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An In-Depth Look at Shoshana Zuboff’s Theories on Surveillance Capitalism

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Last Modified Date: May 29, 2024

Outline:

  1. Introduction
    1. Definition of Surveillance Capitalism
    2. Summary of Shoshana Zuboff’s Theories
  2. The Origins of Surveillance Capitalism
    1. Historical Context
    2. The Emergence of the Internet
  3. Shoshana Zuboff’s Key Theories
    1. Behavioral Surplus
    2. Datafication and “Instrumentarian Power”
    3. The “Crisis of Consent”
  4. Criticisms of Shoshana Zuboff’s Theories
    1. The “Digital Panopticon”
    2. The Narrow View of Surveillance
  5. Conclusion
    1. Summary of Main Points
    2. Implications for Future Research and Regulation
  6. Citations

What is Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance capitalism is a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, to describe a new economic order in which companies collect and exploit personal data on a massive scale to predict and modify human behavior. It is the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.

Surveillance capitalism is an economic system and business model that collects, analyzes, and monetizes vast amounts of personal data from individuals, often without explicit knowledge or consent, primarily through digital technologies and platforms, to generate profits.

In surveillance capitalism, individuals’ online activities, behaviors, preferences, and personal information are meticulously tracked, recorded, and analyzed by various companies and organizations. This data is then used to create detailed profiles and predictive models, which are leveraged to influence consumer behavior, target advertising, and shape market strategies.

Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism threatens privacy, democracy, and human freedom.

Shoshana Zuboff’s Theories

Shoshana Zuboff is an American author, Harvard professor, social psychologist, philosopher, scholar, and a leading expert on surveillance capitalism
She has written extensively on the topic, including her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. For Zuboff’s own perspective on the book’s reception, see the New York Times interview with Zuboff here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/21/technology/shoshana-zuboff-apple-google-privacy.html

Zuboff’s theories about surveillance capitalism are based on the idea that companies and especially big tech companies are increasingly using technology to collect and exploit personal data in order to predict and control human behavior. She argues that this new form of capitalism is fundamentally different from traditional capitalism, as it is based on the extraction of value from human beings rather than from natural resources.

Zuboff’s theories have been influential in the debate about the future of privacy and the role of technology in society. She has been a vocal critic of the tech giants, and she has called for new regulations to protect people’s privacy and autonomy.

Key concepts of surveillance capitalism as described by Shoshana Zuboff:

  • Driven by a profit-making incentive.
  • Arose with online advertising and advanced Information technology, led by Google’s AdWords.
  • Possibilities of using personal data to target consumers more precisely.
  • Data as a raw material analogous to petroleum. 
  • Implications in Big Data and Artificial Intelligence.

Zuboff’s theories have been praised by some[1, 2, 3] for their insights into the dangers of surveillance capitalism. However, others have criticized her work for being alarmist and for failing to offer concrete solutions to the problems she identifies[4, 5].

Despite the criticism, Zuboff’s theories have had a significant impact on the debate about the future of privacy and the role of technology in society. She has helped to raise awareness of the dangers of surveillance capitalism, and she has called for new regulations to protect people’s privacy and autonomy.

The Origins of Surveillance Capitalism

The historical roots of surveillance capitalism can be traced back to the early days of the internet and the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. During this time, companies began collecting user data as a means to target advertisements more effectively. However, the real transformation occurred with the rise of social media platforms and the proliferation of smartphones in the 2000s.

As people increasingly started to connect and share their personal information online, tech companies recognized the value of this data for targeted advertising and other purposes. With the advent of powerful algorithms and data analytics, companies like Google and Facebook realized that user data could be leveraged to predict and influence individual behavior, preferences, and purchasing decisions.

The concept of surveillance capitalism, as described by Shoshana Zuboff, is driven by a profit-making incentive, and arose as advertising companies, led by Google’s AdWords, saw the possibilities of using personal data to target consumers more precisely.

The following are some of the key events that contributed to the rise of surveillance capitalism:

  • The development of the internet and the rise of online advertising in the 1990s.
  • The rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which collect vast amounts of data about their users and create an advantage for data brokers.
  • The development of new technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence, which make it easier to collect and analyze personal data.

These events have created a perfect storm for the rise of surveillance capitalism. Companies now have the ability to collect vast amounts of data about us, and they are using this data to track our movements, predict our behavior, and influence our decisions. This is a fundamental shift in the way that capitalism works, and it has the potential to have a profound impact on our lives.

News segment on Surveillance from 2013 featuring Edward Snowden and Senator Ron Wyden

Zuboff identifies four key features in the logic of surveillance capitalism and explicitly follows the four key features identified by Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian:

  1. The drive toward more and more data extraction and analysis.
  2. The development of new contractual forms using computer-monitoring and automation.
  3. The desire to personalize and customize the services offered to users of digital platforms.
  4. The use of the technological infrastructure to carry out continual experiments on its users and consumers.

Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capital Key Theories

Behavioral Surplus

Behavioral Surplus is the data collected about us without our knowledge or consent. This data can be used to track our habits, preferences, and even our thoughts.

Zuboff argues that behavioral surplus is a valuable commodity. Companies can use this data to track our habits, preferences, and even our thoughts. This data can then target us with advertising, manipulate our behavior, and control our access to information.

Datafication

Datafication is the process of turning everything into data. This includes our personal information, our interactions with the internet, and even our physical environment.

