It’s one thing to know what’s wrong, and it’s quite another to chart a path toward liberation. Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is part of a growing wave of liberal academics beginning to wonder if there are some deep, structural flaws in our political economy. She exhaustively documents how the big tech companies forming the vanguard of today’s capitalism have gone from a mantra of “don’t be evil” to one of “monetize everything.” It’s heartwarming to see professors at the Harvard Business School such as Zuboff wake up to the fact that the profit motive can be nothing but evil. Yet her book is long on the “surveillance” portion of its title and short on the “capitalism” part. There is ample documentation of the mechanics by which our online lives are quantified, data-mined, fed through algorithms, rendered into predictions, and sold to the highest bidder. Yet Zuboff sees this as the corruption of a potentially virtuous capitalism, and not just another chapter in the history of elites stopping at nothing to increase their quarterly earnings. Since the book’s publication, the movement for Black lives and the collapse of healthcare systems have continued to reveal the myriad ways our political economy is indeed deeply violent. The evidence piles higher by the day. Without movements demanding the abolition of police terrorism, colonialism, and surveillance capitalism, we’ll be left with liberals looking to “make capitalism great again.”
I was initially quite excited to dig into Zuboff’s 691-page tome (including 126 pages of endnotes). Neologisms such as “behavioural surplus” and “mode of extraction” piqued my interest, promising to answer thorny questions about how companies like Google and Facebook—which are among the most highly-capitalized corporations in the world today, all by producing intangible digital commodities—manage to make so much money. Unfortunately, Zuboff steers her analysis away from broad questions of material value and toward idealistic reflections on the nature of the self. The first section of the book—and this is the greatest strength of Surveillance Capitalism—is a detailed exploration into “how the sausage gets made.” Told primarily through the history of Google, Zuboff recounts how the scrappy start-up began with the help of a virtuous feedback loop: by adaptively learning from users’ searches and click-throughs, the more people used its search engine, the more effective the engine became. This feedback loop was the extent of Google’s business model at the time. But the 2001 Dotcom bust quickly put an end to any virtue, as Google scrambled to find a way to monetize its services and avoid bankruptcy. Its solution was AdSense, which utilized the data amassed from recording users’ search histories to place amazingly effective targeted advertisements. This was the beginning of what Zuboff calls the “extraction imperative”: instead of any virtuous cycle, surveillance capitalism is increasingly a competition to extract as much data as possible—from your searches, your emails, your geolocation, your heart rate and step count, your thermostat, ambient conversation in your living room, and whatever the camera on your doorbell is picking up—and turning this into predictive data about the exact moment when a little “nudge” from an advertiser will succeed in steering some of your dollars their way.
Zuboff explains that surveillance capitalism is built on these imperatives for extraction and prediction. Regarding extraction, she claps back to the saying that “if it’s free, you are the product,” writing that “you are not the product: you are the abandoned carcass” (377). In other words, while more people are recognizing that apps are “free” precisely because users are freely providing the tech companies with profitable information, Zuboff goes one step further to argue that we are freely allowing surveillance capitalists to hollow out our very sense of self. The trick is for Google, Facebook and the like to make us accept being dispossessed in such a way. Zuboff outlines their playbook of “incursion, habituation, adaptation, and redirection” through a history of Google’s Street View (138-155). Incursion meant sucking up as much data as possible, regardless of legality. With Street View this meant that as Google’s snazzy cars were photographing every inch of pavement the world over, they were also sniffing out unencrypted wi-fi transmissions and storing this data. There was initially an uproar over this “Spy-Fi” scandal, but while the court cases dragged on for years people became habituated to the bait of convenience that Street View provides.
What makes surveillance capitalism truly monstrous for Zuboff is the way in which extraction parlays into prediction, prediction into redirection, and ultimately redirection into behaviour modification. Google and Facebook aren’t content to passively extract every bit of information about you that they can. They want to actively shape your behaviour into “guaranteed outcomes” (131).
