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How "Surveillance Capitalism" Is Different From Previous Forms of Capitalism


In The Guardian, John Naughton interviews scholar of business administration Shoshana Zuboff, whose highly anticipated new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power examines what she calls a fundamentally new phase of capitalism. “Surveillance capitalism,” she suggests, is less about the production of commodities for a consumer market, and more about the widespread automated collection of data about us, for sale to corporations. Google and Facebook are the paragons of a new form of capitalism that is more opaque than any that has gone before. Here’s an excerpt from Naughton’s introduction to the interview:

“Surveillance capitalism,” writes Zuboff, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I call behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”

While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known and understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight and scholarship to situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the latest phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to mass production, to managerial capitalism, to services, to financial capitalism, and now to the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi and – dare I say it – Karl Marx.

Image via The Guardian.