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.

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.

A Review of Stan Lee’s “Alliances: A Trick of Light”

Screenshot of Alliances: A Trick of Light in the Audible mobile app.

When I heard about Alliances: A Trick of Light, I was inordinately excited. I had no idea that Stan Lee had collaborated on this project before he left us (far too soon)…in fact, this could be the last project upon which he worked. Listening to his forward was haunting, in a way, taking me back to all of those animated programs upon which I heard his prefaces and conclusions as I grew up. Stan Lee gave us such amazing stories…I couldn’t wait to dive into one last adventure.

Alliances is exclusively an audiobook, but don’t let that deter you if it’s not normally the way that you read. I say that partially because this project was written specifically for an audio performance, complete with musical scores and sound effects throughout, augmenting the actor’s already superb performance.

True to our expectations of what a final project from Stan Lee would look like, this is a comic book story arc in its truest form, yet with a substance in which a prose narrative is more fitting. We dig deeply into our protagonists’ lives, growing to know the characters at a remarkably intimate level given the pacing of the story. I give this caveat about the pacing because the authors spare no time in getting to the action. Our characters include a cyberkinetic, an alien predator, and…some surprises that I won’t give away.

I was taken a bit by surprise with the fact that this novel flirts with being YA, which honestly would have been a huge detractor for me (no offense to the genre, it just isn’t one that I particularly enjoy), but it avoids landing in that category. This does have components of a coming-of-age story, but you shouldn’t expect that sort of plot because it departs from it quickly. The convention is more of a device, a means to an end to get us to where the story needs to go.

There are twists here that drive the intensity of the narrative, and that I definitely didn’t see coming. When we discover the nature of one character’s identity, I had to pause the book and spend the better part of an hour digesting what had just happened. This is the clever, compelling sort of adventure that comic readers love.

I have to admit, though, that I’m left digging for what the authors are trying to say. Lee gives us cryptic hints in his preface, and I get the obvious: loyalty, a desire to belong…honestly the sorts of themes that I would expect to find in a YA novel now that I think about it…but nothing stands out. There are also timely references to our political climate that feel forced at times, but are at other times eloquent in their succinctness. Ultimately, what I think is valuable is that there is a true exploration of heroism here, as the characters explore what it means to act heroically to the world, and to each other, with all of the sacrifices that, while not initially obvious, are always necessary in the end.

Alliances is a great read for fans of Stan Lee’s work, or fans of comic books or superhero fiction in general. Currently, it’s exclusive to Audible, which presents an unfortunate barrier. You can, however, sign up for a free trial and keep the audiobook if you cancel. That’s a worthwhile workaround if you don’t want to subscribe, as this is truly worth the read.

A Review of “The Space Between”

Cover of the The Space Between by Eric JacobsenIt’s funny…or perhaps sad….how the academic sorts of reading that I pushed through in grad school is now attractive to me as reading in my spare time. I suppose that, by the time I was reaching the end of my master’s program, I was sort of just realizing my true passions. Around that time is when I became fascinated by theological examinations of culture. I’ve also always been attracted to more urban lifestyles, so a theological examination of urbanism….or, more precisely, new urbanism…was bound to pique my interest.

The Space Between, while a dense read and obviously an academic text, is engaging from every angle. Jacobsen begins with detailed examinations and explanations of the disciplines of city planning, urbanism, and new urbanism, taking the reader into an exploration of how sidewalks fall into the design of a city, how sight-lines should terminate on an urban horizon (particularly fascinating if you have any background in theatre), and other minutiae of the process of laying out an urban environment that will bring enjoyment to most readers simply by exposing them to the knowledge of a field of which most of us know nothing. Then, with a firm understanding in place, we dive into the theological examination of urban spaces.

A foundational premise of Jacobsen’s work is that public spaces are intended for use, but are activated by use. He is intentional about defining his subject as the “built environment,” separate from the natural environment but existing alongside. This is the environment with which we engage and that is more than just buildings and streets and shops, but includes the in-between places…alleyways, the spaces between buildings, and parking lots…all of which have an effect on our lives. Interestingly, as I read this, I remembered several foundational events in my life that took place against the backdrop of parking lots.

Another of the author’s primary assertions is that the industrialized transition from a pedestrian society to an automobile society de-humanized our interactions. Streets no longer accounted for walking after the industrial revolution, but were built to accommodate automobiles, instead. This pushed our interactions out, away from homes that we previously could walk by as we traversed our environment and potentially interact with neighbors, yet now we are all walled off in our vehicles, not only limited in our interactions with one another, but tending to view each other as less than human as we are encased by steel.

