Elements of Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism
(2019) 160 Privacy Laws & Business International Report 29-32
8 Pages Posted: 18 Nov 2019 Last revised: 18 Dec 2019
Date Written: July 8, 2019
Shoshana Zuboff’s 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism' (Public Affairs, New York, 2019, 690 pgs) has, familiarised those who are interested in data protection to the term ‘surveillance capitalism’, coined by her in 2015 to describe a new stage of capitalism. It is the most ambitious analysis of the dominant form of post-industrial capitalism that has emerged since the turn of the century, attempting the scale of analysis that Adam Smith, Karl Marx and others applied to industrial capitalism in all its dimensions: moral, economic and political. It is also a call to arms: an exhortation to rise up against and destroy this mutant version of information capitalism before it destroys us, but without attempting a blueprint for how this is to be done, or what should replace it.
This brief article neither endorses nor critiques Zuboff’s analysis, but has the more limited aim of explicating what I see as key points of her analysis, and the sometimes unfamiliar concepts and terminology she utilises. I summarise her analysis of the logic of surveillance capitalism in ten points, and her sixteen answers to the question ‘How did they get away with it?’. How do these many disparate contributing elements change the distribution of power in our societies? Zuboff finds that it occurs in three main way: (i) an asymmetric division of learning in society; (ii) application of a radical behaviourist ideology of instrumentarianism; and (iii) a consequent anti-democratic seizure of social power, a ‘coup from above’.
My only conclusion in this article is simple: read, don’t ignore, and don’t resign hope to technological determinism. Zuboff is not a fatalist: surveillance capitalism is not a technology, but a market form. Its logic of accumulation is currently dominant, but neither inevitable, nor impervious to destruction. Her analysis of and case against surveillance capitalism, and her arguments and terminology will be with us for some time, and deserve to be.
Keywords: privacy, data protection, surveillance capitalism, dataveillance
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