Who’s Afraid of Surveillance Capitalism?

What if I told you that your new Samsung TV’s microphone is always on and it records everything you say all the time, and then it sends this sound data to large data centres for automatised voice analysis so that it can better tailor ads to you? If you have ever paid at least fleeting attention to new digital technologies, you’ll be aware that large technological companies are collecting all the personal and behavioural data they can get their hands on. Facebook and Google can process this data and provide you with ads that leave you with an uncanny feeling that they must be reading your mind. And yet you don’t mind.

You’re marginally aware that when every minor app requires access to your microphone, camera, photos, SMS contents, contact lists and all sorts of personal data, it’s probably requesting much more than it objectively needs – but the comfort you get as a result makes it look like a fine deal. When you find out about the intrusion by your Samsung TV, you may recoil at first – isn’t that too much? – but soon you return to your default attitude, which is a shrug. Yes, we’re now in condition of constant surveillance by tech companies – so what? We’re used to it; it’s a way of the world now.

What Shoshana Zuboff tries to do with her book in the first place is to violently shake us from such complacency. She has a name for this complacency – “inevitabilism”, a conviction that whatever intrusions tech companies make are inevitable. Her book is as much a piece of analysis as it is a piece of advocacy. Over hundreds of pages, she tries to depict what Facebook and Google do as horrifying to the extreme. It’s not a new normal, she claims. It’s not normal at all. We should fight back.

So it speaks either to the degree of my apathy or to the failure of Zuboff’s argument when my first question after closing the book was “so what?” I’ll explain why I gravitate towards explanation through failure. It’s not that the things I’ve read about aren’t outrageous. But they’re outrageous in a way we’re already used to. We know that all those things probably should be fought against, but we’re tired, choosing some fights and postponing the others. Zuboff’s crucial argument concerns priorities: this is the primary danger, this is the fight we shouldn’t postpone. And it is on this count that Zuboff fails.

For all the verbose indulgence and rhetorical flourishes – there was really no need for this book to run for seven hundred pages – Zuboff’s argument hinges on a simple thesis: that there’s a significant rupture, really a kind of ontological gap between the previous “industrial capitalism” and new digital “surveillance capitalism” of the 21st century. Part I closes with the following call to arms: “If there is to be a fight, let it be a fight over capitalism. Let it be an insistence that raw surveillance capitalism is as much a threat to society as it is to capitalism itself.” Let’s set aside the fact that one might not exactly find “capitalism itself” alluring enough to be worth fighting for. The problem is that the thesis underlying this call is wrong. My counterproposal is the following: what we’re seeing isn’t “good ol’” capitalism being disfigured by a bunch of tech wizards at Google and Facebook. Rather, what we’re seeing is capitalism being capitalism.

Zuboff’s explanation of this central thesis is likewise surprisingly simplistic for a book this long. She sees this crucial divergence between industrial and surveillance capitalism in two aspects: firstly, she claims that while industrial capitalism tried to conquer “nature”, surveillance capitalism tries to conquer “human nature”. Secondly, where industrial capitalism works with markets that are based on uncertainty, new digital “futures markets” seek total control and total predictability. In a nutshell, an ideal ad should leave you with literally no choice but to buy an advertised product. It should develop and apply a perfect behavioural psychology (in the book, there’s a lot of rather tedious discussion of theories and visions of Burrhus F. Skinner in this regard).

The problem is that there’s no divergence on both accounts. Firstly, industrial capitalism was truly about conquering human nature, too. Nature came as raw materials, but as a mode of production, capitalism depended on the commodification of labour. The crucial social product of capitalism is a worker. With the bonds that tie him to the soil and the master loosened, with the link between his labour and his personal subsistence severed, the worker under capitalism understands his labour as an abstract product to be sold. The crucial daring feat of industrial capitalism is that the worker considers himself free despite – at least at the beginning – being tied by a cobweb of economic relations much more powerful than previous feudal ones, though they are invisible and hidden. Capitalism is, first and foremost, a grandiose – and successful – behavioural experiment. It conquers human nature. There was a lot of stick in it and not a lot of carrot. Of course, once the masses believed they were free, they tried to act that way, and some emancipation followed and concessions were won, but only through a lot of pain, blood and suffering. This is, however, clear to any reader of Polanyi or Marx (whose analysis of industrial capitalism Zuboff tries to emulate for the purposes of surveillance capitalism – at least she claims as much at certain points).

