A Review of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”

A screenshot of the cover of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” was recommended on a podcast to which I regularly listen, but without much detail. I suppose it was the title that grabbed me, and persuaded me to brave Zuboff’s lengthy treatment on the topic. That said, my itch was primed for scratching on this subject, as I’ve read more and more information regarding how our privacy is carelessly disregarded by tech firms as they build ecosystems for us….and with us.

A turning point for me and how I approach technology was the first time that I heard the phrase, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” Unpacking that concept will make anyone, I think, increasingly wary of the services that they use each day. Zuboff expands the concept further. We are not the product, she insists. Rather, we are the raw material that big tech companies are using to create profit in a new form of capitalism, and, as such, we are not only not being compensated, but are essentially being used until we are no more.

The book begins with a historical treatment of our current technological landscape, with the invention of the iPhone, and the coming to be of the state of being constantly “plugged in.” She then walks the reader through the process of Google and Facebook evolving into the business models that they use today, made possible by the fact that our technology is always with us, that it knows us. Her research is thorough and organized, her facts compelling. The reader understands the particular confluence of events…some deliberate, some happenstance…that brought us into the age that we currently inhabit.

Next, the author turns to economic theory. I admit to having difficulty following this part of her argument, as this is certainly an academic text in tone, and I think that it could have been “translated” better for the likely large percentage of readers who, like myself, have no background in economics. Her point, however, is to trace the evolution of capitalism and how it functions, and how this traditional economic model has been turned on its head as we move beyond an information economy and into a surveillance economy. The source of profit is now what others know about us, and the goods and services trade that has traditionally accompanied economic models…even the implied consent inherit in these models…no longer apply.

Facebook and Google are the author’s favorite subjects of analysis throughout the book. Each, the author contends, views themselves as above concerns for their users’ privacy because their creators see themselves as building a world and existence that is better, and essentially forcing their users to move into this new state of being. This is a “we know what’s best for you” dystopian scenario that we experience, often unknowingly, and with a growing degree of powerlessness.

Throughout the book, Zuboff returns to a basic point:

“Who knows, who decides, and who decides who decides?”

Shoshana Zuboff

These are the foundational questions surrounding each of our technology choices every day, fundamental questions about the innermost parts of ourselves, who we choose to permit to know this, and what they can do with that knowledge. The author’s point is that technology leaders know more than we would every knowingly permit, and they wield that knowledge in their own best interests, un-checked and free from accountability.

This is a heavy read, not for the faint of heart, but worthwhile for absolutely everyone, because it is dealing with fundamental questions about our age. The facts presented here will change the way in which you interact with technology, with social media, with other online services every day. I highly recommend this book to anyone, as it is well worth the time you’ll invest in working toward its conclusion.


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