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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019)

by Shoshana Zuboff

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1,4733512,215 (3.99)16
"Shoshana Zuboff, named "the true prophet of the information age" by the Financial Times, has always been ahead of her time. Her seminal book In the Age of the Smart Machine foresaw the consequences of a then-unfolding era of computer technology. Now, three decades later she asks why the once-celebrated miracle of digital is turning into a nightmare. Zuboff tackles the social, political, business, personal, and technological meaning of "surveillance capitalism" as an unprecedented new market form. It is not simply about tracking us and selling ads, it is the business model for an ominous new marketplace that aims at nothing less than predicting and modifying our everyday behavior--where we go, what we do, what we say, how we feel, who we're with. The consequences of surveillance capitalism for us as individuals and as a society vividly come to life in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism's pathbreaking analysis of power. The threat has shifted from a totalitarian "big brother" state to a universal global architecture of automatic sensors and smart capabilities: A "big other" that imposes a fundamentally new form of power and unprecedented concentrations of knowledge in private companies--free from democratic oversight and control"--… (more)
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This week my company officially got into the business of surveillance. People will pay us to surveil their home and business computers to protect them from rogue computer software, from losing data resulting from defective or aging components in their computers, and from misguided management of their computers themselves.

Going forward this will be a growing and lucrative business segment because people rely on their computers to do so many important things for them, because they feel inadequate keeping up with changes in the computing environment, and because they justifiably fear cyber crime.

It doesn’t mean they like it. I sure don’t.

Being in retail business as I have for almost 25 years I have learned how to surveil myself, to protect my assets, and my employees. It is an ongoing challenge and it changes. I surveil for shoplifters, for currency and credit card counterfeiters, for daylight and after hours thieves. I surveil for dishonest employees, for honest mistakes, for poor buying decisions, and for the obsolescence of the products on my shelves. I surveil how the bank handles my money. I surveil my suppliers to prevent them from shipping me incomplete or broken goods. And I pay attention to my customers, to save them from making poor purchasing decisions.

And when I am not surveilling, I am surveying. All the time. How were my customers’ experiences? What new products are on the horizon? How can I protect my liquidity, my profitability, and lastly, my sanity.

I especially surveil myself, because I make mistakes, and because I too am growing old.

These are some of the risks of operating a business.

Then there are the people who surveil me. They include thieves looking for a weakness in my security. Government agencies to make sure I am paying the eight or ten different taxes I pay on an ongoing basis. Credit card companies surveil my transactions to make sure somebody hasn’t stolen my credit card, or that I am spending no more money than I can afford to pay back. My suppliers make sure I am paying them on time. Some manufacturers visit me in person or electronically to make sure I am representing their product lines fairly. They send me electronic training, and tests, and they regularly measure the efficiency and quality of our repair facilities. The utilities tell me when my operations (and home) are inefficient. And there are my landlords.

Finally, we surveil at home. We surveil our daughter to make sure she is doing her homework and not falling in with the wrong crowd. My wife surveils me to make sure I’m not overeating, overspending, or being overly attentive to other women. I surveil my dog Seamus just in case he poops on the neighbour’s lawn so I can pick it up before someone notices. And Seamus surveils the front window and barks whenever a neighbouring dog saunters by.

Last and not least are the gargantuan corporations who are watching what I do online. People like facebook, Google, amazon, and many, many more.

So when somebody writes a book to tell me I live in an Age of Surveillance Capitalism...I GET IT! REALLY, I GET IT!

But is it uniquely capitalist, or more generally an age of surveillance?
And if it is more general to our society, where do we go from here?

One thing for sure: it isn’t going away anytime soon.

Shoshana Zuboff concentrates her guns on Google and facebook. She’s concerned that these companies are inherently different from the companies that came before it and they set a new standard for egregious capitalism. They are companies in the prediction business, predicting human behaviour and right now largely predicting purchasing behaviour by accumulating, as she called it, “surplus behaviour,” which kinda sounds like an oxymoron.