The difference between industrial and surveillance capitalism as far as conquering human nature is concerned is only a question of degree. While the former mainly lays its hands on the workforce, the latter mostly eyes consumers as an unwilling – and unpaid – workforce. Optimistic advocates of capitalism would see a correspondence between the system and human nature here, while left-wing and anarchist critics would call it a manipulation – but what’s crucial is that, in both cases, we’re simply talking about conquering human nature. We are either free, or our freedom is an illusion – but in both cases, the answer is the same. There’s no divergence.

Secondly, there’s likewise no crucial shift from a supposed embrace of uncertainty to the quest for total control. This is because capitalism never embraced uncertainty. Again, it was Marx who emphasises that capitalism produces both supply and demand; he famously states that capitalism produces needs. And, of course, this mainly means luxury needs – or as Marx writes, “refined needs” [verfeinerte Bedürfnisse]. It’s good to have a need going spare. Basic needs are also socially construed (for example, Marx includes smoking among basic needs since it’s utterly common), but in a given time and place they’re still essentially given, and there’s not much room for production. Production thus focuses on luxury needs. (It follows that if we now – in “surveillance capitalism” – speak of mass production of needs, it means that we’re basically all drowning in luxury products. Zuboff’s worries are indeed, in a way, first-world problems – teenagers in Ghana disposing of electronic waste are probably busy enough fulfilling their basic needs.)

The quest for total control entails both production of needs and monopoly. It was Adam Smith who perceived the tendency towards formation of monopolies when he famously claimed that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”. It goes without saying that the less competitive the market is, the more predictable it becomes for the dominant company. And it follows that an ad crafted to perfection that leaves the consumer with literally no choice but to buy the product is akin to a need produced so well that the consumer can’t leave it unfulfilled. Or to put it even more simply, as many works of dystopian cyberpunk science fiction teach us, the ideal consumer is a junkie.

Tech companies reach a technological level that makes them unprecedently well-suited to the production of needs and the establishment of monopolies. When they use their technology to achieve this, they’re fulfilling the goals that have always been inherent to capitalism. Every capitalist has always longed for monopoly and total predictability. As Peter Thiel puts it, “competition is for losers”. When Zuboff claims there’s a divergence here, she simply longs for conservation of capitalism at below-state-of-the-art level, and despite all claims to the contrary she comes off as a Luddite.

With these two assumed divergences failing, Zuboff’s argument collapses. But – again – this is as much a book of analysis as it is a work of advocacy. Just because your analysis fails, it doesn’t mean you can’t preach or pontificate. And, well, that’s what Zuboff actually does for the most part.

This is the point where the book turns from unconvincing to unbearable. The constant influx of trivia is not the problem – often it’s interesting, though rarely novel (Samsung TV’s case was news to me, but any semi-attentive reader of newspapers is aware of most of the cases mentioned here). The problem is the unhinged rhetoric and the effort to devise more and more horrifying – and utterly misplaced and at worst tasteless – analogies and metaphors. I suspect that a literary inspiration may once again lie in Marx’s first volume of Das Kapital (Zuboff emulates his indignation well, though not his sarcasm), but I still think that there’s a difference whether we speak of child labour and 16-hour shifts, and whether we’re talking about mobile phones tracking us through GPS or about Pokémon Go leading us perfidiously to a pre-determined restaurant. The horrors she describes are not horrifying enough to match the language.

There’s one point at which the silliness of the language made me laugh out loud. This is when Zuboff describes one of Google’s patents: “The inventors also note that their methods can be understood only among the priesthood of computer scientists drawn to the analytic challenges of this new online universe: ‘The following description is presented to enable one skilled in the art to make and use the invention.… Various modifications to the disclosed embodiments will be apparent to those skilled in the art.…’” Every patent lawyer instantly recognises a most common phrase mindlessly copy-pasted into every single patent application; these are benign phrases that only say, in an idiosyncratic argot concerning a patent law, that the invention is sufficiently clarified and that obvious variations of the invention fall within the scope of a patent application. And yet Zuboff sees dark rituals among secretive priests in these dull omnipresent turns of phrase. If you look hard enough, a conspiracy indeed pops up everywhere.

