June 27, 2022

What Is “Surveillance Capitalism” and Should We Be Concerned?

Shoshana Zuboff’s book on so-called “surveillance capitalism” is written to fire up those already concerned about the “commodification” of online life.

“Pay attention.”

It’s a common exhortation, perhaps from a panicked parent to a careless child, or from a tolerant teacher to a sleepy student, or from a Zen master to his distracted disciples. Like our time, our attention is limited, and as such, what we trade our attention for matters a whole lot.

We spent some hours of our lives paying attention to a book on privacy in the digital world by philosopher and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff. Zuboff’s book describes the evolution and impact of advertising-supported online services like Google and Facebook, and thus perhaps could have titled her book “Paying Attention.” But those words are too neutral and too unopinionated about online transactions that involve our attention.

Zuboff’s book is full of opinions, all supporting her overarching thesis that many consumer technology sector innovations, particularly those produced by Google, harm both consumers and society. Thus, much better suited is the title she did choose: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.

A Loaded Title

Like her book, no one should mistake the title’s two key words, “surveillance” and “capitalism,” as neutral. Each conveys an essential aspect of Zuboff’s vision of the power dynamics at play in commercial collection and use of personal information.

A French word combining sur—over—and veiller—to watch—“surveillance” connotes someone or something observing another from a superior position. The word may have made its way into English from the comités de surveillance (watch committees) set up during the Reign of Terror in France. Surveillance in that context could lead to execution.

Likewise “capitalism.” Although occasionally used benignly today by those who defend markets and free exchange from socialism, the word “capitalism” started malignantly. Historian Fernand Braudel details how early users of the word meant to describe a kind of social pathology that put the desire for wealth and the wealthy at the core of social life.

Zuboff’s combination of “surveillance” and “capitalism” thereby convict the innovations she attacks as characterized by uneven power dynamics and rapaciousness, setting them on their back foot—or perhaps on the hindquarters—from the beginning of the discussion. The semantics of “surveillance capitalism” make a powerful argument even before the reader turns a single page. Professor Zuboff’s title, then, reveals her as a partisan for one side in a long-running argument.

And the title is only the beginning. On the first substantive page of the book, Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as “a parasitic economic logic … [a] rogue mutation,” and “a coup from above.” Zuboff has barely a single kind word for a set of companies that have created enormous economic value for the world economy and beneficial services for consumers. Yet despite this one-sided view, and underneath her bombastic rhetorical flourishes—which are sure to puzzle and annoy those not in the choir to which she is singing— Zuboff identifies three genuine issues in the present-day information economy that are worth grappling with.

Issues Worth Analyzing

First, Zuboff is concerned with excessive commercialization or “commodification” of online life. This critique is not particularly isolated to the online world—it is a common concern of the relatively well-to-do who prefer picturesque downtown stores while their less wealthy neighbors enjoy Walmart’s everyday low prices. Still, every human likely believes there should be spaces online and off that are not overrun by marketers plying their wares. But given that, as in the retail shopping example, people draw this line in different places, wouldn’t it be better to permit a multiplicity of options to develop?

Second, Zuboff argues that much of the companies’ acquisition of personal information is morally or legally wrongful. Zuboff argues that consumer technology companies are “dispossessing” people of information about themselves, suggesting that companies are essentially stealing personal information.

But this doesn’t match our experience online.

Most of the data Google collects about me is created by my interacting with other people’s computers. Why is observing this interaction “stealing”? And to the extent consumers actively submit information, they are typically sharing it subject to contract and occasionally abandoning it. Zuboff describes little or no benefit to this information exchange except to the companies. This may surprise anyone who has benefited from the commercially valuable services powered by this information, which the companies use to serve consumers’ interests at the same time that they serve their own.

Third, Zuboff argues that consumers are relatively unable to apprehend how personal information is collected, stored, shared, and used. We agree. Users don’t understand the risks of such collections. Information companies are in a relatively powerful position to gather more than they might need and use it in ways consumers might not prefer. But user risk tolerances in this space differ widely (outside of financially harmful identity theft), and it is unlikely that tech skeptics have accurately computed the risk / benefit calculus, either. Given the problems with discerning consumers’ true interests and the many trade-offs involved, it takes a kind of arrogance to decide for consumers what information terms they are permitted to agree to.

While Zuboff’s book emphasizes the rather new and relatively weak power imbalances between users and internet companies like Google, she says very little about a demonstrably strong and persisting power imbalance: that between government and citizen.

Unlike Google, the government can throw you in jail. There is a strong case – left untouched by Zuboff – that we ought to closely monitor and restrict the methods by which governments access personal information from commercial firms. This includes reconsidering legal standards for government access to personal information that fall below the probable cause threshold in the Fourth Amendment. Her book would have benefited from an acknowledgement that the very government she would have protect us from surveillance capitalism often poses a threat to human well-being – especially the disadvantaged and disempowered – through regular old surveillance.

Surveillance Capitalism is written to fire up the already convinced rather than persuade the skeptical. Starting with the semantically powerful title, Zuboff provokes. But when it comes time to consider policies to address the concerns she raises, we hope people will pay attention to what she leaves out.

This article, What Is “Surveillance Capitalism” and Should We Be Concerned?, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.