The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: A book review by Bob Morris

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Shoshana Zuboff
PublicAffairs (January 2019)

How to contest and interrupt, then contain and vanquish an unprecedented threat to the human race

As Shoshana Zuboff explains, “This book is about the darkening of the digital dream and its rapid mutation into a voracious and utterly novel commercial project that I call surveillance capitalism.”

She provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that she hopes will help those who read her book to contest and interrupt, then contain and vanquish an unprecedented threat to the human race. “At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential.  It revives Karl Marx’s image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human experience.”

According to Zuboff, her book documents “a journey to encounter what is strange, original, and even unimaginable in surveillance capitalism. She examines several major organizations — notably Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft — that are in various stages of developing a “technologically advanced and increasingly inescapable raw-material-extraction-operation.” Her journey’s ultimate destination? “Our aim in this book is to discern the laws of surveillance capitalism that animate today’s Trojan horses, returning us to age-old questions as they bear down on our lives, our societies, and our civilization.”

Zuboff carefully explains how and why “surveillance capitalism operates through unprecedented asymmetries in knowledge and the power that accrues to knowledge.” The result: “Our lives are scraped and sold to fund the freedom of surveillance capitalists and our subjugation,” juxtaposing  “their knowledge and our ignorance about what they know.” Indeed, they know too much to qualify for freedom.

How to respond effectively to the potential dangers of surveillance capitalism, to what she so aptly characterizes as “an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty and a prominent force in the perilous drift toward democratic deconsolidation that now threatens Western liberal democracies”? As the material cited in her Notes section clearly indicate (Pages 537-663), Shoshana Zuboff has conducted wide and deep research to support her recommendations.

If knowledge has power, and I think it can, those who possess knowledge that has the greatest power will have a decisive competitive advantage over those who do not. Zuboff shares what she has learned from others in order to support what becomes a call to action. In John 8:32, Jesus is quoted as saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Sustaining totalitarianism depends on severely limited access to knowledge but first it must be obtained by surveillance.

The tone of her book reminds me in some respects of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Rights of Man. That is, both urge their reader to awaken to a serious danger and defeat it while they can before it is too late. “The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons, but above all it was because the people of East Berlin said, ‘No more!’ We too can be the authors of many ‘great and beautiful’ new facts that reclaim the digital future as humanity’s home. No more! Let this be our declaration.”

I am again reminded of two questions attributed to Hillel the Elder: “If not you, who? If not now, when?”


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