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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power Paperback – March 3, 2020
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A Sunday Times (UK) Best Business Book of the Year
"If a book's importance is gauged by how effectively it describes the world we're in, and how much potential it has to change said world, then in my view it's easily the most important book to be published this century... Zuboff is concerned with the largest act of capitalist colonisation ever attempted, but the colonisation is of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves. Yet it's not an anti-tech book. It's anti unregulated capitalism, red in tooth and claw. It's really this generation's Das Kapital."
"An original and often brilliant work, and it arrives at a crucial moment, when the public and its elected representatives are at last grappling with the extraordinary power of digital media and the companies that control it. Like another recent masterwork of economic analysis, Thomas Piketty's 2013 Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the book challenges assumptions, raises uncomfortable questions about the present and future, and stakes out ground for a necessary and overdue debate. Shoshana Zuboff has aimed an unsparing light onto the shadowy new landscape of our lives. The picture is not pretty."―Nicholas Carr, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
"From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense. With tremendous lucidity and moral courage, Zuboff demonstrates not only how our minds are being mined for data but also how they are being rapidly and radically changed in the process. The hour is late and much has been lost already-but as we learn in these indispensable pages, there is still hope for emancipation."―Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, and Gloria Steinem Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University
"Many adjectives could be used to describe Shoshana Zuboff's latest book: groundbreaking, magisterial, alarming, alarmist, preposterous. One will do: unmissable... As we grope around in the darkness trying to grasp the contours of our digital era, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism shines a searing light on how this latest revolution is transforming our economy, politics, society - and lives."―John Thornhill, FINANCIAL TIMES
"Extraordinarily intelligent... Absorbing Zuboff's methodical determination, the way she pieces together sundry examples into this comprehensive work of scholarship and synthesis, requires patience, but the rewards are considerable - a heightened sense of awareness, and a deeper appreciation of what's at stake. A business model that seeks growth by cataloging our 'every move, emotion, utterance and desire' is too radical to be taken for granted. As Zuboff repeatedly says near the end of the book, 'It is not O.K.'"―Jennifer Szalai, NEW YORK TIMES
"The rare volume that puts a name on a problem just as it becomes critical... This book's major contribution is to give a name to what's happening, to put it in cultural and historical perspective, and to ask us to pause long enough to think about the future and how it might be different from today."―Frank Rose, WALL STREET JOURNAL
"An intensively researched, engagingly written chronicle of surveillance capitalism's origins and its deleterious prospects for our society... [Zuboff's] after something bigger, providing a scaffolding of critical thinking from which to examine the great crises of the digital age... This is the rare book that we should trust to lead us down the long hard road of understanding."―Jacob Silverman, NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
"Shoshana Zuboff's The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is already drawing comparisons to seminal socioeconomic investigations like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" and Karl Marx's "Capital." Zuboff's book deserves these comparisons and more: Like the former, it's an alarming exposé about how business interests have poisoned our world, and like the latter, it provides a framework to understand and combat that poison. But The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, named for the now-popular term Zuboff herself coined five years ago, is also a masterwork of horror. It's hard to recall a book that left me as haunted as Zuboff's, with its descriptions of the gothic algorithmic daemons that follow us at nearly every instant of every hour of every day to suck us dry of metadata. Even those who've made an effort to track the technology that tracks us over the last decade or so will be chilled to their core by Zuboff, unable to look at their surroundings the same way."―Sam Biddle, THE INTERCEPT
"The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is brilliant and essential. Shoshana Zuboff reveals capitalism's most dangerous frontier with stunning clarity: The new economic order of surveillance capitalism founded on extreme inequalities of knowledge and power. Her sweeping analysis demonstrates the unprecedented challenges to human autonomy, social solidarity, and democracy perpetrated by this rogue capitalism. Zuboff's book finally empowers us to understand and fight these threats effectively--a masterpiece of rare conceptual daring, beautifully written and deeply urgent." ―Robert B. Reich, author of The Common Good and Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few
About the Author
Shoshana Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor emerita, Harvard Business School. She is the author of In The Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power and The Support Economy: Why Corporations Are Failing Individuals and the Next Episode of Capitalism. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University and her BA from the University of Chicago. For more information see: ShoshanaZuboff.com. @shoshanazuboff
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For example on Page 55 the end of the paragraph reads: "But the lessons of that day had not yet been fully tallied when fresh answers - or, more modestly, the tenuous glimmers of answers as fragile as a newborn's translucent skin-rose to the surface of the world's attention gliding on scented ribbons of Spanish lavender and vanilla." I expect to see this in a Romance novel not a book on Surveillance Capitalism.
