By: Allyson Mower
I reviewed Part I of Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future in the New Frontier of Power in a previous post. This post covers the remainder of the book. In Parts II and III, the author seeks to understand the “pattern and purpose” of surveillance capitalism and how it will impact our society. She starts by covering the term ‘rendition’ to help define further what is meant by behavioral surplus.
Zuboff’s opening sentence of that section is a little obtuse, but it’s the only occasion of overly dense writing that I came across. The bits and pieces of what we leave online–search terms, time spent on websites, basic demographics–get repackaged as a matter of course without the individual’s permission, then analyzed and sold. An ever constant supply will be needed for Google and Facebook to retain its true customers: advertising companies. This is what Professor Zuboff labels rendition.
Because of these facts, the author thinks companies, their websites, and application developers should relabel privacy policies ‘surveillance policies.’ This does seem a little more accurate to me given the amount of activity being tracked, analyzed, and shared. It’s not so much what a company will keep private, but how much they track and who they will share it with. She relays research that tested mobile applications and the data they gathered from user’s phones, such as photos, contacts, and the user’s location. I was surprised to learn that the robot vacuum Roomba maps your house and relays floor plans to the company through its app.
The author presents a potential shift in American society. In Part I, Zuboff focuses on the foundations of American democracy centering on the ideal of individual autonomy, meaning the capacity to regulate by oneself one’s thoughts, emotions, and desires. But she sees the center of power moving away from individuals to businesses in order to create a society of heteronomous individuals, meaning ruled by others. The author’s description of her will to will is brilliant, a perfect example of what it means to have the right to generate ideas and practice self-rule (autonomy) as opposed to being ruled by others (heteronomy). In the author’s opinion, surveillance capitalism represents an anti-democratic business model which has developed into a “systematic threat” as the Silicon Valley industry has grown. (It actually sounds very similar to the 1940s unregulated era of biomedical research in the U.S. as documented by Rebecca Skloff in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks).
In Part III, the author discusses B. F. Skinner’s radical behavioralism–finding the “laws” of human behavior through observation–as an intellectual precursor to the reality of surveillance capitalism and its ability to discover human behavior through social media platforms and internet-enabled devices. The strength in this section comes in the author’s discussion of trust and distrust. When trust within a society is high, there’s not much tolerance of surveillance, but when trust is low, surveillance is more tolerated. The author cites China as an example (along with some aspects of the United States) and, to further highlight the extremes of digital surveillance within a society, starts each chapter with selections from W. H. Auden’s Sonnets from China.
In the end, what’s most useful is the terminology Zuboff provides. She introduces the term ‘instrumentarian society’ as a way to label and name the type of influence and impact surveillance capitalism can have, much in the same way the term ‘totalitarianism’ was coined to describe the functions of a particular type of state. This book is not so much about American government, but it is about the author observing a society where individual autonomy is not valued by Google or Facebook. And this, it seems, could have a significant impact on intellectual freedom.
Allyson 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.