This is a comprehensive summary of the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
Overwhelmingly comprehensive research of the big tech corporations that are now controlling our lives. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can be considered as an encyclopedia that aims to explain how the famous companies (Google, Facebook, Amazon) that we all use in some way in our daily lives first started and are now tracking our every move, analyzing our behavior with the intention to capitalize on our compulsive nature by encouraging impulse buys. Shoshana Zuboff, the author, offers a peek behind the curtains of our common enemy who presents himself as an innovator.
The Core Idea:
By collecting data about our behavior, surveillance capitalism firms aim to shape and modify our behavior to best suit their financial state while staying indifferent about our real-world desires and ambitions. In essence, surveillance capitalism is an economic system centered around collecting consumer data, feeding it to a machine learning system, and selling and/or using it to tailor their products in such a way, that we won’t be able to escape their far-reaching tentacles. The end product is always a highly addictive feedback loop that is crushing our will to live.
- Every little thing you do online is recorded, added to a profile about you, and used against you.
- Big tech companies are collecting data points about our behavior with the intention to shape our behavior based on their desires, not ours.
- What big tech companies know about you, is not for you. The constantly updating online systems are focus on automating you.
8 Key Lessons from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:
- Lesson #1: Big Corporations Collect Data to Shape our Behavior
- Lesson #2: Online Tycoons Offer Personalized Experience in Exchange For Our Data
- Lesson #3: Pressured by Investors, Surveillance Capitalism Was Founded by Google
- Lesson #4: The Huge Ambitions of Tech Giants Suspended Their Noble Values
- Lesson #5: Wearables Allowed Big Tech to Enlarge Their Control Over Us
- Lesson #6: Everything You Do Online is Used Against You
- Lesson #7: Surveillance Capitalists Want To Shape Our Behavior by Collecting Our Behavior
- Lesson #8: The Glamorous Tools Online Are Displacing Our Will to Will
Lesson #1: Big Corporations Collect Data to Shape our Behavior
What is surveillance capitalism?
While embedded in the actual expression, it’s not perfectly clear what surveillance capitalism means or aims to do.
According to the author, surveillance capitalism is a system that claims our experience online, and not only, as free and for the taking. Our actions online, all of them, are used not only to improve the products of big corporations, but also to fabricate new products based on our data and also to anticipate what we’ll want in the upcoming future.
Or to put it simply, through surveillance, big tech companies are making capital. This capital is then used for the creation of even more sophisticated, and more appealing to us products that can extract even more data from us.
On the surface, it looks like big tech companies are offering connection, email services, convenience, and while these services were the starting points of their businesses, now their core goal is to gather more data. This data is not only taken without our permission, but also shaped, sold, and used against us.
The author describes the services surveillance capitalist firms use as “hooks” that lure us inside. Persuade us that what they offer can be beneficial for us while extracting even more data about us.
Shoshana Zuboff argues that the expression, “if it’s free, then you are the product” is incorrect. We’re not the product, we’re simply the raw material that helps shapes the product. And since the new products that are being produced are based on what we do, and want, these products end up shaping our future behavior.
Sadly, we’re in an unfavorable position. Since the internet takes a central position in our lives, instead of fighting back and claiming our data is ours, we let it go and choose ignorance. This way, big firms are getting even bigger and the normal for us becomes heavier chains around our neck.
“Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us. They accumulate vast domains of new knowledge from us, but not for us. They predict our futures for the sake of others’ gain, not ours.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #2: Online Tycoons Offer Personalized Experience in Exchange For Our Data
Before we tackle how surveillance capitalism emerged, let’s observe what actually summoned the internet and the virtual apparatus that are both now inseparable parts of our daily lives.
Years ago, the industrial revolution allowed us to tailor our lives and to obtain things that were previously reserved for the elite only – education, travel thanks to Ford’s model T, better standards of living, etc.
Still, despite the advantages and the improved lives, something was still missing – the ability to express yourself and to amplify your voice.
People, we, as social beings were always eager to express ourselves. To connect and to build relationships.
All immediately changed when the iPhone was created – a third modernity was born. This invention allowed other companies later to blossom and to give power in hands of the little people. Of the citizens who were eager to be heard.
