[Review] “Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

This book left me with a lot of thoughts. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is complex and I had to listen to the 24 hour audiobook at basically 1–1.2x speed (I usually listen to books at 2x) which meant it took me nearly four weeks to get through it all.

Zuboff is an academic and she doesn’t back off from using novel terminology or referencing obscure theory. She argues, and I agree, that given the phenomena she is describing as so novel, our lexicon needs to adapt accordingly. And so we are left with phrases like “behavioural surplusand behavioural futures markets,” that are used liberally.

Zuboff has clearly done tremendous amounts of research for this book and I really admire how she has managed to synthesize it all into a largely cohesive piece. She move conversations about surveillance and privacy beyond the national security and individual freedoms discussion that Edward Snowden undertakes in Permanent Record, addressing fundamental questions of “Who knows? Who decides who knows? And, who decides who decides who knows?”

I will refrain from trying to summarize the main arguments of the book since Nicholas Carr does a fantastic job here.

I will, however, mention my main gripes with this book. I have a tendency to distrust anyone who is too sure of themselves and Zuboff’s writing makes her come off as someone who believes their points can’t be disputed at all. I largely agreed with her points and observations but was often turned off by the hyperbolistic writing. At one point, she calls Sheryl Sandberg the “typhoid Mary of surveillance capitalism”…hmmm.

In the 540 pages of the book, Zuboff also makes few concessions about the benefits of the internet and the services provided by these giants. I completely agree with her point that these companies need to be more accountable to the public and not hold our data hostage, at the same time, while say tearing into the existence of Google Street View or Pokemon Go, she doesn’t even spare a thought to consider the benefits of these platforms.

In his review, Carr writes,

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a long, sprawling book, but there’s a piece missing. While Zuboff’s assessment of the costs that people incur under surveillance capitalism is exhaustive, she largely ignores the benefits people receive in return — convenience, customization, savings, entertainment, social connection, and so on. The benefits can’t be dismissed as illusory, and the public can no longer claim ignorance about what’s sacrificed in exchange for them. Over the last two years, the press has uncovered one scandal after another involving malfeasance by big internet firms, Facebook in particular. We know who we’re dealing with.

This is not to suggest that our lives are best evaluated with spreadsheets. Nor is it to downplay the abuses inherent in a system that places control over knowledge and discourse in the hands of a few companies that have both incentive and means to manipulate what we see and do. It is to point out that a full examination of surveillance capitalism requires as rigorous and honest an accounting of its boons as of its banes.

In the choices we make as consumers and private citizens, we have always traded some of our autonomy to gain other rewards. Many people, it seems clear, experience surveillance capitalism less as a prison, where their agency is restricted in a noxious way, than as an all-inclusive resort, where their agency is restricted in a pleasing way. Zuboff makes a convincing case that this is a short-sighted and dangerous view — that the bargain we’ve struck with the internet giants is a Faustian one — but her case would have been stronger still had she more fully addressed the benefits side of the ledger.”

All in all, I think The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a masterful product of good research and thinking. But between its hyperbolism and unwieldiness, you might be better of reading a couple of review articles of the book and get as much out of it.