Surveillance Capitalism – Shoshana Zuboff (2/3)

Image: UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Hardcover, 691 pages * Published: January 15th 2019 by Public Affairs (first published May 22nd 2018)

ISBN: 1610395697 (ISBN13: 9781610395694) * Edition Language: English

Surveillance Capitalism – Definition:

  1. A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales;
  2. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification;
  3. A parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behavioral modification;
  4. A rogue mutation of capitalism marked by concentrations of wealth, knowledge, and power unprecendeted in human history;
  5. The foundational framework of a surveillance economy;
  6. As significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth;
  7. The origin of a new instrumentarian power that asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy;
  8. A movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty;
  9. An expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.


Recording Devices

Today we have to accept the fact we are being recorded almost everywhere we go.  No place is safe anymore Not even (or I should say especially) in your home .There are devices that even you may not be privy to unless you’re up on the latest tech news.  Your cell phone is recording you, you computer screen is watching and recording you, your shower head in the bathroom,  even your toaster can be a recording device.  And with the onset of  the internet of things, well, being recorded will be taken to a whole new level.  Even more concerning is that despite you as an outer person maybe recorded who knows the recording devices that made its way into your body, therefore, your personal bio-metrics are being recorded, heart pacer,  brain implants, RFIDs, neurotransmitters, nanotechnology used to investigate what maybe wrong within your body, even optical devices are available on the market.  Yes, we are moving more and more into surveillance capital where the all-seeing eye is inside and outside of your body.  Seems a little creepy?  Well yes, it is, especially if you had no idea those recording systems where there in the first place.  Even more creepy – who’s on the other side of that device?  Government? Your parents? Friends? a jilted lover? medical researchers?  academics? the list could be very long.  Not to scare you even more but those device not only have the capacity to record your “person-hood”, what will they do with the information is just as concerning? how long will the information be kept? What if they don’t like what they see?

Human rights are slowly being eroded and no one either seems to care until it becomes a problem.  Until then they remain ignorant of the surveillance capitalism machine slowly working its way quietly logging information, personal information, cataloging and filing – saved for a rainy day – who knows the information found might be used against you to keep you in line.  Most recording devices are harmless.  Let’s take for example robots. We all know we’re moving into an era where robots will soon be including in our spaces and there will be all types of robots used for a variety of functions.  The ones that are humanoid meant to look and act like humans, one has to wonder; where did the architects get their information to create a humanoid robot that acts, speaks and thinks like you.  The information is coming from all the recordings; heart rates, optical, movements, synoptic pulses, blood flow, digestive system, the working of sexual organs and the reproductive system, facial expression, the gate in their walk – all from recording regular humans like you and I.  Some humans are directly used as subjects, others not so much but by observing behavior through the all-seeing eye.  Behavior psychology is reaching a critical mass to the point that practices, by B. F. Skinner that were once banned by the profession are now revisited and used as a rule of thumb when observing human behavior today.


Instrumentarian -Google Glasses

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, author Shoshana Zuboff claims that, “Individuality is a threat to instrumentarian society, troublesome friction that sucks energy from “collaboration”, “harmony”, and “integration”.  She points to an article “The Death of Individuality,” by Alex Pentland where he insists that “instead of individual rationality, our society appears to be governed by a collective intelligence that comes from the surrounding flow of ideas and examples..It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality and recognized that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric….”  B.F. Skinner was the first to point to the death of the individual denouncing the autonomous self in exchange for the collective.  Zuboff  makes the observation, “In Beyond Freedom & Dignity, Skinner freely displayed his contempt for this most transcendent ideal of the Sartean age: the will to will oneself into first-person voice and action. Skinner argued that the differences between humans and other species are greatly exaggerated, and he would have found Pentland entirely justified in his rejection of the individual in favor of the distant, computer-mediated gaze.  Beavers or people, the variance hardly matters once we shed the destructive fiction of individual autonomy. The surrender of the individual to manipulation by the planners clears the way for a safe and prosperous future built on the forfeit of freed for knowledge.” If that doesn’t scream human rights infringement, what will?!!


