This article is a preview from the Winter 2019 edition of New Humanist

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile) by Shoshana Zuboff

Between 2001 and 2004, Google’s reported profits leaped from $86 million to over $3.5 billion – an increase of 3590 per cent in less than four years. There is much to take from the 700-plus pages of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, but one of the central narratives is that this particular explosion of profit represents the dawn of a new age of “mutant capital”. As Shoshana Zuboff writes: “Google is to surveillance capitalism what the Ford Motor Company was to mass-production.” The company’s pioneering model of spying on our every action has been so interwoven into the fabric of everyday life that the practice has become expected and invisible. For Zuboff, it is time to put up resistance.

Tracking the peripheral actions of users (the so-called “data exhaust”) in Google’s search products enabled an entirely new species of prediction product to come into existence. Zuboff traces how, driven by commercial imperatives, Google went from being a principled start-up whose ranking algorithm out-performed their competitors to a company bent on extracting the maximum possible behavioural data from their users: “everything must be corralled for conversion into raw material.”

Framed in this way, Google Maps, for instance, is no longer a service that offers you directions, but a watcher that registers your every location, choice, pause, action and inaction, all so that an app you encounter later that day can market to you based on the behavioural pattern you have freely volunteered. The checks your phone makes for new wifi networks are commandeered by “free” wifi beacons across the city, registering the time and location of your access requests, allowing marketers to check which shops you’ve been into or walked past that day, which billboards you have seen, the food you bought, the bus you took to work, the time you arrived to pick your children up from school. Resisting by changing your phone’s settings is not a simple matter, when the vendor does not play by the rules: “since early 2017, Android phones have been collecting location information by triangulating the nearest cell towers, even when location services were disabled, no apps were running, and no carrier SIM card was installed in the phone.” And yet all of this is done within the bounds of the law, thanks to terms of service agreements that “impose take-it-or-leave-it conditions” which means users “stick to them whether they like it or not”.

Zuboff’s forensic approach helps answer the question of why Facebook, another surveillance capitalist behemoth, would be interested in buying a company like WhatsApp. Even though WhatsApp encrypts the message content of its users, the underlying motivation in this case is the same. Without knowing the specific content of your messages, Facebook still watches when you access the app, who you spoke to, when you spoke, what you checked, which groups you are in, the times you sent a video or a picture, the notifications you choose to ignore, the ones you attend to immediately, the time you spend looking at a profile, the media in your conversations, and so on. This profile can then be cross-pollinated with the broader suite of systems tracking your whole network of contacts and, in turn, their use of Facebook, Instagram or any website containing Facebook’s biggest surveillance Trojan horse: the like button.

One of the most startling claims of the book is how the big data players are shifting from surveillance to “actuation”. If you can mine the world’s data, map its geography in minute detail, track each blue dotted human upon it and accurately predict their behaviour, what is to stop you from modifying the outcomes of daily life for each of us? Just think of the profits! Nowhere is this more apparent than in the augmented reality game Pokémon Go. The project, funded by Google, “was a surveillance capitalist’s dream come true.” It provided a “living laboratory”, through which “the game’s owners learned how to automatically condition and herd collective behaviour.”

One of the great strengths of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is that it clarifies a phenomenon that we may know about but not fully comprehend. For those like me who work in tech, it may come as a relief to read that technology itself is not on trial. Surveillance capitalism is not inevitable. Zuboff makes clear that it has been enabled by 20 years of deregulation in the technology sector, which to date we have largely accepted. Do we continue in our passivity, Zuboff asks, or do we decide it is unacceptable?