Zuboff argues that datafication is a process that is accelerating at an exponential rate. This is because the amount of data that is being generated is growing exponentially. In addition, the technology for collecting and analyzing data is becoming more sophisticated.

Zuboff argues that datafication is a threat to our privacy and our autonomy. This is because it allows companies to collect and store vast amounts of data about us without our knowledge or consent, and the data can then be used to track our habits, preferences, and even our thoughts.

Instrumentarian Power

Instrumentarian Power is the power to use data to control and manipulate people. This power is held by companies that collect and sell our data.

Zuboff argues that instrumentarian power is a new form of power unprecedented in scale and scope. This threatens our privacy, autonomy, and democracy because it allows companies to control our behavior and to manipulate our choices.

The Crisis of Consent

The Crisis of Consent is the problem that we are not giving our consent to collect and use our data in this way. This is because we need to understand how our data is being used, or what the consequences of this use are.

Zuboff argues that we need to find a way to consent to collecting and using our data. This consent must be informed consent, and it must be given freely. We also need the right to withdraw our consent at any time.

Criticisms of Shoshana Zuboff’s Theories on Surveillance Capitalism

The “Digital Panopticon”

The “Digital Panopticon” concept has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of surveillance in the digital age1,2. Date back to the beginning of the rise of personal computers in the late 80s. Zuboff outlined the PC’s role as an “information panopticon” which can monitor the amount of work being completed by an individual.

Some argue that while there is certainly a rise in data collection and monitoring, it does not equate to a panopticon-like system3 where individuals are constantly under surveillance and control[5, 6].

The Narrow View of Surveillance Capitalism

Zuboff’s theory of surveillance capitalism has also been criticized for being too narrow. Some critics argue that Zuboff focuses too much on the role of companies in surveillance. They say that other actors, such as governments, also play a role in surveillance[3].
Other critics argue that Zuboff’s theory does not consider how people can resist surveillance. They argue that people can use tools like encryption and privacy-enhancing technologies to protect their privacy[7, 8].

Conclusion

Shoshana Zuboff’s theories on surveillance capitalism explore the rise of digital platforms that monetize personal data by monitoring and manipulating user behavior. She argues that this new economic system poses significant threats to individual privacy, autonomy, and democratic processes.

Zuboff’s work has opened up a new area of research on surveillance capitalism. Researchers can now explore the ways in which companies collect and use our data, the impact of surveillance capitalism on our privacy and autonomy, and the ways in which we can resist surveillance.

Zuboff’s work has also led to calls for new regulations to protect our privacy and autonomy. Governments around the world are now considering new laws to regulate the collection and use of personal data.

Some of the implications for future research and regulation of surveillance capitalism include:

  • More research is needed on the impact of surveillance capitalism on our society.
  • The need for new regulations to protect our privacy and autonomy.
  • The need to develop new technologies and practices to resist surveillance.
  • The need to educate the public about the threats posed by surveillance capitalism.
  • The need to raise awareness about our private information being sold by hundreds if not thousands of data brokers online.
  • We need to protect our data on the internet by opting out of our private information.

In her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff breaks down the complex details of a new economy based on personal data, which has serious implications for our privacy, autonomy, and democracy. She highlights the importance of thorough research, strict regulations, and public awareness in tackling these issues. Zuboff’s analysis makes it clear that we need to better understand and take action to protect our digital rights in this new age of data-driven capitalism.

Citations

  1. Srnicek, N. (2019). Review of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/age-of-surveillance-capitalism-shoshana-zuboff-review
  2. Galloway, S. (2019). The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning. Penguin Publishing Group. (Galloway praises Zuboff’s insights and their impact on public discourse around tech and surveillance)
  3. Morozov, E. (2019). Capitalism’s New Clothes. The Baffler. Retrieved from https://thebaffler.com/latest/capitalisms-new-clothes-morozov (Morozov critiques Zuboff’s work as being alarmist and not providing concrete solutions)
  4. Zuboff, S. (2020). You Are Now Remotely Controlled. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/24/opinion/sunday/surveillance-capitalism.html (In this op-ed, Zuboff herself calls for regulation to counter surveillance capitalism)
  5. Vaidhyanathan, S. (2019). The Disinformation Age. The New Republic. Retrieved from https://newrepublic.com/article/153036/disinformation-age-review-shoshana-zuboff-age-surveillance-capitalism (Vaidhyanathan, like Morozov, critiques Zuboff for lacking solutions and over-dramatizing the situation)
  6. Mark Andrejevic (2007) has argued that digital surveillance does not equate to a Panopticon-like system, but rather leads to a sort of digital enclosure. This is a perspective that suggests monitoring is not as absolute as in a Panopticon scenario. Here’s a link to Andrejevic’s work: Andrejevic, M. (2007). Surveillance in the Digital Enclosure. The Communication Review, 10(4), 295–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/10714420701715365
  7. David Lyon (2018) also offers a critical take on the surveillance society, arguing that surveillance has become a routine part of everyday life, but it does not always constitute a complete Panopticon-like system: Lyon, D. (2018). The Culture of Surveillance: Watching as a Way of Life. Polity Press.
  8. Kevin D. Haggerty and Richard V. Ericson (2000) discuss “surveillant assemblage,” which proposes a more distributed and complex network of surveillance that does not resemble a Panopticon: Haggerty, K.D., Ericson, R.V. (2000). The Surveillant Assemblage. The British Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 605-622. https://doi.org/10.1080/00071310020015280

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