Book Review | Relics of the third modernity

Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism traces the origins of the new economic order, which extracts human experience as raw material.

Surveillance capitalism conjures many ideas, ranging from the internet of things and smartphones to Facebook and Google. For some it invokes a sense of Big Brother, for others tracking devices and invasive advertising. For others still, it is something synonymous with technology. 

The most salient reference in recent history may be the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. First reported on in 2015 by Harry Davies, a reporter for The Guardian newspaper, the story finally broke in 2018 to reveal how Cambridge Analytica mined the Facebook data of around 50 million to 80 million users without their consent, including accessing personal messages.

More shocking than the mining of this data was that it was used for political ends. Most notable was its use in the presidential campaign of United States senator Ted Cruz, although similar activities have been traced back even to the campaign of former US president Barack Obama.

But what exactly is surveillance capitalism? In her groundbreaking book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff describes it as a logic made possible by technology, though she emphasises that it is distinct from the digital. Moreover, it is a logic that obscures how human experience is unilaterally mined as free, raw data, fed into machine intelligence and then translated into prediction patterns and products. 

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This logic, says Zuboff, is entirely original and sui generis: it is unprecedented in history both in terms of what it is and what it does. This, indeed, is where its power lies – it has proven difficult to analyse because it functions by relying on velocity and unparalleled asymmetries in knowledge and power that “accrue to knowledge”. As she puts it, “Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us.”

With this new logic, Zuboff adds, comes a new form of power: instrumentarianism. This form of power, she says, is very different to Michel Foucault’s biopolitics, which describes the surveillance of bodies in space and the use of this surveillance data towards ends outside the perimeters of our own power. It also differs from Gilles Deleuze’s societies of control, which no longer focuses on monitoring the movement of bodies from one enclosed space to another, as in Foucault’s disciplinary societies, but on modulating behaviour. Instrumentarianism, according to Zuboff, engages another iteration of power. 

Being seen without seeing

This form of power arguably still uses some of the logics of disciplinary and control societies, such as regulation and conformity to social norms, and coding the body numerically for the purposes of capitalism. But, rather than merely regulating or modulating behaviour, this form of power allows those with knowledge to know in advance how to shape – that is, preemptively modify rather than merely modulate – human behaviour. 

Informed by “smart” networked things and spaces, this form of power is hidden by ubiquitous computational infrastructure that has been normalised in our everyday experience by its pervasive, yet invisible, nature. Call to mind mobile applications and their overwrought privacy and security settings, which we waver almost automatically – often because we have to in order to use an app. This seemingly “natural” acquiescence to surveillance capitalism is achieved by what Zuboff refers to as the four stages in the cycle of dispossession: incursion, habituation, adaptation and redirection.

Incursion, briefly, describes how companies such as Google claim rights to the invasion of your privacy, accessing your personal life through your phone, your computer or even its street-view capability. The second phase speaks to the normalisation of this kind of invasion, which, in effect, makes these functions invisible and includes the feeling of inevitability that accompanies this. 

Despite this sense of inexorable encroachment, there has been some contestation to surveillance capitalism, although these protest actions, according to Zuboff, often lead to companies adapting their practices superficially to “satisfy the immediate demands of government authorities, court rulings and public opinion”, rather than substantially changing operational capability. 

In some cases, these protest actions have even been recuperated by companies for their own ends: the corporation uses the protest to develop new rhetoric and design elements that redirect complaints to appear accommodating of social and legal demands. This cycle, which always seems to benefit the corporation in the end, has led to what she describes as inevitabilism: the “sense of incontestable certainty” that curtails creativity and resistance.

Problems with the work

Although Zuboff’s research scope is outstanding, and she makes a strong case against inevitabilism, her argument has three weaknesses. She ultimately relies on laws to restrain surveillance capitalism. No doubt such regulations are useful, but the formulation of a law requires generalisation, which often renders it abstract and therefore less capable of addressing specific and contextual aspects directly and concretely. Recourse to the law also remains outside the reach of many people. For the law to be an appropriate response, Zuboff would have to attend to issues of race, class and gender, all of which are absent from the current work. 

Zuboff also does not attend to the gambit of economic and political power, especially as these relate to authority and knowledge. Interestingly, she references Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in detail, yet fails to notice the quasi-totalitarianism of many contemporary states and the relationship between this condition and the proliferation of surveillance capitalism.

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Of particular significance here are Arendt’s observations on the role of the police in totalitarian regimes. She notes that for leaders to attain and retain “absolute monopoly of power and authority”, the army and military are transformed into a police organ, so the police apparatus is expanded significantly and police methods of violence normalised. The point is that it is not enough to call for resistance without addressing resistance to resistance. Arwa Mahdawi notes, for example, that preemptive police action against protesters has escalated significantly in the US, Germany and Australia, to name a few. 

Zuboff is right in pointing out that the instrumentarian power of surveillance capitalism is unprecedented and therefore needs new theoretical analyses if we are to succeed in countering it. But, this instrumentarian power is undergirded by the move towards quasi-totalitarian states across the globe. The rise of the right wing should not be underestimated in this equation. In developing new theoretical tools for instrumentarianism, some analyses of the reach of the state apparatus and its attendant police organ in the aid of instrumentarian power is needed. 

In closing, Zuboff writes: “No more! Let this be our declaration.” This is a worthy declaration indeed, but the “our” remains a marginal figure in this work. For anything to be “ours”, new forms of collectivity need to be fostered in the maze of individualism created by capitalism, and intensified under neoliberalism and surveillance capitalism. This requires radical new formulations of agency and freedom rooted in communities where power, authority and knowledge are distributed in ways that benefit all members equally, rather than accruing power and authority to the few with knowledge.

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