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Book Review

The Social Media Peril — Part II

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, by Shoshana Zuboff

Of the three books under review, Shoshana Zuboff’s is easily the most distinctive. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Zuboff sets herself an ambitious task: demonstrating that the major internet platforms — Google and Facebook especially — represent a new, more pernicious form of capitalism. She mostly succeeds.

Though Zuboff was a long-time faculty member at Harvard Business School, she is, first and foremost, a social scientist — which means she thinks both systemically and historically. We should not be surprised, therefore, that early in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism she asks us to consider a provocative historical precedent.

“On December 4, 1492, Columbus . . . dropped anchor off the coast of a larger island known to its people as Quisqueya or Bohio, setting into motion what historians call the ‘conquest pattern.’”Convinced that the island was “his best find so far, with the most promising environment and the most ingenious inhabitants,” Columbus declared to Queen Isabella, “it only remains to establish a Spanish presence and order them to perform your will. For… they are yours to command and make them work, sow seed, and do whatever else is necessary.”

Eventually, other Spanish conquerors, seeking a patina of justification for their invasion, were tasked with reading the Monarchical Edict of 1513 known as the Requirimiento to indigenous villagers before attacking them. The edict declared that the authority of God, the pope, and the king was embodied in the conquistadors and then declared the native peoples as vassals subordinate to that authority:

“You Cacics and Indians of this Continent.… We declare or be it known to you all, that there is but one God, one hope, and one King of Castile, who is Lord of these Countries; appear forth without delay, and take the oath of Allegiance to the Spanish King, as his Vassals.”

Once the Europeans had discharged their duty to inform, the way was clear for pillage and enslavement . . . In this world-shattering confrontation with the unprecedented, the native people were summoned, advised, and forewarned in a language they could not fathom to surrender without resistance in recognition of authorities they could not conceive.

Zuboff then poses for us a question that is both systemically and historically provocative: “When the Taínos of the pre-Columbian Caribbean islands first laid eyes on the sweating, bearded Spanish soldiers trudging across the sand in their brocade and armor, how could they possibly have recognized the meaning and portent of that moment?”

The answer is as obvious to us as to Zuboff: in the Spanish conquistadors, the Tainos had encountered something entirely without precedent. As a result, they were unprepared and ill-equipped to resist. She believes we have been equally unprepared to apprehend and oppose the dangers of the internet platforms that have brought us surveillance capitalism.

But that is hardly Zuboff’s only reason for turning our attention to the Tainos. She believes the core dynamic of conquest for the conquistadors and for the internet titans is similar. The conquistadors simply showed up and declared to the Tainos that, henceforth, they would be considered either infidels fit for slaughter or vassals fit for slavery. Their days of freedom and autonomy were over.

Zuboff believes that our 21st-century conquerors have, similarly, showed up and declared themselves possessors of a set of prerogatives never before imagined by us, the modern-day Tainos of the new surveillance economy. Although Zuboff lists six declarations that underpin this newest land grab, they all flow from the internet companies overarching claim to “human experience as raw material free for the taking. On the basis of this claim, we can ignore considerations of individuals’ rights, interests, awareness, or comprehension.”

Which gives a notably sinister cast to Google co-founder Larry Page’s comments back in 2001 when asked: “What is Google?” Page responded, “If we did have a category, it would be personal information . . . Everything you’ve ever heard or seen or experienced will become searchable. Your whole life will be searchable.” Zuboff concludes:

Page grasped that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood, that it could be extracted at no extra cost online and at very low cost out in the real world, where “sensors are really cheap.” Once extracted, it is rendered as behavioral data, producing a surplus that forms the basis of a wholly new class of market exchange. Surveillance capitalism originates in this act of digital dispossession (emphasis added).

In fact, (much of) the first half of Zuboff’s book, is her attempt to help us “recognize the ‘original sin of simple robbery’ at the heart of this new capitalism” — and be suitably outraged.

But Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism offers a second big and provocative historical precedent. Industrial capitalism dominated economic life throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. At its heart was declared ownership and control of (more and more of) the natural world. But if industrial civilization flourished at the expense of nature and now threatens to cost us the earth, Zuboff warns that “an information civilization shaped by surveillance capitalism will thrive at the expense of human nature and threatens to cost us our humanity.”

And just as industrial capitalism was driven to the continuous intensification of the means of production, so, she asserts,

surveillance capitalists are now locked in a cycle of continuous intensification of the means of behavioral modification. Surveillance capitalists’ interests have shifted from using automated machine processes to know about your behavior to using machine processes to shape your behavior according to their interests. In other words, this decade-and-a-half trajectory has taken us from automating information flows about you to automating you (emphasis added).

That quote highlights both the strength and the weakness of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. To her credit, Zubott has an acute sense of the dangers posed by internet platforms. She also has a decided tendency to overreach. She reminds us, in fact, that social scientists and the conquistadors share something in common — a belief that one can declare reality to be whatever one envisions. Zuboff’s readers must decide whether (some) of her declarations are of a dystopia more imagined than real.

More book reviews here.

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