With 488 ratings
By: Shoshana Zuboff, Nicol Zanzarella, et al.
Purchased At: $22.99
The challenges to humanity posed by the digital future, the first detailed examination of the unprecedented form of power called "surveillance capitalism", and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior.
Shoshana Zuboff's interdisciplinary breadth and depth enable her to come to grips with the social, political, business, and technological meaning of the changes taking place in our time. We are at a critical juncture in the confrontation between the vast power of giant high-tech companies and government, the hidden economic logic of surveillance capitalism, and the propaganda of machine supremacy that threaten to shape and control human life. Will the brazen new methods of social engineering and behavior modification threaten individual autonomy and democratic rights and introduce extreme new forms of social inequality? Or will the promise of the digital age be one of individual empowerment and democratization?
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is neither a hand-wringing narrative of danger and decline nor a digital fairy tale. Rather, it offers a deeply reasoned and evocative examination of the contests over the next chapter of capitalism that will decide the meaning of information civilization in the 21st century. The stark issue at hand is whether we will be the masters of information and machines or its slaves.
PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.
For example on Page 55 the end of the paragraph reads: "But the lessons of that day had not yet been fully tallied when fresh answers - or, more modestly, the tenuous glimmers of answers as fragile as a newborn's translucent skin-rose to the surface of the world's attention gliding on scented ribbons of Spanish lavender and vanilla." I expect to see this in a Romance novel not a book on Surveillance Capitalism.
By eliminating such indulgences the book could be half the length, more focused and certainly more powerful. I am sure it is an important topic but in the end I did not finish it. I will wait for a more edited version that gets to the point.
I'd read Zuboff's Age of the Smart Machine eons ago and became a bit of a fan of her thinking. Hence why when 'Surveillance' came out, I'd wanted it to be something akin to Harari's Sapiens/Homo Deus or even Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. Alas, I was left a bit wanting by the time I turned its last page.
Getting to the last page is no small feat. This is a beast of a book (I purchased the print version, as I wanted to earmark and highlight passages - without being surveilled!). And yet, while the work is exhaustively researched and footnoted, one is left exhausted in the end.
Yes, important perspectives for our age are raised here, and Zuboff does sound the alarm on the firms creating new value on the digital surplus they create. But it feels like the thesis could have been advanced with half the pages and twice the speed.
Worse, despite its length, there appear to be big idea chunks missing. The role of the courts and the regulator in grasping and remedying excesses - perhaps defining a new regulatory framework for use of digital crumbs we leave - is not fully canvassed. There is lengthy discussion of Senate deliberations in the 1970's around the MK Ultra, depatterning and mind control. Yet there is nothing on what would seem more appropriate - Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress in April 2018. There was a lot of grist for the Zuboff mill here, yet we read nothing. Perhaps the testimony came out after the tome went to press? Doesn't seem so - there is a cite to a piece in the Intercept on April 13, 2018, three days after Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress. That testimony seemed rather on point to Zuboff's work, yet no word (unless I missed it, entirely possible!) commentary from Zuboff. Contractual obligations to get to press? Don't know, but were it the case, this most important event seems warranted to hold things off a week or two.
What follows may be a nit, but given the deep care paid to detail, and the deep implication of the representation, it stands out. On page 514, Zuboff writes:
"[Zuckerberg] envisions a totalizing instrumentarian order - he calls it the new global "church" - that will connect the world's people to "something greater than ourselves".
Great quote, and rather powerful scary stuff, but the problem is the Zuck said no such thing. The cite references Zuckerberg's "Building Global Community" post from February 2017. Unless that quote changed, what it currently states is this:
"Building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs. Whether they're churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups, they all share important roles as social infrastructure for our communities."
Zuckerberg doesn't hold Facebook out as a church, any more than he does holding it out as the Boston Bruins, Teamsters or a knitting club. And unless my CTRL-F fails me, that's the only reference to "church" there is. I'm not here to defend Zuckerberg, but this is certainly a miss on Zuboff in my books (particularly given the attention to detail otherwise shown).
On the whole the issues raised are important. I'd recommend the book to anyone wanting to gain an understanding of a framework for the issues here. I'd certainly recommend it (or a fair summary of it) to lawyers, regulators, legislators and jurists who will run into these issues a la GDPR.
But as to Zuboff's central thesis, that there is an unprecedented paradigm here that will change humanity forever, and how our democratic institutions and rule of law will fail to curb excesses of new business models and technological shifts, I'm unconvinced. Were our legislators equipped with the insight and talent to monitor, assess and rightly adjust use of our 'digital surplus', I'm sure we can get there. At the end of the day, it's about curbing excesses of those who seek to profit from others, and defining rules.
