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The Privacy Advisor | Book review: 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power' Related reading: Building a modern data protection technology stack




Shoshana Zuboff’s book on privacy runs to nearly 700 pages, comprising more than 500 pages of text and nearly 200 pages of apparatus. But you shouldn’t be put off by the length — the book is no longer than it needs to be to meet its ambitions. It proposes not only to document the latest turns in the struggle against the wanton collection of personal data, but also to place these acquisitive practices within the larger history of technological advancement in the past century and an even larger history (if that’s the right word) of western culture and consciousness.

Zuboff, an emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School, did not invent the phrase "surveillance capitalism," but she has popularized it in various white papers, op-eds and interviews. It refers to a form of commerce that discovers value in the traces we all leave, mostly unaware, while pursuing our increasingly digitally mediated lives. This way of conducting business came to life around the turn of the century, when the management at Google realized that their science-fair project of a search engine, by then wildly popular thanks to its acute system for ranking results, needed to start making money. They looked at what they had to work with: their own server logs that tracked where millions of users were navigating from and where to, as well as recording the terms users were entering in the unassuming search box. It was soon understood that this stream of data could be aggregated and processed in order to analyze, predict and modify users’ behavior through advertising and related disciplines. And that changed everything.

This narrative of Google evolution may be familiar, but Zuboff contextualizes it in new ways. Advertising grew up with capitalist culture, and in the early 20th century, it created quasi-scientific methods for analyzing consumer behavior and preferences. But even if advertisers presumed to see into us by such research, we all thought that we could see right back through them. At least since the 1950s, when Mad Magazine and the comedian Stan Freberg flourished, advertising presented an obvious, irresistible butt of jokes, stimulating endless parody and satire.

Now, Zuboff argues, the situation regarding advertising has changed. We’re not laughing. These days, we can’t possibly know what information the advertising systems have amassed about us, though most of us think it’s too much. The menace and mystery surrounding data collection are nicely suggested when Zuboff labels them as extractive, positing an analogy with the mining industry: Surveillance firms claim the right to take possession of a resource they had no part in creating (the traces of our digital activity) from a community of people (us) that may not have known it existed, they pay a pittance for it (in the way of freely offered products like search engines and email platforms), then they sell it on to others for obscure purposes and pocket the profits.

At this point in their lives, these firms — notably Google, Facebook and Amazon, but Apple not so much—  can’t stop. An “extractive imperative” compels them to search out new sources of data, even if at first they don’t have an immediate use for what they gather. They push beyond the confines of the internet, capacious as these might be, to scrape ever more data from our offline activities. Zuboff seems aware of all permutations of our data-soaked culture, and one of the many rewards of reading this book lies in watching her draw relations among its diverse developments. Here, for example, she shows how the extractive imperative has called into being Amazon’s Alexa, augmented reality games like Pokémon Go and Ingress, those microphones in Nest security systems that Google forgot to tell us about, and the robotic vacuum cleaner that compiles a floor plan of your house and sells it to Google. Given the imperative, surveillance firms need to know everything about what you do, anywhere. It requires them to develop shiny new “smart” objects and networked games that will help them map ever more comprehensively the world and your place in it.

As depicted in this book, we live in a culture suffering an asymmetric apportionment of knowledge: Surveillance firms know everything about us; we know nothing about them. And what makes this state of affairs especially provoking, from Zuboff’s perspective, is that the imbalance has emerged at a specific moment in history when people should expect more, not less, freedom from inspection and control. With a nod to the theories of the German sociologist Ulrich Beck, Zuboff sees us poised at the edge of a so-called third modernity. Put briefly, a first modernity occurred in the mid-19th century, when improvements in material conditions permitted people to escape the lives that they were born to and that would have dictated their means of livelihood, and all other aspects of their culture, as had been the case for all time previously. A second modernity followed, coinciding with the rise of mass production of goods and mass markets, that granted people even more power to shape their lives. This era is now ending. Zuboff holds out the possibility that we may be able to create a third modernity in which we derive benefits from digital culture while continuing to expand our autonomy and retaining our dignity. But doing so requires us to resist the seemingly overwhelming power and influence of the surveillance capitalists. We could easily miss the opportunity and let their needs determine the next phase of modernity, which would amount to an unprecedented dystopia.

Zuboff does not offer a program to deliver us from subjection to the power of the firms that run on our data. But she makes it clear that the only way out is political — that is, through institutions, law and regulations pushing back on the catch-us-if-you-can strategies of the corporations. In this, she differs from commentators, like Jaron Lanier, who counsel us simply to unplug, as individuals, from social networks and avoid personalization of any kind online. Such suggestions for individual action often come from those in Lanier’s position: Defectors from the technical world who assume that lawmakers and regulators will never have the intellectual or material resources to battle the surveillance behemoths.

But, in fact, there is a reason for optimism on this point.

We’re now living in the age of GDPR as much as that of surveillance capitalism, even if the release of the companion ePrivacy Regulation is in some doubt. The pending California Consumer Privacy Act, based on the EU General Data Protection Regulation, is wide ranging, though it may well get trimmed. And if you watched any of the recent hearings on privacy held by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, you might have been impressed, as I was, by the level of expertise shown by the committee members. And, of note, the plan by a Google subsidiary to turn parts of Toronto into a “smart city” that promises to unearth new deposits of data from offline life is hitting local resistance.

The next age is still to be defined.

1 Comment

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  • comment Peter Bachman • Jun 28, 2023
    I really enjoyed this and gained some additional insight beyond reading the book and meeting Shoshonna in person. In particular the concept of a third modernity, since we are increasingly dealing with large language models.