The promise to have the life you wanted, to say what you wanted to say, and to no longer be an invisible cog in the gigantic industrial machine was quickly adopted by the young first, and then eventually by everyone.
Satisfying our inner feeling of self-expression allowed big corporations to infiltrate our lives and silently make us trade our private data for seemingly “free” and “personalized” existence.
We were getting what we wanted but at a price that we were still unable to fully grasp.
“Eventually, companies began to explain these violations as the necessary quid pro quo for “free” internet services. Privacy, they said, was the price one must pay for the abundant rewards of information, connection, and other digital goods when, where, and how you want them. These explanations distracted us from the sea change that would rewrite the rules of capitalism and the digital world.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #3: Pressured by Investors, Surveillance Capitalism Was Founded by Google
It all started with Google.
In their early days, the main thing they provided to the masses was an improved search experience. And although well-funded and with a lot of potential for growth, the duo running the company feared that their financial situation would not prosper unless they made an innovative change.
Google’s first revenue streams were modest and dependent on providing web services to portals such as Yahoo! and Japan’s Biglobe. However, this monetarization technique wasn’t enough to satisfy the needs of the investors who were looking for ways to make more of their investment. And this wasn’t the only threat on the horizon – the dot-com economy recession began to corrupt the minds of everyone backing an internet company. Pressured by their money-lenders, Lary Page and Sergey Brin had to direct the company to a better future.
The breakthrough happened when Google’s engineers grasped that the continuous flows of collateral behavioral data that was created by users and collected by them can be used not only to improve their services, but also to get them out of the financial hole.
People were constantly typing inside Google’s search bar to find what they wanted. But instead of simply deleting this data, the engineers figured out that this represents the real needs of the people. And more, this can be used to help paying users – the first real customers of Google – to find the best keywords so they can promote their businesses. And this as stated in the book meant that “advertisers shouldn’t even get involved with choosing keywords – Google would choose them.”
Operationally, this meant that Google had to cross into an unexplored territory that involved the use of sensitive user data. The raw material was used (and still is) not only to improve the search experience, but later to show better ads to the people who were actually helping their service – the ordinary people.
“The raw materials that had been solely used to improve the quality of search results would now also be put to use in the service of targeting advertising to individual users.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #4: The Huge Ambitions of Tech Giants Suspended Their Noble Values
The main reason the founders of Google – and later other big corporations – took a darker route in terms of using private data without consent wasn’t only financial. It was also a response to their paranoia and anxiety.
Saving the company from the financial struggles was the logical next step but it wasn’t the only thing that inspired the startup creators to abandon their previous noble intent to make the world a better place. The real reason the founders turn from serving users to surveilling them was to prove to the world that they weren’t just another nerd-pack who couldn’t figure out how to make money. Inventing things wasn’t enough according to Larry Page, you had to also figure out how to capitalize on your inventions.
The response to the worsening financial situation and also to the desire to feed their ego lead the company in a different direction. Google’s previous mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” changed to mining user data with the sole intention to make capital gains.
Similar ethical renouncements happened in Facebook’s headquarters.
Zuckerberg’s team created a world-famous social media platform that was widely adopted and regularly used but was still not making money in the early days.
Fascinated by Google’s success in using user data, they decided to do something similar in order to make a profit. Mark Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg who was previously a Google executive. Thanks to his experience, he used all the intimate data shared by Facebook’s users to transform them from the new and fancy social network to the biggest advertising mogul in the world.
“Saving the company also meant saving themselves from being just another couple of very smart guys who couldn’t figure out how to make real money, insignificant players in the intensely material and competitive culture of Silicon Valley. Page was haunted by the example of the brilliant but impoverished scientist Nikola Tesla, who died without ever benefiting financially from his inventions.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #5: Wearables Allowed Big Tech to Enlarge Their Control Over Us
Digital surveillance wasn’t enough for tech tycoons. As soon as they saw the increasing revenues by using private data, big corporations started to seek new ways to infiltrate our lives, change our behavior, increase our online consumption, and consequently make larger profits.
The author categorizes this new trend as the prediction imperative.
Surveillance capitalists, by claiming behavior surplus as theirs, allowed them to create products that were, in a sense, able to predict the future behavior of their users.
Showing targeted ads based on what you previously browsed lead to millions of dollars of profit. But showing ads based on what you will want, now, and in the near future was better. Corporations, to stay competitive, had to widen and diversify their supply chain of private data.
Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, motivated by a desire to track our every move, analyze our every action, even the words we say to our loved ones, ignited a movement called the disappearance of the internet.
Thanks to the new technologies and the intentionally complicated legal documents (terms of service pages) no one reads, a wave of prediction products flooded the market and provided new precious data for better analysis. Such products are fitness wristbands, smartwatches, and yes, even robot vacuum cleaners.
Big tech wanted – and still wants – to know what you eat in the morning. How often you exercise. How’s your blood pressure while you sleep. The size of your apartment. The exact words you use. Everything.
And now, thanks to wearables and the smart devices that flood the market, real-world activities are rendered and transformed into predictions. The more data is collected, the better the predictions, and thus the profits.
“The idea here is that highly predictive, and therefore highly lucrative, behavioral surplus would be plumbed from intimate patterns of the self. These supply operations are aimed at your personality, moods, and emotions, your lies and vulnerabilities. Every level of intimacy would have to be automatically captured and flattened into a tidal flow of data points for the factory conveyor belts that proceed toward manufactured certainty.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #6: Everything You Do Online is Used Against You
In 2007, an application created by David Stillwell, called myPersonality, appeared on Facebook that allowed people to take real psychometric tests and obtain their results instantly. By 2016, more than 6 million personality profiles were created based on the test.
Despite the warnings from the researchers who created the test to not use the data, Mark Zuckerberg declared that “users no longer have an expectation of privacy.”
Later, that same data was used from the company called Cambridge Analytica as a model to micro-target people. The company used the information without the individuals’ consent for political advertising. This is also known as Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
But it is not only the myPersonality test mentioned above, everything you like on social media, every website you visit online, even everything you type inside the browser, is recorded and added to an online profile containing information about you, but not for you.
Our actions online are the founding tools that shape an operation called the shadow text.
Shoshana Zuboff explains that there are two sides to everything created and experienced online – the problem of the two texts.
We are the authors of the first text – likes, pictures, the music we share, browsing data, what type of food we like, etc. However, this text is not the end itself. It’s the coil that powers the second text. The shadow text accumulates all of your actions and tailors your experience online with the sole intention to make a larger profit out of you.
“The shadow text is a burgeoning accumulation of behavioral surplus and its analyses, and it says more about us than we can know about ourselves.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #7: Surveillance Capitalists Want To Shape Our Behavior by Collecting Our Behavior
Collecting our behavior so they predict our behavior. But not only. Big tech companies also want to shape our behavior according to their interests.
This is how the most popular companies nowadays are able to make money.
But how did society allow this to happen, and how can we allow this to continue to happen even after we are aware of the negative consequences?
Surveillance capitalists work hard to camouflage their real purposes. They build tools that exploit our vulnerabilities and collect data while we’re having “fun.” And this is just part of the success story.
In the book, Shoshana Zuboff outlines 16 reasons that have helped large companies become part of our daily lives and continue to operate uninterrupted despite their questionable practices:
- Unprecedented: The innovative insidious creations of Google and Facebook were new and strange to the world. Initially, everyone thought that what was created was beneficial for us as the founders stated and no one suspected malice.
- Declaration as invasion: Bypassing our awareness, Google and others alike invaded our personal lives while charming us with their fancy products.
- Historical context: The terrorist acts, overnight, shifted the government’s tenets from privacy protection to an urgent interest in the rapidly developing technologies that enabled data collection.
- Fortifications: A steady flow of good-serving campaigns and strong lobbying allowed Google to solidify their positions with appointed officials.
- The dispossession cycle: Big corporations fiercely take over our data and everything else that is generated online and claim it theirs. If resistance is met along the way, they follow up with legal combats. This buys them time. Their real goal is to convince the public that their evil deeds should be considered normal – the new status quo.
- Dependency: Once you try their products, it’s almost impossible to withdraw from the freemium model offered by Google and Facebook.
- Self-interest: New and existing markets rely on the data gathered by surveillance firms to survive and thrive – online maps, ads, support. This further fortifies their position in our lives.
- Inclusion: People feel that if you’re not on social media you don’t exist. And since everyone is OK with using the services that treat you as raw material, not participating, let alone being against them, can be a risky and lonely journey.
