A decade ago, the residents of the English village of Broughton, in Buckinghamshire, formed a human chain to block an intruder. A car with a camera mounted on its roof was about to immortalize Broughton’s country lanes for Google Street View, which has photographed more than ten million miles of streets around the world. The car, having halted in front of the protesters, beat a retreat when one of them called the police. The story made the rounds of the international media, often treated as an instance of English eccentricity, snootiness, or small-town paranoia. It surfaced again the following year, when the German Federal Commission for Data Protection revealed that Street View vehicles were not only photographing people’s homes but also collecting vast amounts of data from unencrypted Wi-Fi routers—including e-mails, chat sessions, browser histories, and passwords. Peter Schaar, Germany’s data-protection commissioner, said, “I am shocked at the way these routes were used without third parties being aware of them.”
Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at Harvard Business School, mentions the citizens of Broughton more than once in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power”—a reckoning with the stranglehold that Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other Big Tech companies exert over our lives and minds. In retrospect, what’s striking about the “Spy-Fi” scandal, as it was called, is how isolated it was. Although it generated shocked headlines, no general uprising ensued. Google apologized, saying that the data collection was inadvertent, that a rogue engineer had devised the technology, and that nothing was done with the data. Street View eventually broached the barricades in Broughton. You can take a remote tour of the village today.
“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” joins a small library of books chronicling the ill effects of Internet economics and culture: Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget,” Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” Astra Taylor’s “The People’s Platform,” Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together,” Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusion,” and dozens of others. Zuboff’s work is likely to have a longer life than most, not only because she deploys an indispensable term—surveillance capitalism is defined as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales”—but because her arguments are backed by staggeringly thorough documentation. This is no thin polemical screed, although the tone is often impassioned. Weighing in at nearly seven hundred pages, the book is a step-by-step account of the building of the digital iron cage.
Two major questions loom over the story that Zuboff unfolds. The first—How did Big Tech pull it off?—is answered in excruciating and infuriating detail. She traces a relentless progression from data collection to behavior prediction and finally to behavior control. The second—Why did we let them do it?—is more elusive, although Zuboff ventures some good guesses. She quotes Hannah Arendt and George Orwell; she talks about the instinct to bow before power, particularly before a supremely confident power. The seductive ease of life under surveillance capitalism has so far stilled the countervailing instinct to defy the bully, to protect the sliver of the self.
Neoliberal economics enabled the rise of the tech giants, as Zuboff makes clear at the outset. From the late nineteen-seventies onward, regulators were crippled and the corporate sector emboldened. No strong system of oversight was in place as Big Tech began its invasion of privacy. Google is the focus of the early part of the narrative. The company had devised a superior search engine but lacked a stable business model. After the tech crash of 2000, Google, under pressure from investors, looked for ways to increase revenue. Almost by accident, it discovered the benefits of “behavioral surplus”—the detritus of data that users leave behind when they visit the site. User profiles allowed Google’s clients to target their ads precisely. This was the origin of the intelligence-gathering capability that has made the Internet such a pervasively spooky place—its way of knowing whether your query about “Giants tickets” means baseball in San Francisco or football in New York.
Close scrutiny of a patent that Google filed at the end of 2003—“Generating User Information for Use in Targeted Advertising”—allows Zuboff to establish that user profiles were “deduced” or “extracted” from personal data that users may have wished to keep hidden. Deduction is itself a euphemism. Google wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, inferring people’s professions from indentations on their hands; it simply vacuumed up information, overriding an ethic of privacy that had become enshrined in American law and culture. That mentality is all but universal in the world of Big Tech. Zuboff calls it the principle of “radical indifference,” according to which the masters of the digital universe act without regard for the social consequences of their actions. Eric Schmidt, the former C.E.O. of Google, announced in his book “New Digital Age,” co-written with Jared Cohen, that “the online world is not truly bound by terrestrial laws.”
