and chapter 2: August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism.

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.

Since we’re just starting, there isn’t much to report from readers.

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  There is a good presentation and discussion with the author in Boston. (thanks to Vanessa Vaile for finding that one)

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

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  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.)


Chapter 1: Home or Exile in the digital Future introduces and sketches out the book to come.  It’s both dense and outline in nature, hitting a series of major themes.  The first point: we once had a conception of smart homes that were based on their inhabitants’ ownership of data (for example, this Georgia Tech project).  Silicon Valley has taken up the former while blasting past the latter.

Zuboff helpfully offers key terms that she will rely on in the rest of the book:

“behavioral surplus” – data generated by users in a system that can be extracted and used in other ways.

“prediction products” – software that lets firms forecast user behavior.

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  Build upon their behavioral surplus.

“behavioral futures markets” – “a new kind of marketplace for behavioral predictions.” (8)

Just before the chapter begins is a multi-part, nearly one-page definition of the titular term:

surveillance capitalism definition

Chapter 2: August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism offers a fast yet dense history of the economic and technological developments that led to the present day.  Zuboff starts a century ago with the rise of mass production and the development of modernity, culminating in a deeper sense of individual identify capable of being socially supported.

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  She sees Apple as capturing that sense superbly by marketing its digital music platform to very individualized tastes.  The flip side of this strategy is that companies can do other things with individualized data besides serving them better, including seeking not only to predict, but modify behavior.

Along the way many societies developed a strong governmental intervention in the economy and society, which Zuboff will refer to in Karl Paul Polanyi‘s phrase: “double movement.” (39)  By the late 20th century a reaction to this mixed economy set in, as a more pro-market form of capitalism – neoliberalism – took hold.  Shareholder value became central to company operations, so the pressure to boost short-term profits expanded (38).  Digital companies in this contemporary context have little concern for regulation and a lot of interest in generating cash quickly – more so that their predecessors.

Yet while this was happening, countermovements arose.  Zuboff concludes the chapter with a summary of the right to be forgotten legal movement, including California’s online eraser law.

One note: I just love this line:

[I]t was as if a shark had been silently circling the depths all along, just below the surface of the action, only to occasionally leap glistening from the water in pursuit of a fresh bite of flesh. (42)


  1. Zuboff finds Google and Facebook to be the leading examples of surveillance capitalism, but isn’t sure if Apple will follow them (23).  What do you think of Apple’s role in this new economy?
  2. What role does the financial sector play in the rise of surveillance capitalism?  The rise of neoliberalism included huge expansions of that sector in the US and UK.
  3. Is Zuboff criticizing a particular subset of capitalism or capitalism itself?  (Evgeny Morozov argues that it should be doing the latter)
  4. What do you make of the surveillance capitalism model so far?

Next week, April 15, we will advance to the next chapters.  3: The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus; 4: The Moat Around the Castle.

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

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23 Responses to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 1 and 2

  1. Ken Soto says:

    Sorry that I can’t follow this, but I did listen to Ms. Zoboff on The Verge’s Vergecast a couple of days ago where she spoke at length about her book. One thing that I waited to hear but never did: yes, Google/Facebook have made us the commodity like so much oil in the ground, but the services they offer in exchange for our data is in most cases completely free and has brought about an enormous amount of productivity (at least in Google’s case) that we would otherwise have to pay for but instead can use that money for other things, or not have to spend it all. It wasn’t that long ago that Office on a few CDs cost hundreds of dollars that must be spent because there were no alternatives. Now anyone can do most what Office was needed for for free in Google Docs. Same with cloud storage, or project management, or even research. I use probably 8-10 cloud services daily, all at the free tier. If I had to pay for all of these services I’m quite sure I wouldn’t continue to use them and receive the benefit. That counts for something.

    But I’m not happy about what I know these companies are doing with my data in order to provide these services. Yes it’s amazing to think that Gmail is free, until you learn that Google is mining your personal data from every single email, both to you and from you. So I’m interested in knowing how we get to the place where my data is under my control, and then let’s negotiate what these services are willing to offer me when my data is withheld from them. What will they charge then for these services? Or will find out that most of them are not economically viable without owning my data.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      In an upcoming chapter Zuboff acidly dismisses the free service argument. I’d like to see if she returns to it later (I’m about 1/2way through).