Yet by the book’s final section, it becomes clear that Zuboff’s primary aim is to defend the Enlightenment’s concept of the individual and not a critique of political economy—no matter how much her repeated use of the word “capitalism” would lead us to assume the latter. To wit, while she asserts that big tech treats users like an “abandoned carcass,” her solution is better regulation. She makes it quite clear that she’s in favour of capitalism, writing that “surveillance capitalists abandon the organic reciprocities with people that have long been a mark of capitalism’s endurance and adaptability” (499). Zuboff often reminisces fondly on Henry Ford and how his “five-dollar day” was a virtuous gesture that both benefited his workers and allowed them to buy his cars. What offends her most is that this idealized “reciprocity” has been abandoned, regulatory laws are too weak to oblige it, and instead, tech companies snoop on our deepest secrets, violate our individual “sanctuary” (475-492), and seek to shape us into mindless consumers.
But what’s new about the rich looking for more things to steal, wanting us to shop more, disregarding the law, and generally trying to shape society in a way that benefits them? Have Indigenous peoples, African peoples, migrants, or the poor ever enjoyed any “sanctuary”? The depravity of today’s leading corporations has led this Harvard Business School professor to catalogue and denounce their crimes, yet she ignores generations of scholarship by people writing in various revolutionary traditions about the structural causes of this depravity and what might be done to overcome it. Read Surveillance Capitalism for reasons to hate Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and every other corporation that is re-directing their operations toward data extraction and prediction. But don’t read it to find out what this means for the broader sweep of capitalism, or for proposals beyond emailing your representative.
Surveillance Capitalism reminds us that the economy is indeed changing, but we can understand these changes more clearly by discussing them using Marxist concepts. Zuboff is off-base in her blithe assertions that “the means of production are subordinated to an increasingly complex and comprehensive ‘means of behavior modification’” (8) and that “instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s existence” (9). Whereas Zuboff’s idealism leads her to believe that Google and Facebook are evil because their executives dream of social control (406), surveillance capitalism is very much within the capitalist mode of production. It brings together raw materials (the data it steals from you) and labour (that of coders and low-wage workers who “clean” the data) 1 to produce a product (targeted advertising services). Like all capitalists, big tech seeks to maximize profits by acquiring its raw materials through dispossession, exploiting its workers, herding consumers, and bribing politicians into creating a legal environment conducive to these behaviours.
So is there anything new afoot, or am I just another white, male academic droning on about how “Marx explained it better 150 years ago”? Just as Ford’s assembly line did indeed introduce important changes to “the same capitalism as always,” digital and network technology are again changing things. The assembly line sped up production, increased output, and made working life all the more tedious and alienating for labour. Likewise, networked technology has further automated production, created the conditions for workers to be “on” all the time—whether that means checking email, doing gig work through an app, or doing content moderation for Facebook—and continued the downwards slide of alienation. The internet and smartphones have quickly transitioned from being inventions promising to create novel communities, entertain us, and bring the world to our fingertips, into more everyday drudgery that we dream of unplugging. Having celebrated everything from birthdays to funerals over Zoom during the pandemic, we all see that the e-everything “future big tech wanted us to want” really sucks. 2 Yesterday’s treasured commodities quickly become today’s trash. Like Walter Benjamin wrote about Klee’s painting of the angel of history, “The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” 3 As we look toward the heaping pile of garbage that is capitalism’s past, full of dread about what this means for our unknown future, we are also reminded of Marx’s words: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” 4
It’s understandable why Zuboff’s book seems to cry out: “This is bigger than the economy! Humanity as we know it is being destroyed!” Of course, her dismay seems overstated in relation to the calamities that have been ongoing since the very beginning of this historical process: genocide against Indigenous peoples the world over, the brutal theft and enslavement of millions of Africans, flourishing landscapes covered in toxic mining debris. Yet big tech is indeed centre-stage in today’s world-in-crisis: as governments declare bankruptcy, the combined worth of Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google is more than every country in the world except the US, China, Germany, and Japan. 5 Amidst a generalized depression, the only jobs on offer are highly-surveilled gig work. We’re told that the tech plutocracy is the only one who can guide us through the crisis, as the New York governor names former Google CEO Eric Schmidt to lead his blue-ribbon commission to “reimagine the post-COVID-19 reality,” the Gates Foundation to “develop a smarter education system,” and Bloomberg to direct contact tracing. 6 All this while governments are pumping trillions of dollars into the economy via “quantitative easing”—essentially printing money that will go immediately toward inflating stock markets and real estate—setting the stage for a future financial collapse orders of magnitude larger than that of 2008. As the calamity unfolds, white supremacists are doing all they can to push the mortal costs onto Black, Indigenous, and immigrant peoples. Zuboff and the rest of us have every right to feel alarmed. Capitalism is a crisis and we can feel our lives getting shittier by the day.