“What is being abolished is autonomous man – the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity.  His abolition has long been overdue…He has been constructed from our ignorance, and as our understanding increases, the very stuff of which he is composed vanishes…and it must do so if it is to prevent the abolition of the human species.  to man qua man we readily say good riddance.  Only by dispossessing him can we turn….from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulable.” ~ B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom & Dignity

TRANSLATION:  Expect to be living in an “instrumentarian” society if you plan to make MARS [or any other planet] your new home after the affects of climate change.  Living on Earth you can go rogue being an “individual” [if you can after present society is eroded], but going up and out there – you’ll need to ‘tow the line.’

“Few [data scientists] consider the social ramifications of their work with Pentland’s insight and conviction, providing us with an invaluable opportunity to critically explore the governance assumptions, societal principles, and social processes that define an instrumentarian society.” cautions Zuboff “My aim is to infer the theory behind the practice, as surveillance capitalists integrate “society” as a “first class object” for rendition, computation, modification, monetization, and control.”  Zuboff explains that Pentland is somewhat of a high priest among an exclusive group of priests. To add, I suppose they could be priests to the religion – or a religious branch of –  transhumanism.

The rise of wearbles and future wearables [Source: Medium]

Remember Google Glasses? Are they still on the market?  Like the Fitbit, Google Glasses fits into the category of wearable devices – the devices that we know is recording us vs the devices that secretly record. Pentland is often referred to as the “godfather of wearables” and is also known for championing the Google Glasses.  He predicted that wearable glasses “can extend one’s senses, improve memory, aid the wearer’s social life and even help him or her stay calm and collected.”  Google Glass combined computation, communication, photography, GPS tracking, data retrieval , audio and video recording capabilities in a wearable format patterned on eyeglasses.  The data collected – location, audio, video, photos, and other personal information- was transferred from the device to Google’s servers, “merging with other supply routes to join the titanic one-way flow of behavioral surplus….John Hanke described its familiar shape in the form of eye-wear as suitable for “the early adoption phases” of wearable technology in much the same way that the first automobiles resembled horse-drawn buggies.  In other words, the “glasses” were intended to disguise what was in fact unprecedented. ” John Hanke continue saying,  “Ultimately we will want these technologies, where ever they are on   your body, to be totally optimized based on the job they’re doing, not on what is more socially acceptable at that first moment of creation, just because it reminds people of something they’ve seen in the past.” [emphasis added]

It didn’t take too long for the public to catch on to the gross invasion of privacy and those who wore the device called it “glassholes” while some businesses banned the glasses from their premises. Privacy advocates protested the “always on” but “undetectable” recording of people and places that interfere’s with a person’s reasonable rights to privacy and anonymity.  “They warned of new risks as facial-recognition software is applied to these new data streams and predicted that technologies like Glass would fundamentally alter how people behave in public.” Even congress got involved summoning CEO Larry Page to appear before the committee to give his assurances on privacy safeguards for Glass.

“53% of Americans thought that smart wearables were “a change for the worse” including 59% of American Women“~ Pew Research, April 2017

Of course women would be upset, (see: Strong Woman II, subheading: Surveillance – Bill C51/59) it’s just another object to act out aggression /revenge – violence against women.  At one point Google came out with to Livestream video-sharing app, enabling Glass users to stream everything around them to the internet in real time.  It became controversial because many thought the service to be intrusive in the hands of any owner of the device.  Livestream’s CEO responded by saying “Google is ultimate in charge of …setting the rules.”  Sergy Brin then put his foot down to make it clear that any resistance would be categorically rejected when he told the Wall Street Journal “People always have a natural aversion to innovation.” [shaking my head..]

Google Glass was quietly taken off the market for a couple years for upgrades.  The company said absolutely nothing to acknowledge the public’s revulsion or the social issues that Glass had raised. “as more information trickled out of the corporation, it became clear that there was no intention of ceding potential new supply routes in wearable technologies, no matter the public reaction.” says Zuboff, ” Glass was the harbinger of a new “wearables” platform that would help support the migration of behavioral surplus operations from the online to the offline world…this time there would be no frontal attack on public space.  Instead, it was to be a tactical retreat to the workplace – the gold standard of habituation contexts, where invasive technologies are normalized among captive populations of employees.” these employees are in the fields of manufacturing, logistics, field services, and healthcare who find it useful to consult a wearable device for information and other resources while their hands are busy. No mention that “Glass at work was the back door to Glass in our streets or that the intrusive surveillance properties of the device would , with equal certainty, be imposed on the women and men required to use them as a condition of their employment.”

