A brief comment on Shoshana Zuboff and capitalisms

Yesterday I read Shoshana Zuboff’s essay, ‘The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism‘. It’s an insightful piece – particularly in its analysis of Google – but, personally, I approach this situation from a different perspective to Zuboff and disagree with some of her conclusions.

First, some choice quotes highlighting the mess we’ve got ourselves into as a society.

The game is no longer about sending you a mail order catalogue or even about targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit.

We’ve entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of privacy and its contests.

Behavioral data that were  once discarded or ignored were rediscovered as what I call behavioral surplus. Google’s dramatic success in “matching” ads to pages revealed the transformational value of this behavioral surplus as a means of generating revenue and ultimately turning investment into capital. Behavioral surplus was the game-changing zero-cost asset that could be diverted from service improvement toward a genuine market exchange. Key to this formula, however, is the fact that this new market exchange was not an exchange with users but rather with other companies who understood how to make money from bets on users’ future behavior. In this new context, users were no longer an end-in-themselves.  Instead they became a means to profits in  a new kind of marketplace in which users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products.  Users are the source of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process.

This next quote, however, highlights the concerns I have about Zuboff’s analysis:

Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.

There’s a classical liberal suggestion here and throughout the essay that capitalism as a whole and market democracy are good but have been infected by a mutant form of capitalism – ‘surveillance capitalism’, “the current modality of information capitalism” – analogous to the HIV virus:

We need to reimagine how to intervene in the specific mechanisms that produce surveillance profits and in so doing reassert the primacy of the liberal order in the twenty-first century capitalist project.

I disagree that ‘surveillance capitalism’ is a virus-like mutation and that we can find a ‘vaccine’, as Zuboff puts it, which can restore the normal, healthy functioning of the capitalism we know and love. I see it – as do others – as yet another stage in the development of capitalism full stop. ‘Information capitalism’, ‘cognitive capitalism’ and ‘surveillance capitalism’ are not new forms of capitalism; to the extent that those terms are meaningful, they refer to the normal, perhaps even predictable, evolution of a system which demands the ‘endless accumulation of capital for its own sake’ (Harvey 2014).

Google’s shareholders in the 21st century are no different to shareholders 50 or 100 years ago: they’ve invested money in a company and expect the management of that company do what it needs to do to in order for the value of their investment to grow at the fastest possible rate. Under pressure from their shareholders, Google, as Zuboff describes, recognised that their users weren’t valuable to them as ‘ends-in-themselves’, as say a student might be seen by a private education provider; they were valuable in terms of the behavioral data they were unwittingly handing over for free. Google have an obligation to the shareholders (which took precedence over ethical considerations and their desire to ‘not be evil’) to exploit that ‘human nature-al resource’ (Zuboff’s term) for profit.

This is, as I said above, normal and predictable behavior for anyone engaged in the ‘capitalist project’ under the ‘liberal order’. If that’s true, what does it mean to respond to ‘surveillance capitalism’ by ‘reasserting’ capitalist and liberal values? Nothing. ‘Surveillance capitalism’ as Zuboff has described it is itself a reassertion of the “primacy of the liberal order in the twenty-first century capitalist project.”


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