That's not unprecedented - that's a human story old as time.
She provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that she hopes will help those who read her book to contest and interrupt, then contain and vanquish an unprecedented threat to the human race. "At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx's image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human experience."
According to Zuboff, her book documents "a journey to encounter what is strange, original, and even unimaginable in surveillance capitalism. She examines several major organizations -- notably Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft -- that are in various stages of developing a "technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction-operation." Her journey's ultimate destination? "Our aim in this book is to discern the laws of surveillance capitalism that animate today's Trojan horses, returning us to age-old questions as they bear down on our lives, our societies, and our civilization."
Zuboff carefully explains how and why "surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge." The result: "Our lives are scraped and sold to fund the freedom of surveillance capitalists and our subjugation," juxtaposing "their knowledge and our ignorance about what they know." Indeed, they know too much to qualify for freedom.
How to respond effectively to the potential dangers of surveillance capitalism, to what she so aptly characterizes as "an overthrow of the people's sovereignty and a prominent force in the perilous drift toward democratic deconsolidation that now threatens Western liberal democracies"? As the material cited in her Notes section clearly indicates (Pages 537-663), Shoshana Zuboff has conducted wide and deep research to support her recommendations.
If knowledge has power, and I think it can, those who possess knowledge that has the greatest power will have a decisive competitive advantage over those who do not. Zuboff shares what she has learned from others in order to support what becomes a call to action. In John 8:32, Jesus is quoted as saying, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Sustaining totalitarianism depends on severely limited access to knowledge but first it must be obtained by surveillance.
The tone of her book reminds me in some respects of Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Rights of Man. That is, both urge their reader to awaken to a serious danger and defeat it while they can before it is too late. "The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but above all it was because the people of East Berlin said, 'No more!' We too can be the authors of many 'great and beautiful' new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity's home. No more! Let this be our declaration."
I am again reminded of two questions attributed to Hillel the Elder: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”
Some parts are good. The content is extremely thought-provoking, educational and ground-breaking; in parts it is quite brilliant and at the cutting edge of the challenges of the digital age. Sadly it is significantly undermined on a number of counts: It is verbose to the extreme and could easily be 50% shorter. The introduction is so poor it could be deleted in its entirety. The author clearly knows her core subject matter but is very poor at articulating her view in a succinct manner. It is extremely repetitive and full of unnecessary padding. There is a woeful lack of editing.
Oddly, it is rather like Dava Sobel's "Longitude" - a thoroughly compelling and fascinating story that is thankfully so strong it just about compensates the author's poor literary skills.
A paradox: It is essential reading but requires a considerable amount of patience to wade through the contextural 'noise'.
A 5 Star story with 1 Star delivery.
The writer is clearly in love with the process of writing, so rather than working things out, planning a structure, and saying what she had to say in precise terms, she just ploughed in. The result is a mess, looping back and repeating herself in very unhelpful ways, dallying in purple passages and twisted metaphors, making up clever-sounding "concepts" (like "division of knowledge") and actually failing to pick out the key aspects of the issue. The pretence at being in some way ground-breaking is dishonest as even the term "surveillance capitalism" is far from original.
A particularly annoying feature of this pseudo-academic approach is that there is no bibliography, meaning that there is not even any point in keeping it on the bookshelf for reference to other authors. To find anything you have to use the index then go back to the pages and follow up the tortuous footnotes many of which are to internet items which may have disappeared next year.
She misses key issues such as the importance of the military origins of the technology (see Yasha Levine:. Surveillance Valley). She makes a pig's ear of presenting the EU's General Data Protection Regulation the key points of which are "the right to be forgotten", data portability between platforms and explicit "opting in". Worst of all she has no real proposals for defending us against surveillance and data mining and doesn't even mention the important DECODE project being undertaken on a municipal basis by Barcelona, Amsterdam and other cities.
For a much more useful discussion pointing to a data commons see Nick Srnicek's article in Economics for the Many edited by John McDonnell.
Both corporations are primarily in the lucrative business of selling raw material: us. Our behaviour, interests, locations, habits, personalities, as tracked and measured 24/7. To be parcelled up as data points, metrics, profiles, and sold to other corporations. To enable them to induce us to buy, buy, buy. Now. Here. Advertisers are the core customers and beneficiaries of Google and Facebook, even if 'users' get some benefit from the 'free' services they offer. And, as the role of Cambridge Analytics in the EU referendum indicated, 'advertising' now incorporates sophisticated behaviour modification, not just targetted messages or fake news, but direct emotional manipulation. And so on.