- Identification: We see surveillance capitalists as role models. We admire their success and power.
- Authority: We falsely conclude that since these big companies are successful, we shouldn’t bother them and we should leave them do what they do.
- Social persuasion: Blinded by the innovations created by big tech companies – targeted ads, personalization, digital assistants – we follow along.
- Foreclosed alternatives: The absence of adequate alternatives forces us to use surveillance capitalist firms even if we don’t fully agree with their practices.
- Inevitabilism: Since the resources of surveillance capitalism are so vast and far-reaching, we reach a point of helplessness.
- The ideology of human frailty: Fully aware of our helplessness, big corporations modify their products to elude awareness and at the same time are careless even if people realize what is happening backstage.
- Ignorance: We remain ignorant or choose to be ignorant. First, it’s impossible to understand what big firms actually know because they have access to a mass of data. And secondly, we prefer ignorance because we consider privacy in exchange for the tools that save us time and make us feel good a fair trade.
- Velocity: Big tech companies move quickly. Everything happened so fast that the national institutions, with their slow processes, didn’t have the time to realize how their citizens were robbed of their most sacred possession – their privacy.
“Surveillance capitalists work hard to camouflage their purpose as they master the uses of instrumentarian power to shape our behavior while evading our awareness.” Shoshana Zuboff
Lesson #8: The Glamorous Tools Online Are Displacing Our Will to Will
Our data is collected and analyzed. We’re constantly targeted by ads based on our interests. The tech items we wear and the smart devices that clean our homes are constructing a near-perfect online profile about us that is supposed to personalize our experience but it’s actually shape-shifting other things so we can buy more goods.
And while the above-mentioned is surely scary, something far worse is happening without our realization not to mention our consent.
We lose our will to will.
The Big Other – the online apparatus that collects data with the sole intention to modify human behavior – considers us, its users, as Other-Ones.
For this data-driven force, Big Other, now operated by mostly artificial intelligence, we are simply organisms that behave.
There is no emotional connection between you, and the algorithm that wants to control your behavior and modify your interest. There is simply a desire to extract resources from you in order to alter your mood, actions, and convince you that what is shown to you should be consumed.
We don’t refuse. Sadly. We comply. We continue to follow along and to supply this ever-growing digital organism with data about ourselves.
And while there is no physical violence. There is harm. This “personalization” is not simply costing us time and money. It is costing us our identity.
The real problem is that we become these always-on individuals incapable of seeing that the social connections we have and the time-saving tools we use are distracting us from ourselves. Our real desires are displaced by an urging yearning to participate in an online game that is only interested in extracting data (and money) from us. And not only. The will to be an autonomous being who projects his choice into the world fades.
“Forget the cliché that if it’s free, “You are the product.” You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The “product” derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life.” Shoshana Zuboff
- Use behavior surplus left by the customers: While surely devilish, the idea to use the by-product created by users, the behavioral surplus, to earn money was genius. At no additional cost, Google was able to transform its offering and revolutionize how the online world works. Similar, but hopefully nobler thing can be implemented in what you’re doing. You can collect, store, and analyze how users interact with your product. This will mean that at no additional cost – except probably time to make sense of it all – you can level-up your product, make it better for your current and also future customers.
- Become a better digital consumer: The available information for consumption far exceeds our ability to process it. According to the research done by the author, more than 98% of the world’s information is now digitalized. This means that processing and making sense of what’s available is unthinkable. Paradoxically, only by adequately assessing more information we can excel at what we’re doing. The solution to better handle the ever-growing mass of data is not easy but necessary. You can focus on these 3 simple things: 1) Figure out what you want to learn; 2) Find the best sources by doing research; 3) Prevent yourself from trying to “check everything.” This simple formula can help you stay on top of things while also staying sane.
- The effect of social comparison: Passive following online, even if you follow what is known as inspirational gurus, can lead to a steady psychological decline. Based on the researchers mentioned in the book, people who are exposed to profiles of high-career-status individuals feel inadequate compared to others who saw profiles of less successful people. And there is more. Even if you don’t follow others, say you focus mainly on gaining followers, you will still suffer. Your sense of self-worth starts to depend on how others, your followers, perceive you. You adjust your online image in such a way to appeal to your audience. Your efforts, instead of focusing on your actual thoughts and ambitions, are towards satisfying external ones.