By eliminating such indulgences the book could be half the length, more focused and certainly more powerful. I am sure it is an important topic but in the end I did not finish it. I will wait for a more edited version that gets to the point.
I'd read Zuboff's Age of the Smart Machine eons ago and became a bit of a fan of her thinking. Hence why when 'Surveillance' came out, I'd wanted it to be something akin to Harari's Sapiens/Homo Deus or even Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. Alas, I was left a bit wanting by the time I turned its last page.
Getting to the last page is no small feat. This is a beast of a book (I purchased the print version, as I wanted to earmark and highlight passages - without being surveilled!). And yet, while the work is exhaustively researched and footnoted, one is left exhausted in the end.
Yes, important perspectives for our age are raised here, and Zuboff does sound the alarm on the firms creating new value on the digital surplus they create. But it feels like the thesis could have been advanced with half the pages and twice the speed.
Worse, despite its length, there appear to be big idea chunks missing. The role of the courts and the regulator in grasping and remedying excesses - perhaps defining a new regulatory framework for use of digital crumbs we leave - is not fully canvassed. There is lengthy discussion of Senate deliberations in the 1970's around the MK Ultra, depatterning and mind control. Yet there is nothing on what would seem more appropriate - Zuckerberg's testimony before Congress in April 2018. There was a lot of grist for the Zuboff mill here, yet we read nothing. Perhaps the testimony came out after the tome went to press? Doesn't seem so - there is a cite to a piece in the Intercept on April 13, 2018, three days after Zuckerberg's testimony to Congress. That testimony seemed rather on point to Zuboff's work, yet no word (unless I missed it, entirely possible!) commentary from Zuboff. Contractual obligations to get to press? Don't know, but were it the case, this most important event seems warranted to hold things off a week or two.
What follows may be a nit, but given the deep care paid to detail, and the deep implication of the representation, it stands out. On page 514, Zuboff writes:
"[Zuckerberg] envisions a totalizing instrumentarian order - he calls it the new global "church" - that will connect the world's people to "something greater than ourselves".
Great quote, and rather powerful scary stuff, but the problem is the Zuck said no such thing. The cite references Zuckerberg's "Building Global Community" post from February 2017. Unless that quote changed, what it currently states is this:
"Building a global community that works for everyone starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs. Whether they're churches, sports teams, unions or other local groups, they all share important roles as social infrastructure for our communities."
Zuckerberg doesn't hold Facebook out as a church, any more than he does holding it out as the Boston Bruins, Teamsters or a knitting club. And unless my CTRL-F fails me, that's the only reference to "church" there is. I'm not here to defend Zuckerberg, but this is certainly a miss on Zuboff in my books (particularly given the attention to detail otherwise shown).
On the whole the issues raised are important. I'd recommend the book to anyone wanting to gain an understanding of a framework for the issues here. I'd certainly recommend it (or a fair summary of it) to lawyers, regulators, legislators and jurists who will run into these issues a la GDPR.
But as to Zuboff's central thesis, that there is an unprecedented paradigm here that will change humanity forever, and how our democratic institutions and rule of law will fail to curb excesses of new business models and technological shifts, I'm unconvinced. Were our legislators equipped with the insight and talent to monitor, assess and rightly adjust use of our 'digital surplus', I'm sure we can get there. At the end of the day, it's about curbing excesses of those who seek to profit from others, and defining rules.
That's not unprecedented - that's a human story old as time.
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 indicates (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?”