Book review: Why the issue of tech-driven data collection is much worse than we think
Shoshana Zuboff's 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism' is an eye-opening book about why we need to take back control of our privacy before it's too late
The story that Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff tells in her landmark new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is, at times, a bewildering collection of contrasts. It’s a history composed mostly of events that haven’t happened yet; it’s a cautionary tale about a cataclysm that’s already happened; it’s a tale of relentless technological refinement but little progress and less hope; and it’s an intensely human drama in which humans have been almost entirely written out of the script.
Most of all, it’s a warning bell, sounded clearly for both the people in danger and of those with the power to do something to keep them safe.
Technology is 'always listening'
One of Zuboff’s main concerns is a subject familiar to all 21st-century readers: the pervasive omnipresence of the technologies in our lives, which has been exacerbated in the last decade by the rise of smart devices and the “Internet of Things”. Siri or Alexa are always listening, even when their default settings look innocuous. Your health monitor provides you with data about your heart rate and body fat, but it provides that data to others as well.
Your phone and TV likewise listen to you and map out your routines. Your laptop is watching you while you watch all the stuff you watch. Facebook, with its two billion users and its tendrils in every country and virtually every household on Earth, doesn’t just watch you – it uses face-recognition software to study you, and it sells what it learns.
Your car pays almost as much attention to you as you do to it, and everything it knows can be discovered instantly by interested third parties. Most people in the world haven’t had a truly private moment in many years, and most of them don’t even know it.
Zuboff is well aware of the standard response to all this. Even people who are aware of the extensive high-tech presences in their lives tend to shrug it all off and say something like, “yes, I have less privacy, and yes, targeted online ads are annoying, but it’s a pretty fair trade-off for what I get in ready information and valuable social networking”.
Why the problem is worse than you realise
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism aims to put an end to that kind of complacency. In chapter after exhaustive chapter, Zuboff details how much worse the problem is than most people realise, and how dire the future might be if reality continues to outpace perception.
The reality, as Zuboff demonstrates convincingly, is that the major tech companies – guided by largely unrestricted surveillance capitalists – have long since learnt that by using sophisticated technology, they can fulfil the dream of every merchant since the dawn of time. They can not only respond to customers’ desires and make profits, but they can also create those desires, to shape the very world in which they occur.
Zuboff says that the old saying from the advertising world, “If it’s free, then you are the product”, has therefore been completely superseded. Instead it has become: “We are the sources of surveillance capitalism’s crucial surplus; the objects of a technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw material-extraction operation.”
In other words, an even older ad-world saying has taken on a terrifyingly literal meaning: if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And the stakes are much higher than they seem, as even a glance at the news of the last two years would have made clear. While harvesting the troves of personal data that was once considered “surplus” and shaping it into tools of coercion, giant tech companies discovered they could gain huge amounts of power, as well as money. As Zuboff says: “Google demonstrated that the same predictive knowledge derived from behavioural surplus that had made the surveillance capitalists wealthy could also help candidates win elections.”
'A sobering shock to the system'
The key to all of this is knowledge. Tech companies use a staggering array of hooks, lures and false incentives to siphon vast amounts of data – whether personal, financial or behavioural – from everybody in the world, all while covering their own actions in a fog of terms and conditions. It would take a team of lawyers a week to parse even one of the standard website Ts and Cs that users agree to without a single thought. “Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us,” Zuboff says in the book. “They accumulate vast domains of knowledge from us, but not for us.”
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a truly sobering shock to the system, a call for ordinary people to re-assert control before it’s too late. Readers will draw their own conclusions about whether or not that chance has passed.
Updated: March 17, 2019 12:28 PM