  2. One of the fascinating points Zuboff makes early on is that behavioral surplus was basically discovered by accident. Google was going to sell ads, and sell ads on a superior search engine that people liked a lot. It was a good, free product, and it didn’t depend on mass surveillance. But oh look, we have a ton of data. That has possibilities… and those possibilities traveled to Facebook when Sheryl Sandberg moved from Google to Facebook. And now look where we are. Facebook in particular made us drop our guard. In 2002 people were horrified by the government’s Total Information Awareness program and congress defunded it in spite of the urgency of 9/11. In 2004 Facebook launched and in a few short years we became convinced privacy was over and we had no choice but to stop worrying about it.

    I think it’s a mistake to think the only way useful tech can be free is if it is allowed to watch our every move. There are other possible funding models. They might not make you one of the 10 richest corporations by market capitalization, but you could still make a profit.

    That’s where neoliberalism comes in. We’ve grown used to the idea that government serves capital and its role is to defend the free movement of capital rather than to serve the needs of people. That’s a nice recipe for powerful corporations and no regulation. And of course, when third parties do a lot of data gathering, that’s great for a state that isn’t allowed to conduct mass surveillance on American citizens (theoretically). Fascinating to see states begin to take on the regulatory role that the federal government is neglecting.

    Backtracking a bit, I think Apple’s positioning of itself as the privacy company is pretty interesting and (I hope) shrewd. I’m never going to use my fingerprint or face to unlock my phone – a passcode is safer and not creepy – but if Apple can make privacy a distinction and a selling point, it puts the other guys on notice.

    I almost never agree with Evgeny Morozov, but I think he’s right – I don’t think Zuboff has any criticism of capitalism, just of surveillance and the neoliberal policies that helped corporations grow so powerful and the people so weak. While she does criticize both neoliberalism and the environmental damage done by the industrial age, she thinks Henry Ford got it right without really taking into account the bloody fight to have a labor movement that made it imperative to balance the interests of corporations and the working class.

    As for question four, I think she makes a compelling case – though I wonder if she attributes an intentionality and efficacy to these companies that they don’t actually have. Placing big bets on prediction products that don’t work or create such toxic conditions that people demand they be fixed could lead to another dot bomb. I’m actually more bothered by Palantir and credit agencies and state actors who are not depending on ad dollars and consumer attention.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Barbara, thank you for all of these thoughts. I especially like how you take these firms’ leaders down a peg by making them less all-knowing.

      Sandberg almost seems like patient zero.

      Excellent point about her admiration of Ford.

      • Barbara says:

        I’m not sure if we’re better off with blundering ignorance than with totalizing visions of control, but that’s frequently the case with people who hold a lot of power.

  3. Brian Pech says:

    Folks reading this book may be interested in an interview Prof. Zuboff did with Leo Laporte back in January.

    Jan 11th 2019
    Hosted by Leo Laporte
    Shoshana Zuboff, author of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’

  4. Alan Baily says:

    1 – Apple sells physical products. That sets it apart from Google and Facebook. Apple seems much more into individual privacy. I’m sure Apple understands Surveillance Capitalism but there may be too many Barriers to Entry for Apple to catch up. They do seem to be following Amazon’s lead in creating entertainment video content.

    2 – The financial sector dictated the fact that the Google had to make money and taking it away from its originally stated goals. One of the things that Zuboff shows several times in the book is that things could have different. Deliberate choices were made at several points in time. Relative to neoliberalism, governmental regulation was a lot less of an issue than it might have been. Again, allowing for different potential outcomes.

