How Tech Companies Manipulate Our Personal Data

Both Angus and Zimmer were right, but before we can establish a firm legislative or regulatory agenda, we have to learn what surveillance capitalism is, as we come to terms with the novel form of economic and social power represented by Facebook, Google and a handful of other tech behemoths privy to our every click and utterance. Enter, as a critical guide, Shoshana Zuboff, who has emerged as the leading explicator of surveillance capitalism. A Harvard Business School professor emerita with decades of experience studying issues of labor and power in the digital economy, Zuboff in 2015 published a paper, “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization,” which has since become an essential source for anyone looking to reckon seriously with what she described as a distinct, emerging economic logic. Now she has followed up that paper with a doorstop of a book, an intensively researched, engagingly written chronicle of surveillance capitalism’s origins and its deleterious prospects for our society.


According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism distinguishes itself from its industrial forebear as “a new economic order that claims human experience as a free source of raw material.” We are the resource to be mined; the billion-dollar profits of Facebook and Google are built on a general accounting of our lives and everyday behavior. But surveillance capitalism is also many other things: “a parasitic economic logic … a rogue mutation of capitalism … a new collective order based on total certainty” and “an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.” All this may sound a little heady, like perhaps an overseasoned stew of po-mo economic jargon, but Zuboff will have you asking for another helping long before the book’s end.

Surveillance capitalism depends on the constant gathering of “behavioral surplus,” or the data exhaust that we produce as part of the normal course of web browsing, app use and digital consumption. All of it is potentially revealing, allowing companies to make sophisticated inferences about who we are, what we want and what we’re likely to do. As the economist Hal Varian noted in 2002, “Every action a user performs is considered a signal to be analyzed and fed back into the system.” That means that there is potentially no end to a surveillance capitalist’s extractive appetite, which is why — in the name of more efficient services and relevant ads — companies are constantly pursuing new, more granular data streams in our homes, workplaces and bodies. Unlike oil, to which it’s often compared, personal data is potentially limitless, but its extraction and consumption may be just as toxic, as we’re only beginning to understand.

Under the regime of surveillance capitalism, it is not enough simply to gather information about what people do. Eventually, you have to influence behavior, beyond the simple suasion practiced by targeted ads. It’s not about showing someone the right ad; you have to show it at the right place and time, with the language and imagery calibrated for precise effect. You have to lead people through the physical world, making them show up at the sponsored pop-up store or vote for the preferred candidate. Armed with a veritable real-time feed of a user’s thoughts and feelings, companies are beginning to practice just this kind of coercion, which is why you might see makeup ads before a Friday evening out or why inducements from a personal injury lawyer might pop up on your phone as you sit in a hospital waiting room. When we want things — health information, travel schedules, a date — is also when we are most vulnerable, when intimate data yield themselves for corporate capture. “The result,” as Zuboff notes, “is a perverse amalgam of empowerment inextricably layered with diminishment.” We seem ever more exposed to and dependent on surveillance capitalists, our benevolent info-lords, but their operations are defined by opacity, corporate secrecy and the scrim of technological authority.

In the face of all this, Zuboff sees a disastrous overturning of the traditional capitalist order. We are being pushed “toward a society in which capitalism does not function as a means to inclusive economic or political institutions.” With statements like these, Zuboff threatens to lose those readers who don’t share her regard for a bygone halcyon era of industrial capitalism that produced what she calls “traditional reciprocities,” defined by straightforward exchanges of money for goods and services, which in turn bound people together in ostensibly healthy social, economic and political arrangements. Zuboff’s analysis would benefit from more emphasis on the role of deregulation, the declining power of organized labor and the gradual financialization of the economy. With its ability to create boutique investment products that are several degrees removed from any tangible asset, it’s finance that seems like the most obvious ideological forebear of surveillance capitalism, which uses digitalization to render more of life as tradable commodities.

But Zuboff’s capacious book has room for minority opinions and other forms of dissent. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” may lack a straightforward political program — Zuboff comes across as a liberal, albeit not one who slots neatly on the left-right axis — but it is loaded with useful economic, technological and anthropological analysis. (In this political vacuum, I’d recommend the work of Trebor Scholz, a New School professor who has made a winning case for what he calls platform co-ops — nonprofit, worker-owned tech platforms that would lack the perverse incentives of surveillance capitalism.)


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