Book Summaries
Surveillance Capitalism

Surveillance Capitalism

American author and Harvard professor of social psychology and philosophy Shoshana Zuboff writes about the new breed of companies that dominate in the twenty-first-century with a new philosophy: ‘surveillance capitalism’. She writes that this new predicament imposes a fundamentally illegitimate choice that individuals should not have to make. Surveillance capitalists perpetuate an unprecedented asymmetry of knowledge and the power that accrues knowledge.

“Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate fast amounts of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain.

She urges the reader to fully appreciate the unprecedented and not to be fooled by old lenses. “Existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning impress them into extension of the past. This contributes to the normalization of the abnormal, which makes fighting it in perspective even more an uphill climb.”

Zuboff identifies three macro phases which she dubes modernity. The first modernity was the economic revolution in mass produced goods allowed for cheaper goods to be sold to the modernized individual at affordable prices. The second modernity she describes as fostering individual sovereignty by customizable goods. A third modernity would give way to products and services offering a genuine path to flourishing and effective life for the many, not just the few. A world where the alignment of commercial operations with consumers’ genuine interest would be at its core. However in the way of this future surveillance capitalism took hold and changed the rules of the game. A game where surveillance capitalists’ products solely exist in order for their actual customers, enterprises, to trade in its market for future behavior of users. We look to the following history to see what this entails.


‘Why did Google’s Gmail, launched in 2004, scan the private correspondence to generate advertising? As soon as the first Gmail user saw the first ad targeted to the content of their private correspondence public reaction was swift. Many were repelled and outraged; others were confused.’


‘In 2007 Facebook launched Beacon, touting it as “a new way to socially distance with information.” Beacon enabled Facebook advertisers to track users across the internet, disclosing users’ Purchases to their personal networks without permission. Most people were outraged by the company's audacity both in tracking them online and inserting their ability to control the disclosure of their own effects. The inevitable consequence for one individual who was unbeknownst to himself a user was a follows:

I purchased a diamond engagement ring set from overstock in preparation for a New Year's surprise for my girlfriend.... Within hours, I received a shocking call from one of my best friends of surprise and "congratulations" for getting engaged. (!!!) Imagine my horror when I learned that overstock had published the details of my purchase (including a link to the item and its price) on my public Facebook newsfeed, as well as notifications to all of my friends. ALL OF MY FRIENDS, including my girlfriend, and all of her friends, etc...ALL OF THIS WAS WITHOUT MY CONSENT OR KNOWLEDGE. I am totally distressed that my surprise was ruined, and what was meant to be something special and a lifetime memory for my girlfriend and I was destroyed by a totally underhanded and infuriating privacy invasion. I want to wring the neck of the folks at overstock and facebook who thought that this was a good idea. It sets a terrible precedent on the net, and I feel that it ruined a part of my life.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shut the program down under duress but by 2010 he declared privacy was no longer a social norm and then congratulated himself on relaxing the companies “privacy policies” to reflect their self-interested assertion of a new social condition.’ He famously announced that Facebook users no longer have an expectation of privacy. Zuckerberg later described the corporation's decision to unilaterally release users’ personal information, declaring, “we decided that this will be the social norms now and we just went for it.” As time went on it became increasingly more clear that moral, social, and institutional requirements would bend for these new economic logic of surveillance capitalism.

“Demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand.”

Of Life in the Hive

Students find themselves unable to imagine casual social participation without social media. Increasingly it has become a fact of life that no one who wants a social life can afford to do so without being active online on social networks. As people check their phones roughly over 160 times to spend a total of roughly 4 hours on their phones a day and about 40% is ‘always online’, it has become a depressing fact of the twenty-first-century, that has now become the unequivocal single defining activity of the lives of the next generation. Social media is perfectly molded onto the psychological needs of adolescence and emerging adulthood. The natural orientation in this developmental stage is “other’ oriented as there has not yet been a self developed to refer to. Group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion become all that matter. That is why it is an accurate description to say these children are hanging on for dear life, at the mercy of others and how they are treated by them online.

People transition from being someone who is their relationships to someone who has their relationships. are their relationships. With this over-dependency on the outward, clinical studies identify specific patterns associated with development stagnation. They describe traits like inability to tolerate solitude, an unstable sense of self, and an excessive need to control others. This developmental stagnation inhibits the work of self-construction. Self-authorship and personal autonomy make way for a fragile other-oriented sense of self, exacerbated by the constant exposure to these services.

Thirty-five percent of women said that their biggest worry online is comparing themselves and their lives with others as they are drawn into “constant comparisons with idealized versions of the lives, and bodies, of others.” This is called ‘downwards-social comparison.’ It is the main function of every social news feed that is nearly impossible to escape from as our default brain network is virtually constantly engaged in automatic processes that operate outside awareness.

Zuboff masterfully authored an incredible book around one of the most pressing subjects in the twenty-first-century with her book Surveillance Capitalism and it is a must-read for all of us. If one is specifically interested in her take on social media, one can skip through to Chapter 16: Life in the Hive. It is our favorite chapter of the book!