Source: Bloomberg

TRANSLATION: When one route to a supply source encounters obstacles, others are constructed to take up the slack and drive expansions. Meaning, this device is pretty fantastic and I want to make my millions selling it to get rich no matter at what “social” cost!

Living in capitalist society where its all about the bottom line and profit margins, is it any wonder that data collection and surveillance  have been monetized sometimes at the cost of human rights?  As we move forward implementing socialist values [i.e. New Green Deal] our attitudes towards earning a profit vs issues of person-hood will take on a new dimension.  Zuboff speaks about “Dispossession may be an act of “simple robbery” in theory, but in fact it is a complex, highly orchestrated political and material process that exhibits discernable stages and predictable dynamics.  The theory of change exhibited here systematically transfers knowledge and rights from the many to the few in a glorious fog of Page’s “automagic.”  It catalogues public contest as the unfortunate but predictable outcry of foolish populations who exhibit a knee-jerk “resistance to change,” wistfully clinging to an irretrievable past while denying an inevitable future: Google’s future, surveillance capitalism’s future.  The theory that opposition must simply be weathered as the signature of the fist difficult phases of incursion…” [Emphasis added]


“Google’s spectacular success in constructing the mechanisms and principles of surveillance capitalism and attracting surveillance revenues ignited competition in an escalating war of extraction” for surveillance revenues. Facebook is the first and has remained the most aggressive competitor for behavior surplus.   Wearable devices are the devices that we consciously buy into, literally, by going to the department or technology store to purchase a unit of a wearable device, but are unconscious to what lies behind the technology and the larger purpose that it serves.  Now I haven’t bought one myself [and will never do so], however, I wonder what disclaimers come in the packaging for a wearable device? For example, if we want to sign on to Facebook or What’s App, we have to agree to a set of terms and conditions by checking a box and clicking “I Agree“.  Is the act of purchasing a wearable device mean that we “consentto all this data collection, how much data will be collected? Who’s viewing it and for what purpose?  Is the data secure? Is the data identifiable and easily connected to the individual?  How will you dispose the data once it has been used for its purposes? and will the data collection remain in the confines of what’s described in the paperwork, meaning no “hidden agenda”.

B.F. Skinner, Behavior Psychologist [Source: Verywellmind]
“Pentland’s academic credentials and voluble intelligence help legitimate a social vision that repelled and alarmed intellectuals, public  officials, and the general public just decades ago. Most noteworthy is that Pentalnd “completes”  B.F. Skinner, fulfilling his social vision with big data, ubiquitous digital instrumentation, advanced mathematics, sweeping theory, numerous esteemed coauthors, institutional legitimacy, lavish funding, and corporate friends in  high places without having attracted world backlash, moral revulsion, and naked vitriol once heaped on Harvard’s outspoken behaviorist.  This fact alone suggest the depth of psychic numbing to which we have succumbed and the loss of our collective bearings.” writes Zuboff.  And this is what I mean about the ‘day of reckoning” with the elites.  It’s not so much of “what you do, it’s how you do it,” [who are you doing it to; and why] – and – “does the ends justify the means“?

My guess is that people aren’t repulsed so much about development of new technology provided if full disclosure of what software and the devices do; it’s exploitative functions [whether in the creation of the device or in the functions of the end user], loss of self, privacy, agency, autonomy and free will.  Giving and receiving informed consent.  Basically respecting the individual, skip all that, your creations will not be well received. It’s about respect for the end users, the dignity of your fellow human being. We didn’t create the Nuremberg Codes just for nothing. Does all that go out the window for the almighty dollar? Not everyone is ready nor willing to take on the devices of the future and corporate figures should not automatically assume it to be so, in fact, I suspect there’ll be a backlash where those will resort to low-tech in attempt to preserve their privacy.  Go back to nature, live in the country, grow and eat organic foods, might as well while we still have it to use – haven’t a clue what our terrain would look like after climate change or a global revolt after the next financial crisis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.