But the devil is in the details. We all register this alarm differently and—most important—we come to very different conclusions about how to act on it. The conservative response is to treat those on the margins like invading barbarians, while liberals like Zuboff assert that capitalism would “once again” be virtuous if tech CEOs abandoned their behavioralist “utopianism” (404-407) and if elected officials better-regulated data surveillance. It’s similar to calls for “police reform” or a “smarter” private healthcare system. The leftist response is that things are alarming because capitalism as a whole—not just surveillance capitalism—is a system based on violent extraction and is constantly careening from one crisis to another, deeper one. Surveillance Capitalism is informative in exposing how this crisis leads corporations to steal our data and make new areas of life into commodities, but it will take more than legislation to end this. Because these problems come from capitalism as a whole, we must turn to the broader question of how to go against and beyond capitalism—not just Facebook and Google.
In their book, Inhuman Power: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Capitalism (2019), Dyer-Witheford, Kjøsen, and Steinhoff list a number of struggles that specifically target surveillance capitalism while opening towards a broader anti-capitalist struggle. During the pandemic these struggles have become all the more acute: strikes at Amazon fulfillment centres and by Uber drivers remind us that surveillance capitalism is suffered most acutely by workers whose every movement is monitored, who are given zero downtime, and who are disciplined by inhuman apps rather than flesh-and-blood managers. They shed light on who the “essential workers” are behind the impersonal apps, as well as the fact that the “essential worker” designation is little more than a ploy to take away workers’ rights without offering hazard pay.
While techno-futurist and conspiracy thinking lead many to believe resistance is futile, these labour struggles remind us that the point of production remains one of the most strategic places to build power. Struggles before and during the pandemic should also remind us that we can win. Indeed, big tech was on the defensive just before the COVID-19 outbreak: workers at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft forced their bosses to back away from contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other repressive state forces, Amazon was forced to abandon construction of its new headquarters in Queens, NY, and politicians were openly discussing the idea of breaking up tech monopolies. 7 Torontonians scored a big win as Google cancelled their Quayside project, which threatened to “privatize city governance, municipal services, land use planning, transit, and housing,” all in the name of creating a “smart city.”[[T. Wieditz, “Waterfront Toronto: Google’s de facto Development Arm in Canada” The Bullet, 2020, March 27, https://socialistproject.ca/2020/03/waterfront-toronto-google-development/
See BlockSidewalk.ca for news on the victory.]]
The struggle to block the Quayside development underscores the importance of the “right to the city” 8 —the fight over whether our living spaces will be shaped by capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy or whether we can effectively remove them from the market and build a life outside capitalism. It shows that our struggle is about more than privacy and surveillance. It’s about self-determination. We can look to Minneapolis, where Black and brown communities confronted an influx of white supremacists by using good, old-fashioned face-to-face communication to organize neighbourhood watch programs. This is what abolition looks like in practice, and while messaging apps no doubt help, it’s reliant on the hard skills of community building: door-knocking to find out who is on the block, facilitating meetings in ways that don’t alienate folks who have never participated in anything political before, meeting people’s immediate material needs and also making them feel cared for, and “fighting the man” while also caring for our nutrition and our kids. There is no app or wiki for these skills. We can only learn them by getting involved, embracing the mess, failing at first, and then “failing better” the next time. 9 It’s slow, tough work, but the only thing that will defeat a boss or police department that can know us through our data is for us to know each other even better. *