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.

When We Know Too Much

There’s an old adage which claims that ignorance is bliss. There was a point in my life in which I think that this bothered me, assuming that it was an excuse for not wanting to educate oneself on a given topic. Anyone who has worked an unpleasant job, however…you know, the sort of part-time gig that pays the bills while you’re in college?…has learned the truth that, the more you know, the more that is expected, and likely decided that you just didn’t want to know.

This doesn’t stop when we enter the professional world, though. I discovered this the first time that I was in a leadership role. There was a heavy self-examination that took place before I would accept the responsibility. I recall my father coming home and discussing how he turned down, or had no interest in, more leadership responsibilities than he already had at work. He wanted to just do his job and come home. The extra burden was a weight that he chose to live without, and I will always have respect for his courage to make that decision.

Sometimes, I consider this when I think of how much information thrusts itself into my daily life. A few years ago, I used to have conversations, as I’m sure most of us did, around how “it’s never been easier to access the information that we need,” or words to that effect. Now, we have conversations about how information is always there, whether we want it to be or not, like the illegal off-switches predicted in Max Headroom. My phone includes a screen time monitor that, among other data, tells me how many notifications I receive each week. The first time that I saw the number, I was astounded at how many I receive on an average day. The number was huge.

And that number is another piece of information, another data point, which makes its way into my life.

I think that we forget that knowledge brings with it responsibility. Just like that old college job, a truth in life is that the more that we know, the more that is required of us, because that knowledge brings with it a burden as well as a benefit.

“Knowledge is a burden–once taken up, it can never be discarded.”

Stephen Lawhead, from The Paradise War

I thought of this a few days ago when I read about a new service offered by the U.S. Postal Service called Informed Delivery. While it’s a really interesting capability, and while I can imagine use cases for certain people and scenarios, especially surrounding the holiday rush that will impose itself upon our lives all too soon, my initial reaction was that I have no place in my life for this information. This would be yet another notification, yet another data point showing up on a device, something that I would be checking periodically, all for information that I can easily live without.

And that, I think, is the key. What information can we live without? I think that the answer is a greater amount than we think. In a way, the older that I get, the more my view of progress changes, the more that I consider the wisdom that, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should. The rapid pace of our digital milieu seems to be based entirely on doing everything that we can, simply because we can.

I’m far from a luddite. I really like new toys. Lately, though, I’ve been working through the clutter and identifying what is too much, keeping what is necessary, and leaving behind what is not. I think that some people have a use for Informed Delivery, as well as for many other new technologies and tools that we hear about every day. I just caution that we don’t all have a need for all of the things that are out there, and that, if you don’t, perhaps…just perhaps…your life might be better off without.

Just a thought.

Temporal Anomalies

A Lego clock.

Recently, one of my colleagues unexpectedly announced his resignation. This was actually his second resignation in a couple of years…he had left and then returned…but this time was moving on for good. This happens with some frequency in today’s world, and not just in my field. These days, anyone with a marketable skillset shifts jobs with some frequency.

I think of my father, who worked for the same company throughout my childhood, finally retiring while I was in college after decades of “service” to the company. The idea of this is foreign in today’s vocabulary. Workers just don’t do this anymore. As soon as something becomes too irritating with the setting of one’s employment, one moves on.

In a way, I think that this is a sign of a positive change in the power dynamic within the workforce. Those with in-demand skills ultimately hold more power in the employer-employee relationship, because they can (often quite literally) have a new and competitive job tomorrow if they suddenly decide that this one isn’t working out. The burden of performance lies with the company to take care of its workers and keep them happy, and this is a good thing. I wish that it were more widespread.

All the same, I’m convinced that the lack of permanency in our culture is damaging, because it makes our human interactions more fleeting. When we lived in Raleigh, I did a contract gig in which I worked with a completely remote team. I really liked all of the people with whom I worked, but I never met most of them. We were spread out all over the world, and, despite some great conversations and a lot of commonalities between our different cultures (parents just understand each other), you never form the sort of connection that you do when you interact with someone face-to-face. I feel as though I came so close to forming a real relationship with some of those colleagues, but never really achieved a connection.

Synergy is one of those things that just happens with a team, something that’s either there or not. Despite what organizational coaches try to teach, you can’t force a creative spark and camaraderie. When this connection happens, it’s great. I’ve experienced it profoundly in ministry groups and professional settings, and it’s motivational to keep going back and doing the work. The issue is that, in the business world, these groups are almost always, in my experience, broken up because of some organizational shift that is perceived to have a greater potential for profit.

Or, as happened a couple of weeks ago, because people just simply move on. The resulting impermanence breaks the connection.