There’s then another point where the analogies turn utterly tasteless. Surveillance capitalism’s ascent is likened at one point to the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. Now, however strongly you might feel about the horrors Google and Facebook inflict upon us, it’s not akin to genocide. If you’re not completely convinced by Zuboff at that point, such analogies are disgusting and off-putting.

And yet there actually are both certain divergences between industrial and surveillance capitalism and specific dangers related to the latter. The particular divergence is, however, not analysed by Zuboff, and the dangers are misidentified.

As for the first, there’s a glaring omission in Zuboff’s analysis. We are forced to read on and on about conceited speeches by tech entrepreneurs to the shareholder and to slog through Skinner’s discredited psychological behavioural theories – we are warned about their supposed comeback, but as we’ve seen above, the goals of total control were always with us, even before Skinner. We will, however, and rather shockingly, find few economic analyses and data in the book. We won’t learn, for example, how big the IT sector is compared to other sectors. We won’t find efforts to link the cloud to raw materials extraction, exploitation of natural resources and cheap labour that Benjamin Bratton, for example, makes in his exquisite The Stack (2015). A Marxist would say that there’s no effort to localise a material base of this economy.

Localising this is crucial, however, because this tech industry is, at the end of the day, nothing more than the ad industry on steroids. It’s an intermediary. It’s a parasite. But what does it mediate? And what’s the host it feeds on? Locating the material base may introduce us to a whole new set of dynamics. If the superstructure is large and abstract enough, such a change in degree may signify a certain divergence after all. You don’t need to be a Marxist (as, for example, Mariana Mazzucato with her wonderful book The Value of Everything (2017) isn’t) to see that whatever dynamics are at play, they can be traced to the financialisation of capitalism since the 1970s. There’s a whole superstructure erected over the productive base, and the tech sector – very much like the financial sector – is part of it. However, Zuboff ignores these issues and therefore, ultimately, misses the point.

There are, likewise, dangers associated with surveillance capitalism in particular. Zuboff doesn’t refrain from discussing China’s horrifying system of social credit – and, indeed, if anyone would like to use technology for totalitarian purposes of population control rather than for tailoring ads (and construction of completely predictable markets), we have all the necessary infrastructure already in place. Zuboff, however, considers precisely concerns surrounding state abuse to be misleading – as something that too long blinded us from intrusion by private capitalists. But she’s wrong here, too. If there is any fight we should prioritise, it’s against abuse of data privacy by states. The rest is simply capitalism being capitalism; it’s rather the cooperation between tech companies and state agencies like the one Snowden disclosed that should worry us in the first instance. The primary task is to prevent us from becoming China; in the same way, the Chinese understand that it’s state surveillance rather than Google algorithms that is the main enemy.

Where Zuboff finally fails in the advocacy department is, however, not in her overblown rhetoric, but in her lack of policy suggestions. Old-fashioned suggestions like expropriation of means of production (Daniel Saros, for example, suggests in Information Technology and Socialist Construction (2014) that Amazon’s “everything store” could be revamped for the purposes of socialist planning, building on the legacy of the short-lived Cybersyn project developed in 1970s in Chile during the Allende era; though I consider this proposal to be particularly flawed, it has been touted as interesting by Evgeny Morozov – a philosopher often sceptical about digital technologies – in his New Left Review article called “Digital Socialism?”) or Smithian dismantling of monopolies are obviously not tested – their introduction would betray the claim of a deep rupture within capitalism. If Zuboff doesn’t see the continuity, she won’t have much use for old-fashioned suggestions. But what she comes up with in return is only a defence of initiatives such as the GDPR, which – regardless of their merits or lack of thereof – is underwhelming.

With its thin argument, trivia overload, explosive hyperboles and lack of policy implications, Zuboff’s book is a boiling cauldron whose ultimate effect – it appears – is to be aesthetic. Zuboff will certainly deny it, but The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is mostly impressionistic prose that has too much in common with dystopian novels (though it more often than not fails to construct gripping allegories). And even when you’re not fed up with analytical shortcomings patched by unbearable rhetoric and you’re sufficiently shaken up – what actually remains once emotions and rage dissipate? You will still shrug… and maybe check your Facebook feed for other news.