All this is detailed by Zuboff. Inexorably. Incontrovertibly. 500 pages of instances, anecdotes, case studies, research reports, backed up by 150 pages of references. A massive demystification.
There are minor problems. Far too much repetition of core themes. Some cringe-inducing prose. A 200 page compressed version concentrating on the detailed information would perhaps be more useful.
A larger problem is the overall framework of analysis. Zuboff is a professor of psychology and she rightly sees 'surveillance capitalism' as the commercial implementation of B .F. Skinner's notorious behaviourist theory of human activity: that we are only what we can be measured to be seen to be doing. Like lab rats. Against this she counterposes Erikson's notion of human identity as a process of emerging adulthood, of finding one's inward self in autonomy and self-direction. This contrast generates perceptive insights into Facebook's 'Likes' and 'Friends' as appealing to the adolescent (of whatever age) anxiously looking for social confirmation from their imagined community. The Facebook generation is constantly 'on stage' and under scrutiny, but far far more than they realise. Any parent will benefit from chapters on 'Life in the Hive' and 'The Right to Sanctuary', the need for a safe private place like home…. provided you switch off the smartphone and all the other domestic sensors.
Zuboff draws out what she sees as the dangers to political democracy and civil society in these developments. But Millenials don't just have identity crises. They also don't have secure jobs. Or affordable rent. Or viable pension options. Zuboff's account of 'surveillance capitalism' is pretty thin on the continuing old-fashioned exploitative capitalism which, after all, underpins Google selling data analytics to advertising firms which sell adverts to companies which sell us shoddy goods profitable enough to prop up the entire ponzi pyramid, with Google's  £532 billion market value and Zuckerberg's personal billions at its monetary apex. How that works is an even larger story, to which, of course, Zuboff has contributed in her previous books.
However, the author’s style takes at least two chapters to get used to. The amount of (extraneous?) verbiage and the number of (unnecessarily?) long words tends to obscure the zietgiest underpinning her crucial fundamental meaning. (She could probably have written that last sentence herself.)
After the first hour the mental spam filters kick in and the underlying text starts to emerge from the fog. The message is clearly that the Information Age isn’t working for the masses. In fact it’s working to impoverish their (our) lives and enrich the 1%.
Numerous good examples are given. This is a work of reference, rather than an easy read. As such it probably needs to be read several times and dipped back into. Readers of Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris will be familiar with doing this.
I hope I’m not being too harsh on the style point. This is a complex subject. However, I think there’s a need to avoid alienating the people who most need to be aware of the issues. The invaders of our privacy probably understand it already; and are wilfully ignoring it.
Dawkins gets round the complexity in his books by using numerous footnotes. These can be skimmed over and revisited later. Perhaps this would be an idea for later editions.
Zuboff is a master of the subject, a great storyteller and a staunch defender of our human future. I love her style of writing, which is always lively, thought-provoking and brilliantly argued. Please read this book if you want to understand how huge corporations are exploiting us all and how you can protect yourself from them. Thank you Ms. Zuboff for this superb book!
The social platform giants need a mid-term correction or the internet will descend into a dysfunctional future, methinks.
While it is repetitive, most of the points made build to this terrifying conclusion - we are sleepwalking into a new totalitarianism concealed with soft sentiments about connectivity. Readers feel like they are watching the Invasion of the Body Snatchers - while we are sleeping the Zuckerbergs and Pages are stealing our humanity for their own profit and are herding us to a hive mind future. Well its time to wake up and smell the poison.
Google is evil, Facebook is too, Amazon is joining in and so is Microsoft. Before it is too late - wake up. Do everything you can to wake others, break up these companies, tax them and remove the surveillance. If not, my friends we are screwed.
Oh yeah, read this book - it is long, alarming and probably 100% right.
"If you have nothing to hide... then you are nothing" ... is the perfect counter to those that justify surveillance on the grounds that they "have nothing to hide". But what they fail to realise is that when one's inner life cannot operate free from prying eyes and/or without fear of being misinterpreted/exposed, then it will necessarily begin to self-censure - to dumb itself down. And this is just one of the many dangers in which we, as a society, are allowing ourselves to walk into.
This is a long and sometimes difficult read - but its value cannot be understated.