I think that this is why marriage is intended to be permanent, and also why parent-child relationships are so strong…because the permanence is just hard-wired in. There is no choice in that relationship. My child is my child, and I am her parent, forever.


I’m left with the thought that I need to make more of an effort to remain connected with people in my life. I exchanged contact information with my colleague, but we haven’t spoken since he left. I don’t want my friendships to become victims of this impermanence. Even with some of my oldest friends, the act of remaining intentionally in touch with each other is more difficult because we have moved to different geographic locations. Essentially, we’ve introduced yet another type of impermanence in doing so. Is it possible to keep these friendships intact? I have to think so. Before emails people wrote letters, and many friendships endured for years over great distances.

Yet, we’ve moved on. I still recall a theatre group with which I volunteered years ago. We were a ministry group. They were my close friends. I still wonder at times today what advice they would give me for situations with which I am confronted. I can almost hear their words to me…they echo in my head. Yet, I haven’t spoken to them in so long.

The relationships withered because I moved away, because there was a greener grass on the other side, because it was what had to be done. There was motivation, there was dissatisfaction, some valid and some otherwise. This created impermanence, which drew my friends and I apart.


When my colleague moved on, I sighed, adopted a “chin up” attitude, and kept going through my day. One can’t let oneself become sad about these sorts of things. People move on…it’s what we do. Just as I have moved on from so many friends, from so many places, in search of the next thing.

I’ve gained a lot. Yet, I’ve lost so much.

Deconstructing a Summer Vacation

Photo of a door in between two small shops.
A small door between shops near my parents. Inspiring of a story, perhaps…?

It’s difficult to prevent yesterday from taking over today sometimes.

About a month ago, we took a two-week family vacation. We don’t really do much traveling of late, as the kids aren’t quite old enough for that to be viable again, so this was a treat, a break from the “stay-cations” that we’ve taken over the last three years. Granted, we didn’t go anywhere exotic. Rather, we headed south to see family, and then further south…back to the city in which Karen and I met and in which I lived when I first started this blog…to spend time with old friends whom we hadn’t seen in years.

I suppose that those sorts of trips are especially prone to getting caught up in yesterdays. We made it a point to visit several of our old haunts…we ate at one of our favorite restaurants, walked downtown near some art galleries that we used to frequent, even drove by our old apartment and made a quick supply stop by the grocery store in our old neighborhood. The past comes rushing back when you make those sorts of visits, there’s just no way to avoid that experience. With that rush comes the inevitable “what-if.” What if we hadn’t left? What if we moved back? After all, we still have so many friends there. We know the area. It would be so easy to settle back into that life.

Of course, there are a thousand reasons why that would be difficult at best, unworkable at worst. Even if it were realistic, though, what’s not obvious in the theatrical fog machine in which your memory clouds itself in these moments is the fact that, even were we to do so, we wouldn’t simply reclaim our old life. I remember fondly when Karen and I went to plays, had dinner with friends on weekends, had a life before we had children. As dearly as I love my little girls, I miss that freedom…any parent does. The rhythm of our lives would be different now, the hidden evolutions of the city would take us by surprise and disrupt us in ways we wouldn’t anticipate. These are the sorts of unexpected events that experience teaches. Even with that experience, though, it’s difficult to see past nostalgia’s sleight of hand and recognize reality. Decisions made are decisions made, and a part of one’s life that is lived has been lived.

We can’t move backward. We can only move forward.


Another part of our vacation centered around giving my parents time with the grandkids. They see them far less often now than I would prefer, and I joke that I risk ex-communication if we don’t resolve this somehow, so we spent several days there.

Because our married life has been what it has been, and because we’ve moved as much as we have, I still have things in storage with my parents. For the last few years, with each visit, we intentionally cull through some of these things, and either return with some or throw some out. Often these center around old collectibles that actually aren’t so collectible any more, and other times this event turns into a deeper, and more reflective, trip in the way back machine.

This year, we delved into some memories from my undergrad days. I, like many people of my age, didn’t stay on a single track of study in college. I began my career at my alma-mater as a theatre and communications double-major. I didn’t finish that way, though. I dropped the theatre major with only 6 credit hours left, and, to this day, I’m not sure why.

At the time, I would have claimed burnout, but that’s overly simplistic. Ultimately, I left theatre, but later came running back. The degree remains unfinished, though, a road not taken (I graduated with the communications degree, instead).

