Ever since academic Shoshana Zuboff coined the term "Surveillance Capitalism" in 2015, it's become a touchstone for the debate over commercial surveillance (we've cited it hundreds of times). This week, Zuboff published her (very thick) book on the subject, to excellent early notices; I haven't read it yet, but it's next on my list.
Though I'm familiar with the general shape of Zuboff's argument, I'm really eager to get to grips with the specifics, and to see how it's evolved over the last three-and-some years.
Here's a head-start: in this weekend's Observer, John Naughton (previously) interviewed Zuboff at length about her book, and what she said bodes well for the book.
That said, I want to mark out an area of caution that I have with what I've seen so far of her argument — a problem that I've had with other critical books about the rise of Big Tech: locating the original sin of Big Tech in advertising and surveillance, rather than concentration and monopoly.
Derek Powazek's memorable phrase, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product" is true, but incomplete. It's true that companies that use surveillance and data to pay their bills view their "customers" as the advertisers, rather than the users.
"You're the product" is true in advertising models, but it's also true in for-pay models. Whether it's Apple sustaining itself by blocking third-party repairs, extracting rents from app vendors, and sneakily degrading the performance of its products over time; or John Deere ripping off farmers for repairs to six-figure purchases, or GM locking out independent repair and third-party spares.
The kind of capitalism that's the problem isn't "surveillance" capitalism, it's unfettered capitalism, where market concentration and regulatory capture allows companies to monopolize whole sectors and then abuse the customers they control. It's true that some giants moderate their behavior (Apple voluntarily eschewing surveillance), but this is only ever instrumental, about positioning a place in the market, and never about principle (Apple's got a very flexible attitude toward privacy indeed).
The problem with this misdiagnosis is that it implies that if only there were cost barriers to participation in online discourse, we'd dispense with the pathologies of surveillance capitalism. But in our highly unequal times, a cost barrier just means that the rich get to talk and the rest of us have to listen — or worse yet, we'll only get to participate in forums where the wealthy set the rules on the basis of ideologies much more specific and targeted than profit-at-any-cost.
But as I say, I'm basing this on Zuboff's summary of her position and not the book itself. Watch this space for a full review as soon as I get a chance to read the book.
While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life. Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those.
'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism [John Naughton/The Observer]
(Image: Shoshana Zuboff