The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

by Shoshana Zuboff ⚡

Surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge. Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others' gain, not ours.

I went into this one with the idea that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism would be all about the dangers of uncontrolled data collection from the common suspects; Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc. In some respects this book is about that, but it's also about a whole lot more.

Shoshana Zuboff describes what she calls the Behavioral Value Reinvestment Cycle, where data exhaust (data generated as a result of an action being taken, i.e. a particular link on an HTML document is clicked) is deeply analysed and then used to improve a service, which in turn allows for more data exhaust to be generated.

You can see this cycle in use everywhere; cookies, email open pixels, embeddable widgets (Facebook like buttons, etc), Alexa devices (voice recognition training), free photo storage (facial and object recognition), connected cars (a business reported to be worth $750 billion by 2030), etc.

Where The Age of Surveillance Capitalism got particularly interesting for me was in Chapter Thirteen, when Shoshana starts detailing how this data is being used to alter human behaviour on a global scale. These insights aren't new, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's eye opening to start to think about the scale at which these businesses operate and the power and influence they have over the daily experience of billions of people.

In 1948 the psychologist B.F. Skinner created what's now known as the Skinner Box, a device used to condition a test subject to perform specific actions to receive a reward. It seems we're all now living a life in a Skinner box controlled by big tech, who aim to control our actions to extract as much value from us as they can.

I don't think I'll read a better book this year.