On our vacation cleanout this summer, we discovered the drafting tools that I used for scene design. Opening the case was like opening a time capsule: the drafting board, the T-square, the templates for lighting instruments and furniture items…even the compasses and measuring tools. Now, to date myself a bit, I haven’t done any scene design in a long time, but I doubt seriously that designers still break out an architect’s scale to do their work. These tools, though, captured that moment in my life, the moment that I had changed academic pursuits. I returned to theatre as a director and actor, not a designer, and so I hadn’t touched those tools since that semester, over twenty years ago. There have been very few moments in my life of genuine regret, choices that I would make differently had I the opportunity to do so. That academic change, however, is one of them.


While visiting my parents, I fell into an easy routine of the day-to-day. I was up early (I was never a morning person, but it sort of comes with parenthood), and got used to seeing a large truck leaving from across the street, carrying its driver to work every morning. The kids loved my mother’s garden (which goes on seemingly forever), and I was washed over by nostalgic recollections of parts of that back yard during my childhood, which served in my imagination as the interior of my TARDIS, and part of the grounds of the X-Mansion. I remember the unbroken white expanse of that lawn under a fresh snow. Randomly, I remembered a photo of myself in high school, right before graduation, sitting on the living room sofa and opening cards or some such. I was taken with a profound desire to re-live some of those moments.

We can’t move backward, though. We can only move forward.


As our vacation drew to a close, and we were beginning our trip back, we drove past a church in my parent’s town that had one of those garish digital signs out front. The sign read, “Don’t let yesterday take over today.” Were there a meaning to this vacation as I’ve unpacked it over the last few weeks, it’s that. I cannot go backward. That part of my life has been lived, and, I think, lived well. We can only move forward, and I hope…I pray…that, as we do, we provide that incredible foundation to our own children.

A Review of “Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology”

Screenshot of the cover of Digitzed: Spiritual Implications of TechnologyThis book intrigued me because I’m always fascinated by interdisciplinary explorations, especially when the thoughts surround theological implications of how we live our daily lives. As I’ve always been a bit of geek, and now make my living in technology, thinking theologically about that technology and how it impacts not only what I do, but how I live, is an exercise that I do regularly in any case. Hearing someone else’s thoughts on this is always welcome to me.

So, Bernard Bull’s Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology popped out to me as a must-read. I’ve never heard of Bull prior to this book, or read any of his other work, though he is published elsewhere. What I expected was a theological treatment of technology and daily life. What I got, to my disappointment, was a more religious recommendation of how to utilize technology in practice.

Bull’s examinations are of a very surface level. Spread widely through his book are definitions of basic concepts, such as social media and blogs. While establishing definitions early is important in any scholarly work, Bull dwells on these definitions at length, targeting readers who are not technically savvy at the expense of those who are. As a result, he manages to alienate readers such as myself (who are drawn to what the book appears to be about) in his earliest chapters. His recommendations at orthopraxy are low-level, extremely basic, and backed by views that smack of the very legalism that Bull insists he is trying to avoid.

That said, the book is not entirely without value. Bull spends time discussing the spiritual perils of a cultural obsession with efficiency, emphasizing that a Christian theological worldview insists that people are created in God’s image, and thus are more than the numbers to which the business world attempts to reduce us. He also includes thought-provoking discussion on the concept of identity and how this is effected by our digital presentations of ourselves, the implications of which are a relative concept of our true selves and how that relatively is, by definition, untrue.

Continuing on this concept of relativity, Bull speaks a timely truth in regards to how digital expression impacts our perceptual filters of the world in which we live:

“We are inclined to believe that which is presented in the most persuasive manner rather than that which is true. We celebrate social and political commentary that appears in 140 characters…We grow disinterested in lengthier explanations. We turn to ad hominem attacks on those with whom we disagree instead of respectfully debating the issues. We value news as much for its entertainment value as for its accuracy and information. If we are not careful, such practices breed skepticism about truth.”

Bernard Bull, “Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology”, p. 152

While Bull attempts to give us practical applications at the conclusion of his book (most of which I forced myself through as they appeared to be targeting those of an unrealistic level of technological illiteracy), his best practical take-away, perhaps ironically, comes from someone else. He borrows from Neil Postman and his contribution to the field of media ecology. Bull encourages the reader to answer the following questions when adopting any new technology (taken from pp. 130ff):

  1. What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?
  2. Whose problem is it, actually?
  3. If there is a legitimate problem that is solved by this technology, what other problems will be caused by using this technology?
  4. Am I using this technology, or is it using me?

Personally, the answers with which I found myself after asking the final of these four questions were…troubling….in regard to some pieces of technology that have a place in my life. Despite the large percentage of the book that was disappointing to me, there was much value in this application, though I question whether it is more Postman’s application than Bull’s.

Altogether, this book is worth reading for the 10% that is thought-provoking, assuming the reader is willing to either skip the rest or force themselves through it. Digitized is far from what I expected, but not completely without value.