A Review of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”

Book Review, Privacy, Surveillance

By: Allyson Mower

Age of Surveillance CapitalismWe live in an age of information and that world is made up of both information rights and information capitalism. Add to that a new market form called surveillance capitalism, a term popularized by Harvard professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff who recently published a book in Germany titled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. The book will be published in the U.S. by PublicAffairs in January 2019. The book aims to define this new market form, how it originated, and what this type of capitalism means for the information rights of individuals in the digital age.

The book is over 700 pages, separated into three parts with roughly five chapters per part. I was only able to get through Part I in time to write this review. Based on the quality of Part I, I highly recommend this book for general readers, but especially for librarians and other information professionals.

The terminology used in the book takes some getting used to–like behavioral surplus and dispossession cycle–but the author’s clearly written sentences and purposely crafted paragraphs help move the reader through the unfamiliar terms to paint a detailed picture of this new type of information capitalism.

Dr. Zuboff starts off by discussing individualism and autonomy which helps set the stage for why surveillance capitalism is a bigger deal than most of us may have thought. When using free products such as Google search or Facebook, I have typically thought of myself as the primary customer: I give some of my information in exchange for access to digital communication tools. But, as the author so poignantly points out, it is so much more than that.

Google screenshotCompanies–primarily Google and Facebook–package the varied digital identifiers we, as users, contribute–our search queries, device locations, age, gender, web-based reading–and analyze the behavior exhibited in the aggregated data. Google and Facebook then sell their predictive analysis to advertisers. Dr. Zuboff argues that we as online information seekers have become the natural resources by which surveillance capitalists build their product.

Before I read these initial chapters, I had no idea how complex the business model was or what I was contributing to Google’s and Facebook’s billion dollar bottomline. I kept asking myself if the exchange was fair and I suppose that might be one of the reasons Dr. Zuboff wrote this book.

I appreciate how the book reminded me that our information age is comlex and that something as simple or innocent-seeming as searching and browsing the web using Google has more implications than one might realize. I look forward to reading the remaining two parts of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism to get an even greater perspective on what the authors says is most crucial: knowledge, authority, and power.

For ALA members, you can utilize the partnership with NetGalley to obtain an uncorrected proof to read in advance on the January 2019 publication date.    


Allyson MowerAllyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.

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