For the past few years, former President Barack Obama has revealed his annual list of his favorite books of the year. This year it included a wide range of books, but one that stuck out was “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power,” a new book by tech critic and Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff.
“First published as an essay in a German publication in 2014, what Zuboff describes amounts to a new economic logic hatched in corporate America that aims to extract staggering value from users’ private lives. Cataloging a dizzying array of sensors and invasive software, Zuboff sketches a vision of the economic future in which companies race to collect data in pursuit of Facebook- or Google-like profits,” New York Magazine reported.
Here are 10 takeaways you should know about “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” which was published on January 15, 2019.
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The book goes into detail about the power of surveillance capitalism and the push by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior. She explains how Silicon Valley and other corporations are mining users’ data to predict and influence their behavior.
“Surveillance capitalism describes a market-driven process where the commodity for sale is your personal data, and the capture and production of this data rely on mass surveillance of the Internet. This activity is often carried out by companies that provide us with free online services, such as search engines (Google) and social media platforms (Facebook),” The Conversation reported.
By collecting user info, the companies can analyze online behaviors (likes, dislikes, searches, social networks, purchases) to produce data that can then be used for commercial purposes.
According to Zuboff in Surveillance Capitalism, there will be a “seventh extinction.” And this threatens to eradicate “what has been held most precious in human nature. Given the fragility of the global political and economic order, surveillance capitalism amounts to a ‘coup from above,’ Zuboff argues, an assault on democracy by way of subverting the very idea of what it means to be an individual,” New York Magazine reported.
Zuboff wrote, “The idea here is that what is being produced are predictions, predictions of future human behavior that are then sold to markets of business customers who have an interest in what people will do now, soon, and later. So that’s the sequence, the mechanisms of surveillance capitalism. When I say claiming private human experience and then translating it into behavioral data, I’m talking specifically about aspects of private human experience that aren’t what is required for product and service improvement.”
Surveillance capitalism doesn’t just involve tech companies. These days non-tech corporations are utilizing it.
“This surveillance capitalism is an economic logic now that is traveling not only across the tech sector but traveling across sectors in the regular economy where platforms are not the prominent constellation. So in the insurance industry, in the health-care industry, insurance companies are using telematics so they know how you’re driving in real-time, and can reward and punish you with higher and lower premiums in real-time for whether or not your driving costs them more or less money, or whether or not your eating costs them more or less money, or whether or not your exercise patterns cost them more or less money,” Zuboff said in an interview with New York Magazine.
She added: “Health-care providers who are using telematics for not only feeding into these prediction markets but also collecting all kinds of ancillary data to sell to third parties, and being part of these whole ecosystems now, are behavioral surplus suppliers. You download a diabetes app, it takes your phone, it takes your microphone, it takes your camera, it takes your contacts. Maybe it helps you manage your diabetes a little bit, but it’s also just a part of this whole supply-chain dynamic for behavioral surplus flows.”
“Really, they just want our data. They don’t care what we believe. They don’t care if we’re happy, they don’t care if we’re sad. They don’t care if we’re in pain, they don’t care if we’re in love. They only care that whatever we are and whatever we do, we do it in a way that interfaces with their supply chains. So that they’re getting their data flows. They are in this structure, fundamentally indifferent to the content of our behavior. They just want to have the data from our behavior,” the author told New York Magazine.
According to Zuboff, Google was the first to use surveillance capitalism practices in 2001. “They used data extraction procedures and packaged users’ data to create new markets for this commodity,” The Conversation reported. Google processes an average of 40,000 searches per second, 3.5 billion per day and 1.2 trillion per year. Imagine how much data this allows the tech giant to collect.
Along with Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple depend on surveillance capitalism. The result has been extreme business growth for them. The proof is in the numbers — Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Apple, and Facebook are currently ranked in the top six of the world’s biggest companies by market capitalization. Alphabet, for example, was recently valued at $822 billion.
When the world learned about the Cambridge Analytica revelations, many were shocked at how their online data was being used, passed around, bought and sold. “Cambridge Analytica’s actions broke Facebook’s own rules by collecting and on-selling data under the pretense of academic research. Their dealings may have violated election law in the United States,” The Conversation reported.
And, according to Zuboff, this should have alerted people to the dangers of data collecting. While Cambridge Analytica was a small player in the big data economy, others like Google make huge profits from it.
In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Zuboff chronicles 16 explanations as to why the general public didn’t catch on to surveillance capitalism.
“One big reason is that the audacious, unprecedented quality of surveillance capitalism’s methods and operations has impeded our ability to perceive them and grasp their meaning and consequence, Zuboff told the Harvard Gazette.
Also, surveillance capitalism benefitted from a couple of historical events. Surveillance capitalism, for example, was invented in 2001, the same year as 9/11.
“In the days leading up to that tragedy, there were new legislative initiatives being discussed in Congress around privacy, some of which might well have outlawed practices that became routine operations of surveillance capitalism. Just hours after the World Trade Center towers were hit, the conversation in Washington has changed from a concern about privacy to a preoccupation with ‘total information awareness’. In this new environment, the intelligence agencies and other powerful forces in Washington and other Western governments were more disposed to incubate and nurture the surveillance capabilities coming out of the commercial sector,” Zuboff said.
Another reason the public is unaware of surveillance capitalism is that surveillance capitalism is just plain confusing. The methodologies behind surveillance capitalism are “designed to keep us ignorant.”
When asked by the Harvard Gazette if there can be an end this age of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff replied: “First, we need a sea change in public opinion. This begins with the power of naming. It means awakening to a sense of indignation and outrage. We say, ‘No.’ We say, ‘This is not OK.’
“Second, we need to muster the resources of our democratic institutions in the form of law and regulation. These include, but also move beyond, privacy and antitrust laws. We also need to develop new laws and regulatory institutions that specifically address the mechanisms and imperatives of surveillance capitalism.”