    3 – She is criticizing a particular subset of capitalism. As valuable as I think this book is, my problem with this book and several others is the lack of any POLITICAL solutions. She is better than most. Authors of this kind who come from the world of academia don’t have a strong enough political point of view to deal with the structural issues that have to be dealt with to solve a problem like Surveillance Capitalism. I believe that that was one of the criticisms of Evgeny-Morozov. To be fair, Zuboff is not a political idealist of any kind (I wish she were). The book is not a critique of capitalism and that the economy should be structured differently to prevent these things from happening in the first place. She, basically, wants these entities to be regulated much more thoroughly.

    4 – My fear of Surveillance Capitalism is that it is only two steps removed from combining with the government to create a totalitarian state.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Excellent answers, Alan. Thank you.

      Re: Apple – do you see Apple or Amazon following this path through video?

      Re: political solutions – that’s what I’m seeing as well, but I haven’t finished it yet.

    • sibyledu says:

      I agree with Alan in part and disagree in part, so I’ll use his thoughts as a jumping-off point.

      1. Alan is right that Apple’s business model depends on our buying their physical hardware, which does indeed give them some incentive to refrain from following the lead of Google and Facebook, whose models depend entirely on the selling of the surveillance surplus. However, Apple relies on a two-part strategy: first, build compelling hardware; second, license compelling software (at favorable rates and conditions) from producers. The latter approach leads to their closed model for app development and their ever-smaller royalty payments to musicians. They aren’t selling our preferences to retailers, but they are limiting our access to content. I’m not sure whether this is better, or just different.

      2. My impression is that Zuboff associates financial capitalism with the turn to neoliberalism, which accelerated the desire to find sources of profit that were free from the kind of social reciprocity still present in industrial capitalism. I will keep my eyes open for this as the book goes on.

      3. Indeed, Zuboff is not indicting capitalism as a whole. It seems so far that she would be content with capitalists who produce goods and services that we can choose or not. However, I don’t agree with Alan that she doesn’t care about political solutions. She has already mentioned her concern about social and legal structures that are inadequate to protect individuals against surveillance capitalism, so I think she may end up being more interested in those non-economic structures than in capitalism per se.

      4. I find two things very useful about the model so far. First, her notion that our preferences are the raw material that the firms package and sell to other people. This is a useful refinement of the “if it’s free you’re the product” aphorism. Second, her emphasis on the fact that both our data and the processes of selling those data are considered proprietary information and are not shared with us. That in turn reinforces the notion that we are raw material, offered neither agency nor knowledge. I’m willing to give her a lot of pages to play this out.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Great thoughts, sibyledu!

        “Zuboff associates financial capitalism with the turn to neoliberalism” – I think that’s right. I’ll keep an eye on the thread in chapters to come.

        Apple is starting to bring in more money from services, and has invested in still more, like the new Apple News.

  5. John Kellden says:

    Brill curation Bryan. I’ve just started:

    Requiem for a Home

    Shoshana Zuboff:
    “By 2018, the assumptions of the Aware Home were gone with the wind. Where did they go? What was that wind? The Aware Home, like many other visionary projects, imagined a digital future that empowers individuals to lead more-effective lives. What is most critical is that in the year 2000 this vision naturally assumed an unwavering commitment to the privacy of individual experience. Should an individual choose to render her experience digitally, then she would exercise exclusive rights to the knowledge garnered from such data, as well as exclusive rights to decide how such knowledge might be put to use. Today these rights to privacy, knowledge, and application have been usurped by a bold market venture powered by unilateral claims to others’ experience and the knowledge that flows from it. What does this sea change mean for us, for our children, for our democracies, and for the very possibility of a human future in a digital world?”

  6. Mark Wilson says:

    In trying to catch up I’ll limit my response to the second question.
    From the time California was invented in early sixteenth century Spanish fan fiction as an island ruled by Amazons, to today’s “Silicon Valley” domination of world communications, those of us that live and work here have sought to create a better world. Undoubtedly, the people already here before the new groups arrived didn’t share each settler’s enthusiasm.

    I spent two decades working in Santa Clara, California, the town that shares its name with both the valley and the county, once known as the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” when it was the world’s largest exporter of fruit. When I arrived in the late 80’s all the packing houses and canneries had been torn down and replaced with light manufacturing and housing. The last of the orchards soon followed.

