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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rob Williams

BIG OTHER Is Watching: Welcome To The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism (BOOK REVIEW)

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

Book Review by Rob Williams, Ph.D.

Like me, you may be feeling a deep and uneasy but somewhat inarticulate ambivalence about this present moment of our Digital Age. How to best describe it? A steady unrelenting stream of tweets, snaps, instas, and Facebook status updates (millions of messages, encased in binary codes of 1s and 0s) daily roiling across our tiny screens. Individuals unable to detach from their digital devices. Political polarization. Economic dislocation. Social FOMO. Fake news. Real consequences. And our seeming inability to slow it all down, much less turn it all off.

You are not alone. Welcome toThe Age Of Surveillance Capitalism.

Zuboff's book is one of the most important yet written about our 21st century Digital Age.

Harvard Business School’s Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is easily the most accessible, comprehensive and provocative analysis of our present digital moment. Without overstatement, she subtitles her book “The Fight For A Human Future At The New Frontier Of Power.” As a stalwart member of Team Human (thanks, Douglas Rushkoff), I now have a much deeper understanding of what we’re up against, thanks to Zuboff’s epic 500 page analysis. After copious note-taking (analog style, reading a “book book” with what’s called “a pencil”) I thought it fitting to provide a comprehensive review here. Consider what follows a “deep dive” into one of the single most important media-focused books of our time.


Begin with Zuboff’s eight part definition of “surveillance capitalism,” a phenomenon she describes as “unprecedented” in human history, and thus, “necessarily unrecognizable” at first. We digital denizens are like the 16th century Taino people of the Caribbean when they first encountered the Spanish conquistadors (perceived as “gods”), or the arrival of the “horseless carriage” in horse-drawn early 20thcentury US society. Who could have possibly predicted what was to come? “Surveillance capitalism is a new actor in history, both original and sui generis,” Zuboff writes. “It is of its own kind and unlike anything else: a distinct new planet with its own physics of time and space, its sixty-seven-hour days, emerald sky, inverted mountain ranges, and dry water.” This book, she states, “is animated by the conviction that fresh observations, analysis, and new naming are required if we are to grasp the unprecedented as a necessary prelude to effective contest.” (14)


Zuboff begins her analysis by addressing surveillance capitalism’s origins and early elaboration, the social conditions that “summoned the digital into our everyday lives and enabled surveillance capitalism to root and flourish,” and finally, a close examination of Google as the digital corporation pioneering the invention of surveillance capitalism as a radical new redefinition of socioeconomic and political relations within 21stcentury social spaces. “For all of Google’s technological prowess and computational talent, the real credit for its success goes to the radical social relations that the company declared as facts, beginning with its disregard for boundaries of private human experience and the moral integrity of the autonomous individual,” Zuboff explains. “Instead, surveillance capitalists asserted their right to invade at will, usurping individual decision rights in favor of unilateral surveillance and the self-authorized extraction of human experience for others’ profit.” (19) Google proved the first corporation to codify a “tactical playbook,” building an institutional map over terra incognita, and inviting other corporations and state agencies to take advantage of their “new asymmetries of knowledge and power.”

Zuboff's eight part definition of "surveillance capitalism" framing her book's analysis.


Here, Zuboff explores how surveillance capitalism migrated from the online universe to the real world, “a consequence of the competition for prediction products that approximate certainty” in the form of a new “reality business,” in which “all aspects of human experience are claimed as raw-material supplies and targeted for rendering into personal data.” The word “rendering” is particularly provocative – referring to 1) we as sovereign individuals voluntarily turning over our personal information to our digital overlords via “social media” and “search” platforms so they can 2) aggregate all human daily experience into predictive behavioral markets. “New automated protocols are designed to influence and modify human behavior at scale as the means of production is subordinated to a new and more complex means of behavioral modification,” Zuboff explains. “I consider surveillance capitalism’s operations as a challenge to the elemental right to the future tense, which accounts for the individual’s ability to imagine, intend, promise, and construct a future – an essential condition of free will, and more poignantly, of the inner resources from which we draw the will to will.” Heady stuff – and prescient, as we netizens grapple with the new and unprecedented impact surveillance capitalism is having on our hearts, minds, and souls. “If industrial capitalism dangerously disrupted nature,” Zuboff wonders, “what havoc might surveillance capitalism wreak on human nature?”


Part III “examines the rise of instrumentarian power; its expression in a ubiquitous sensate, networked, computational infrastructure that I call Big Other; and the novel and deeply antidemocratic vision of society and social relations that these produce,” Zuboff details. “Instrumentarianism and its materialization in Big Othersignals the transformation of the market into a project of total certainty, an undertaking that is unimaginable outside the digital milieu and the logic of surveillance capitalism,” built on the work of “radical behaviorists” like B.F. Skinner, whom Zuboff identifies as a key player in ushering in ideological justifications for the arrival of surveillance capitalism. “Instrumentarian society is imagined as a human simulation of machine learning systems: a confluent hive mind in which each element learned and operates in concert with every other element,” Zuboff explains. “Instrumentarian power aims to organize, herd, and tune society to achieve a similar social confluence, in which group pressure and computational certainty replace politics and democracy, extinguishing the felt reality and social function of an individualized existence.” (210-21) While early Internet cheerleaders like technophile Kevin Kelly, futurist Stewart Brand, and Singularity advocate Ray Kurzweil celebrate the potential of “hive mind,” Zuboff provides a much more comprehensive critique of this conceptual framework, championing both the “right to the future tense” and the “right to sanctuary.” “The human need for a space of inviolable refuge has persisted in civilized societies from ancient times,” Zuboff cautions,” but is now under attack as surveillance capital creates a daily world of ‘no exit’ with profound implications for the human future as this new frontier of power.”


Zuboff’s dizzying historical and conceptual analysis of the arrival of surveillance capitalism concludes with both a warning and a call to action. “Surveillance capitalism departs from the history of market capitalism in surprising ways, demanding both unimpeded freedom andtotal knowledge, abandoning capitalism’s reciprocities with people and society, and imposing a totalizing collectivist vision of life in the hive, with surveillance capitalists and their data priesthood in charge of oversight and control,” she concludes. “Claiming dominion over human, societal, and political territories that range far beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm or market,” Zuboff writes, “surveillance capitalism is best described as a coup from above, not an overthrow of the state but rather an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty and a prominent force in the perilous drift towards democratic deconsolidation that now threatens Western liberal democracies.” (21) What, then, must be done? “Only ‘we the people’ can reverse this course,” Zuboff states, “First by naming the unprecedented, then by mobilizing new forms of collaborative action: the crucial friction that reasserts the primacy of a flourishing human future as the foundation of our information civilization.

In other words?

“If the digital future is to be our home,” Zuboff asserts, “then it is we who must make it so.”

The Age Of Surveillance Capitalismis a vital book at a unique moment in human history. Read and reflect on this book, share it with friends and colleagues, and consider how we might, individually and collectively, reverse course towards a more just and humane digital future.

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