The success of Google’s surveillance regime depended on the sheer numbers of people using it. Machine intelligence, Zuboff explains, “reaches its full potential for quality only as it approximates totality.” For this reason, the tendency toward all-devouring monopolies in the tech world is the inevitable outcome of the underlying algorithmic logic. Tech companies can really succeed only when they establish a monopoly over whatever zone of the economy they occupy: books, media, music streaming, movie streaming. One of the saddest aspects of life under Big Tech is our habit of equating entire sectors of human activity with particular corporations. Shopping becomes Amazon. Movies become Netflix. Music becomes Spotify. Friendship becomes Facebook. That urge to brand the basic functions of daily existence justifies the book’s citations of Arendt and the Frankfurt School on the psychology of totalitarianism.
To be sure, Big Tech encountered resistance each step of the way. Its response has repeatedly followed what Zuboff calls the “dispossession cycle”: a sequence of maneuvers by which a company takes what it wants and grinds down obstructions in its path. First comes “incursion”: the act of seizing undefended territory without regard for existing laws and norms, whether it’s personal data, cars for hire, rooms for rent, or the contents of libraries. Not only the company but also its consumers must set aside moral qualms. Zuboff’s decision to begin her account with Google in 2000 means that she neglects the earlier history of radical indifference on the Internet—notably, Napster’s normalization of copyright violation, in 1999. A lawsuit halted Napster, in 2001, but it set an example. Sean Parker, its co-founder, went on to become Facebook’s first president.
In the face of organized opposition, the company practices “habituation”: wearing down challengers through years of litigation, media misdirection, and political manipulation, until the land grab becomes established fact. In the face of general public dismay, the company deploys “adaptation”: a performance of contrition, apologizing for regrettable mishaps and promising improvements. “We failed badly here,” Google said after the Street View controversy. “We are mortified by what happened.” Facebook has perfected the same song and dance. Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s co-founder and C.E.O., had it down when he was a Harvard undergraduate, apologizing to women’s groups for his Facemash experiment. “I definitely see how my intentions could be seen in the wrong light,” he said. Finally comes “redirection,” in which the problematic initiative not only fails to stop but expands in scope. As Zuboff points out, the very idea of privacy is antithetical to the viability of a corporation like Google or Facebook.
Whenever Zuboff seems in danger of pushing her argument too far, evoking a dystopia overseen by messianic megalomaniacs, the principals of her narrative bolster her case by spouting dialogue that sounds as if it had been crafted by a particularly desperate Hollywood writer’s room. Tech leaders envision creating a “human-machine symbiote” and building a “world-spanning living organism.” A Silicon Valley data scientist tells Zuboff, “The goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behavior at scale.” Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, imagines what might happen if you fall behind in your car-leasing payments: “Nowadays it’s a lot easier just to instruct the vehicular monitoring system not to allow the car to be started and to signal the location where it can be picked up.” Eric Schmidt said, in 2010, “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” The “we” connotes a class of superior beings who know what is best for the rest of humanity.
Zuboff ends her book with a fairly rousing call to rise against what she calls a “coup from above.” Create friction, she says. Demand oversight of the kind that the European Union has put in place, most recently with a $1.7 billion fine of Google. Campaign for antitrust action, as Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed. Refuse the fatalism that makes people shrug their shoulders and say there is nothing to be done about any of it. History shows a way forward:
The decades of economic injustice and immense concentrations of wealth
that we call the Gilded Age succeeded in teaching people how they did
not want to live. That knowledge empowered them to bring the Gilded
Age to an end, wielding the armaments of progressive legislation and
the New Deal. Even now, when we recall the lordly “barons” of the late
nineteenth century, we call them “robbers.” Surely the Age of
Surveillance Capitalism will meet the same fate as it teaches us how
we do not want to live.
Indeed, most of us don’t want to live like this, heads bent over a handheld device, twitching from one social-media outlet to another. Insidiously, though, the technologies that mediate our existence provide an illusory sense of mastery, as we tap a screen and summon brightly colored sweaters to our door. “The precise moment at which our needs are met,” Zuboff writes, “is also the precise moment at which our lives are plundered for behavioral data.” We find ourselves in an elegantly designed, frictionless trap.
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