Zoning laws (something that the author is firmly against) then moved homes and businesses apart, disadvantaging many because a vehicle is now required to do even the most mundane of tasks in many places in our country. Public transit is generally not a priority. A by-product of this, the author describes, is the “safe haven” philosophy, a relatively recent evolution in Western thought. In this philosophy, we view our homes as safe havens within which we can isolate ourselves from interaction with the world. The practical upshot of this is that Christian influence in our communities and the public sphere (or, at least, meaningful Christian influence) has diminished. We no longer have to engage with our neighborhoods, and often don’t. Our children don’t learn how to do so as a result.

The way to effect change in the polis, Jacobsen argues, is to engage the neighborhoods in which we live. When problems arise, engaging with other and working them out, instead of immediately calling the police, for example. I can’t help but think, as well, that this reduces the need for excessive law enforcement in our communities, and just may, were it to become a common practice, divert us away from our march toward a police state, as well.

Jacobsen goes on to describe a church liturgical interface with the built environment, which I won’t outline here as it is lengthy, but it is compelling.

For all of the author’s excellent points, he is absolutist in his framing of his theological engagement from the standpoint that human dignity is only affirmed and protected when in a well-functioning urban environment. I find this to be strikingly short-sighted, as it ignores a large portion of our country that lives in rural environments. In these rural environments, not having an automobile (a state in which Jacobsen implies is closer to Godliness….I don’t entirely disagree, but…) is not an option. There is a sense that the author views rural environments as somehow lesser, which, for all of his thought-provoking points, is a perception that we can scarcely afford given today’s culture wars.

Still, The Space Between will change the way you view your engagement with your neighborhoods, working space, and others around you for the better. If your academic interests lean at all in this direction, or if this sounds at all interesting to you, then this is certainly a worthwhile read.

A Review of “World Without Mind”

Cover image of "World Without Mind", taken from audiobookMuch as the author does in the beginning of World Without Mind, which is interestingly split between being opinion and being investigative journalism, I’ll admit my own pre-conceptions going in. Namely, I don’t require any convincing that Amazon and Facebook are evil, and, given my recent suspicions, I would require little to nudge my opinion of Google over the same line. So, of course, this book quickly slid to the top of my to-read list given the description.

The author, too, admits his bias at the beginning of the work. He was an editor for the New Republic who was displaced when the magazine was purchased by a Silicon Valley investor who had come from Facebook and, so we are told, sold the magazine’s soul of liberal tradition in the interest of clicks. To Foer’s credit, he admits the lens of frustration through which he writes early. I think that he underestimates the level at which it colors his work.

This book is curious, equal parts history, op-ed, and social theory. He has done his research on the foundations of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and he doesn’t mince words in condemning their questionable practices. My hesitation was in the missing sources in his work, but I read this an audiobook, which doesn’t really lend itself to referencing footnotes or endnotes as a format. So, I honestly don’t know if these are present or not. If not, then the journalistic integrity is obviously called into question.

What becomes at times odd, however, is Foer’s digression into what I can only describe as conspiracy theory. He paints a dystopian undercurrent to our present, theorizing how Facebook and Google conspire to be the sole entities to possess all of the data of our personal lives, using it to manipulate us into thinking and feeling how they want us to think and feel, and to purchase what they want us to purchase. I don’t think that he’s entirely wrong. His condemnation of the algorithm in particular, however, paints more of an image of an eccentric professor ranting against an evil that only he can see more than it does a serious journalist giving us facts in order to inform our choices.

His denunciation of Amazon is more focused on corrupt business practices than the other giants in his crosshairs. Again, I miss sources, but the history he outlines of Bezos’ empire is a damning portrait of a power-hungry business intent upon devouring any competitor in order to become the only source from which we can ever purchase anything.

Foer also spends some time speaking of the fate of the writer and the de-valuation of intellectual property in the Internet age. His feeling is that the dorm-room philosophy of tech giants is to abolish all individual credit to any writer as part of the process of implementing the hive mind. For all of his valuable points as to how writers are continually not paid their worth, and to how print journalism in general is overwhelmed by less intellectual forms of media, this smacks of paranoia and the curmudgeonly punches of one done wrong.

World Without Mind is thought-provoking for all of its shortcomings. While the concluding call to action falls flat, I do find myself examining the trust that I place in Google in particular (my own condemnation of Facebook and Amazon were solidified long ago), and I have found myself beginning to change some of the choices that I have made in how I engage these services.

Anyone who uses social media and e-commerce without questioning would be served at some level by this book. My concern is that Foer is unable to detach from his personal bias sufficiently to present an argument in a compelling enough way to sway the opinion of the majority of readers. I can’t help but feel that there’s a darker truth under the surface of our daily interactions with the Internet that Foer is sensing and the rest of us are downplaying. Hopefully that is my own conspiratorial imagination at work.