Reading the Age of Surveillance Capitalism: chapters 3 and 4

Posted on April 15, 2019 by Bryan Alexander

Our online book club is reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Today we’re covering chapter 3: The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus, and chapter 4: The Moat Around the Castle.

In this post I’ll summarize the chapters, then add some observations and questions. I’ll also recap what readers have shared.

How can you participate? You, dear reader, can respond to your reading through whichever technological means make the most sense to you. You can comment on each blog post, as some did last week. You can also write on Twitter, LinkedIn, your own blog, or elsewhere on the web. If you want to make extra sure I see your contributions, ping me on Twitter or through this site. (If that sounds strange, here are some examples of previous readings, complete with reader responses.)

If you want to find previous installments of our reading so far, they are all available under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ . You can also find the reading schedule here.

From our readers: Ken Soto wondered why Zuboff doesn’t address the powerful services largely available to users for free. Barbara Fister reminds us that many tech leaders didn’t plan all of this, that other digital business models are available, and that neoliberalism may be the real villain here. She also wonders about Apple in this milieu. And Brian Pech found this good Zuboff interview with Leo Laporte. On Facebook Carl Rosenfield asks “Is the current economy, based on exploitation, redeemable?”

Summary

Chapter 3: The Discovery of Behavioral Surplus retells the history of Google with a focus on how the company developed a surveillance capitalism model. A key development in that story is Google’s post-dot-bomb crisis, when hungry investment dollars flooded in, seeking profit while other digital businesses collapsed. Venture capital put enormous pressure on what was just a search engine company to yield spectacular returns.

Google responded by rethinking what Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus,” the range of data users generate in interaction with the service, especially beyond core interactions. Initially Google used that data to improve products. But VC pressure yielded a new model, turning that data into ads and other ways of bringing in income. Google created user profiles, which could be plugged into predictive models (78). The more data, the better the results, so the company began a campaign to hoover up as much data as it possibly could. Zuboff dubs this strategy “the extraction imperative.” (87) . Google then disguised this motivation by supplying altered language.

The model then moved to Facebook, personally due to Sheryl Sandberg’s move between the companies (leading Zuboff to name her the “Typhoid Mary of surveillance capitalism”, 92). Other companies then followed suit (96).

Chapter 4: The Moat Around the Castle describes how Google built and protected this behavioral surplus system. One key part is a sense that political authorities were not capable of understanding or regulating the system, which Zuboff compares to 19th-century robber barons in terms of a “dedication to lawlessness,” intellectual powered by libertarian writers. (106) Another is the rise of neoliberalism and its drive to expand the market while reducing state activity. That led to close relationships between business and government, including a rotating door between Google and the Obama administration (120ff).

One law which makes Google’s innovations work is section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (1996), which protects platform providers from legal actions against the content they carry. In Zuboff’s analysis, section 230 also “shelters this extractive surveillance capitalist operation from critical examination.” (110–112)

One passage from this week’s chapter pair really caught my eye:

…ignorance is a condition of this ubiquitous rendition; that decision rights vanish before one even knows that there is a decision to make; that there are consequences to this diminishment of rights we can neither see nor foretell; that there is no exit, no voice, and no loyalty, only helplessness, resignation, and psychic numbing; and that encryption is the only positive action left to discuss when we sit around the dinner table and casually ponder how to hide from the forces that hide from us. (95)

Questions

  1. What is the role of the financial sector in the rise of surveillance capitalism?
  2. Reader Carl Rosenfield asks “Is the current economy, based on exploitation, redeemable?”
  3. Is Sheryl Sandberg one of the primary bad players, a typhoid Mary, in Zuboff’s terms?
  4. Are there other business models besides surveillance capitalism that you think are viable now?

Next week (April 22–5) we will move on to chapter 5, The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete, and chapter 6: Hijacked: The Division of Learning in Society.

Help yourself to our reading, with all content assembled under this header: https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ . You can find the reading schedule here.

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(cross-posted to my blog)

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of the FTTE report and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.