She believes they abuse the freedoms of the marketplace to frustrate privacy, that they are built to enrich few and sidestep the traditional workplace which pays many employees fairly and creates consumers, and she argues that they are indifferent to social ills.

She argues that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” doesn’t operate in this marketplace because the new knowledge capitalists know everything happening in the market.

A close reading of Andrew Carnegie’s life and legacy, perhaps John D. Rockefeller as well, could lead you to a similar conclusion, even though both men turned to philanthropy later in life. For sure, these men affected the course of capitalism.

Is this a turn away from “good” capitalism toward an inherently evil capitalism?

And if it is evil, can we create some rules for the big guys that us little guys can live with?

Let’s take a step back and look at things in context: Google’s revenue is about $25 billion, Facebook’s $17 billion. The entire US economy is about $25 trillion and the world economy upwards of $107 trillion.

Most of Google’s and Facebook’s revenue is advertising. The US advertising market is upwards of $80 billion so it is fair to say these two firms command quite strong positions in this industry. If you make the argument that America’s advertising industry is too concentrated then you’d have a pretty good argument to break up these firms which combined represent about 50% of all advertising dollars in the US. By comparison, Standard Oil at its peak commanded 88% of the market for processing crude. In its first year of operation, US Steel produced 67% of steel produced the the US.

And they exhibit the classic behaviour of monopolists by dominating the markets for search and for social media on a global scale.

In the US a case for breaking up the firms traditionally would have to be made that consumers are paying too much for their services or that competitors are being kept out of the market. Maybe breaking up these firms is a good idea, maybe it isn’t, but either way the technologies they employ for gathering, and analyzing, data isn’t going away.

When I worked as an auditor, we used to gather lots of data, too, but what we eventually learned was that we could make assumptions about its meaning by sampling the information; that is, we cut down our work by only looking at some of the data. We tried to cut down on the wasted time. I sometimes wonder how much of what Google does is a total waste of time because the answers it seeks can be found in much faster time using much less data. And how much of “Big Data” is in fact a “Big Waste of Time.”

Zuboff doesn’t consider that these firms may still be just in the early stages of figuring out what they are supposed to be doing. I think about it because so much time and resources are wasted paying attention to wholly irrelevant stuff.

But we would do well to consider the affect of these companies on our freedoms and our government partially because they aren’t just national problems. They are transnational problems. What happens in China, and the extreme kind of surveillance practiced there on ethnic minorities like the Uigers, affects or will affect us here.

They are transnational because the data collection is transnational and the very same data collected for the purpose of selling advertising is probably being used to develop artificial intelligence. The fastest developer of AI whether they be Chinese companies, transnational companies like Google or Facebook, or companies directly financed by government will have a big say in who has a job in the coming years and who doesn’t.

No country on its own can hope to curb data collection and aggregation or perhaps more importantly, the control of what search results reveal on this scale any more than a country can curb money laundering, tax avoidance, or climate change without coordination between many if not all nations. Contemporary politics seems to be going in the opposite direction if Trump’s “America First,” Brexit, and Russian adventurism are any indication.

If we are divided and our attention fractured we are susceptible to the influence or real or imagined “experts.” (To firms like Facebook I think we all have ADD, attention deficit disorder...they can never get enough of our attention!) That doesn’t mean we cannot continue to make decisions affecting our government, it more likely means that the decisions we make will more commonly resemble the imperatives of those desiring more of the same, read: the status quo.

And that turns us to the question of how good is the status quo. If you believe that the universe ultimately bends toward the dilution of energy, total entropy, then the status quo is not too good. If you believe the status quo to be a teleological evolution toward a great singularity, perhaps a union with God, and a progression toward greater complexity in the universe, the status quo looks pretty good.

Business executives, in my experience, tend to be of the more optimistic latter type of people. Like the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and other people who have become incredibly wealthy in a short period of time.