- Don’t lose your will to will: As the gathered data from people increase, the easier it gets for big corporations to modify our behavior according to their interests. This prevents you from having full control over your life. Jean-Paul Satre writes that “freedom is nothing but the existence of our will. Actually it is not enough to will; it is necessary to will to will.” Our will to will is threatened by the popularity of the available online tools. To preserve your autonomy and to keep your ability to choose how your life should unfold, you should unsubscribe from the tools that are constantly demanding your attention. The less you let tools use you, and the more you use them for your own desires, the closer you’ll get to your true self.
- Become conscious of how what you’re creating is used: Online, everything is possible. Even if you don’t have programming skills, you can still create a digital product of some sort. And precisely because the barrier to enter the online world is so low, we should avoid creating harmful applications. If you are an online creator, or if you’re working for a company that creates and sells digital products, ask yourself the following question: “What is the final application and use of the products of my work?” And then, also ask yourself this: “Am I content or ashamed to have contributed to this use?” Similar to the famous saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, we can conclude that “programs don’t program evil programs, people do.”
- Who decides how our data is used?: Even if the online services we use to connect with others start to provide better data protection, and the government updates their imperfect laws to finally defend their citizens, Shoshana Zuboff argues that the information surveillance capitalists extract from us cannot be fully detached from their systems. The shadow text that is responsible for the big tech revenue cannot exist without data, private data. But the more data they get from us, the bigger these companies become and the more they usurp our rights. To awake our sense of justice, and to help create a better digital future home for our kids, the author explains that we need to find answers to the following questions: “Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?”
Commentary And My Personal Takeaway
What is surveillance capitalism? How our data is being used? How can we protect ourselves from the big corporations that are controlling the world? What needs to happen so we can create better digital homes for ourselves?
These are just some of the questions the book tries to answers. Tired of how big tech companies usurp our privacy and later camouflage everything, Shoshana Zuboff wants to bring to light the evil practices of data collection by tech giants we think are noble and innovative.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a disturbing book that sends an important message – we should care about our data and don’t allow others to capitalize on what is rightfully ours. And more, we should divorce the view that freely sharing our data in exchange for using the services online is a fair trade.
Guided by the question, “Can the digital future be our home?” Zuboff created the history book of surveillance capitalism. Yes, this read can be considered as an encyclopedia that covers every little detail related to online surveillance and digital human rights. She carefully collected facts about the digital companies that mine personal information and masterfully presented this in a head-spinning tome that can be considered too big for most of us to read.
But don’t let the size of the book scare you. The text, while full of technical terms, remains interesting and attention-grabbing till the very end. Even if you don’t regularly use social media sites – the main private data collectors – this is still an important read that I believe everyone should go through.
Lastly, I wanted to mention, again, that this is a big book. A dense analysis of how the online world operates. It was hard for me to choose what exactly is worth summarizing as there are close to 700 pages. Nonetheless, I believe that the 8 lessons and the 6 action items give enough information about what the book covers and whether or not you want to read the whole thing.
The World Wide Web is an ungoverned place that allows money-driven companies to collect data about your, our, behavior. Once private data is collected, it is later packaged in forms of addictive activities that aim to predict and modify your behavior. Furthermore, to increase transactions. Sadly, what companies know about you, is not for you. The whole system is focused on automating you.
“The more that a user “liked,” the more that she informed Facebook about the precise shape and composition of her “hand,” thus allowing the company to continuously tighten the glove and increase the predictive value.” Shoshana Zuboff
“The price you are offered does not derive from what you write about but how you write it. It is not what is in your sentences but in their length and complexity, not what you list but that you list, not the picture but the choice of filter and degree of saturation, not what you disclose but how you share or fail to, not where you make plans to see your friends but how you do so: a casual “later” or a precise time and place? Exclamation marks and adverb choices operate as revelatory and potentially damaging signals of your self.” Shoshana Zuboff
“Spontaneous and fluid, universally burbling “conversation” turns the new personal digital assistant into a voice that sits between your life and the new markets for your life, between your experience and the auctioning of your experience: “a runtime, a new interface” that creates the sensation of mastery while, in fact, giving it away.” Shoshana Zuboff
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