Thursday, December 16, 2021

Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff

Briefly, Zuboff's accounts of the horrors of surveillance capitalism (clandestine collection of data and manipulation of behaviors) and the landmark legal cases surrounding this industry are well-documented but won't contain new stories for anyone already familiar with the topic.

This book isn't without a few good points. The repeated mantra of "who knows? who decides? who decides who decides?" is a good starting point for media/PR criticism. I also agree with Zuboff that using only terms like "monopoly" and "privacy" as grounds for criticizing surveillance capitalism industry leaves us woefully unprepared for battling surveillance capitalism and the commodification of human behavior.

I was hoping she would deliver on the promises she made in the intro: to demonstrate that surveillance capitalism was a separate beast from regular old capitalism. And while she uses terms that make it seem like the nuts and bolts of surveillance capitalism are distinct from capitalism (e.g., "behavioral surplus", "prediction imperative"), I think she really fails at making this argument. Is Google hiding how much data it collects from you really all that different from Apple hiding the conditions of its manufacturing facilities? Is Facebook's attempts to manipulate your emotions or your sense of self-worth really a whole new beast or just another step in the advertising industry's development? Is the desire of surveillance capitalism companies to expand vertically and horizontally into new parts of our lives and into new parts of the world, to privatize or profit off public goods any different from the same expansion drive of any other company? If anything, Zuboff inadvertently convinced me the exact opposite is true: surveillance capitalism is just capitalism.

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