    In those days there were many competing paradigms. IBM and Xerox PARC were the established corporations, Hewlett Packard and Intel demonstrated a new way to organize enterprises, and Western Digital Corporation, Apple and Adobe were the new upstarts, or, startups. These paradigms were the result of blending the emerging military industrial (and intelligence) complex resources with the many local counter-cultures: freethinkers, bohemians, beatniks, beats, nudists, Marxists, cultists, hippies, freaks, surfers, musicians, new journalists, modern architects, blimp pilots, exotic dancers, hang gliders, novelists, new agers, poster and comic artists, tattooists and other body modifiers, yuppies, hackers, nerds, filmmakers, historic re-enactors, steampunks, beekeepers, etc. And academics from Stanford, Santa Clara University, University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, San Jose and San Francisco State University, University of San Francisco, Mills College, California State University Hayward (now East Bay), and the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. They all contributed to “Silicon Valley” culture and the invention of the personal computer

    In addition to the rich cultural resources I stayed because the companies I worked for, unlike my workplaces in LA, had taken the HP Way to it’s radical conclusion: they had no management at all, the owners worked both on the shop floor and in the offices. Employees were responsible for ensuring they had the supplies they needed and quality control was at the point of production to avoid rejecting entire production runs. There were no middle managers or HR or QA employees reducing the workers’ share of profits. Of course this could never happen in large organizations or unionized workplaces. Everyone realized they would occasionally have to help out with a menial task but didn’t mind because they knew their profit sharing check would reflect their cooperation. The owners were right beside us unloading trucks and storing (paper) files. The company I worked for the longest also had amazing benefits to minimize employee turnover.

    While I understand some of the Silicon Valley founders got rich and started investing in local start ups, it was inevitable the real vulture capitalists from New York, London, and other financial centers would be attracted to the exploding creation of wealth in the Bay Area. Left out of the current narrative are the immigrants from south and south-east Asia, mostly women, who did the vast majority of the labor along with all the other workers and craftspeople that built this new world. I cringe every time someone uses the term Silicon Valley to describe predatory capitalists. It disappears everyone involved in creating the rich culture and obfuscates the same old historic villains. The City of London is a more accurate epithet.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Mark (Corbett Wilson): belated thanks for this meditation on California. I like the way you opposed HP to (presumably) Facebook and Google.
      The more I review the past 50 years, the more important in my understanding is the huge rise of US finance capital starting in the 1980s.

    • Mark Spradley says:

      I worked at an Intel semiconductor testing facility in Sunnyvale in 1975-76. All the chips that could handle high voltage without their gates blowing were sent to the military. The lower grade chips went to the few industrial uses that existed at the time and home computer hobbyists like Steve Jobs, rich kids who lived right around the corner from where I worked while I hitch hiked to work from a commune in the Santa Cruz mountains.
      At Intel, we were tied to our test machines with straps that grounded us so we wouldn’t blow gates with the static electricity from our bodies. The test facility moved to Santa Cruz in 1976, but not long after I quit, it was the first segment of the microchip industry to get offshored, to the Philippines.
      I thought the production of semiconductors was an evil industry that should be hobbled by unions. The Carter administration came in and predicted the uses of electricity had maxed out and would remain stable forever. The average American home had 3 electric appliances. I thought the national grid was about to fail. Only the hippies who had learned to grow their own food in communes would survive. Just think: if world power use had remained what it was in 1980, global warming would still be centuries in the future. It didn’t have to happen now.

  7. Mark William Spradley says:

    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?

  8. Bryan Alexander says:

    Mark (William Spradley): very good eye!
    I can’t find those in the short Hart piece either.
    So, perhaps Zuboff made a citation error. Or the six principles she outlines are what she deduces from Google’s behavior, rather than extracts from a single document.

    • Mark William Spradley says:

      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 using critical theory jargon defensively because she doesn’t understand most of the technical issues involved. 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 in this problematic.
      Sorry I didn’t post in the correct place on your chapter 5 & 6 page. I just discovered your site today when I searched on these six declarations.
      You have my thanks for your website and for hosting discussion of this book.

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

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