In the meantime, some of us have rather pedestrian concerns like the security of really private information. While convincingly arguing that there is insufficient transparency over who handles the big data and how they handle it, I think Zuboff fails to sufficiently weigh immense risk that the data will fall out of control of the aggregators and into the hands of rogue individuals.

The hacking of credit card databases is one thing, and I think it a bigger risk than the hacking of a database which tells people how I like my hotdogs dressed. People made a big deal of the Cambridge Analytica scare. In the end, those people sold bogus claims to naive political organizations. The data predicted nothing and was of no use to anybody. And it didn’t get Donald Trump elected.

Certainly big data aggregation has concrete effects on the economy. You get “free” Google searches. I get a cheaper smart TV because the data guys get first dibs on my TV watching preferences.

This book is not the best guide for the good works these technologies enable (ie crowd sourcing, scientific research, epidemiology, etc). Self-driving cars benefit by machine learning. The acceleration and reductions in the friction in electronic commerce are generally good things.

I don’t agree with Zuboff that the behavioural science behind the new data aggregation firms promotes a radical indifference to the lot of the common person. Nor do I agree that hyperscale doesn’t require competitive markets or for that matter democracy.

This has yet to be proven.

We all need participatory democracy, and more than ever on a global scale. Let’s make these damn machines work for us, not agin us. ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
I was most interested in how personal data is located, captured, and sold. This didn’t appear until the beginning of Chapter 5. You need to know what this chapter says! It’s impossible to keep your personal information from being gathered, but there are some things that you can do to safeguard it. ( )
  jemisonreads | Jan 22, 2024 |
Audible ebook | Like amoral sales people, the commercial surveillance of customers has morphed into highly covert and silent actions which when married with sophisticated statical analysis renders a complete profile of a userships’ life. ( )
  5653735991n | Jun 15, 2023 |
I think the ideas are must-reads. However, this is an extremely long book and it feels like she has introduced new words that she thinks should be part of a new lexicon. Instrumentarian is the one that stood out to me, but I'm pretty sure there were others. It was just so long that I don't want to go through it again to find them. Listening on audiobook was probably a mistake and I may have liked it more in print. ( )
  carliwi | Apr 8, 2023 |
Dense. The premise is that Google and Facebook are collecting data about everything people do and in many ways without their knowledge. They then sell this information to advertisers which then get people to behave in certain ways. Facebook has done experiments where they place particular items in people's feed -- your friend has voted -- and then have measured how likely that is to get you to vote. And she references instances of the Google and Facebook lying about what their code does, dragging their feet in response public inquiries, etc. She ties it together with similar historical eras -- the gilded age -- and scientific philosophies -- BF Skinner's behaviorism. To me, what was new and alarming is the closed loop -- ultimately the data being collected is used to change people's behavior -- buy something, read something, stay on a website, etc. All without any regulation or over site by democratic institutions. All in all a grim view of what the future will bring. ( )
  Castinet | Dec 11, 2022 |
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"Shoshana Zuboff, named "the true prophet of the information age" by the Financial Times, has always been ahead of her time. Her seminal book In the Age of the Smart Machine foresaw the consequences of a then-unfolding era of computer technology. Now, three decades later she asks why the once-celebrated miracle of digital is turning into a nightmare. Zuboff tackles the social, political, business, personal, and technological meaning of "surveillance capitalism" as an unprecedented new market form. It is not simply about tracking us and selling ads, it is the business model for an ominous new marketplace that aims at nothing less than predicting and modifying our everyday behavior--where we go, what we do, what we say, how we feel, who we're with. The consequences of surveillance capitalism for us as individuals and as a society vividly come to life in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism's pathbreaking analysis of power. The threat has shifted from a totalitarian "big brother" state to a universal global architecture of automatic sensors and smart capabilities: A "big other" that imposes a fundamentally new form of power and unprecedented concentrations of knowledge in private companies--free from democratic oversight and control"--

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