The Age of Surveillance Capitalism raises important questions about the authoritarian use of digital technologies, but the solution needs to be radical, argues Reece Goscinski

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Profile Books 2019), viii, 691pp.

Before his death in 1995, the French poststructuralist and self-confessed Marxist philosopher Gilles Deleuze delivered a worrying assessment of the future. In his short Postscript on Societies of Control (1990), Deleuze warned of a future where the functioning bourgeois technologies of control would extend beyond the predictable confines of the state, the family, and the factory floor into an everyday open and virtual environment:

‘… A city where one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighbourhood, thanks to one’s electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what matters is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position – licit or illicit – and effects a universal modulation’ (Deleuze, 1990; p.6).

Reading Deleuze’s predictions, it is easy to see how this open and virtual city has become a realistic development in the twenty-first century. Companies such as Google and Facebook harvest your location data to sell to other corporations. In the case of China, the use of AI cameras with facial recognition is deployed to restrict access to buildings, predict your movements, and rank citizens to strengthen state control. For Deleuze, these developments raise problems for traditional methods of resistance adopted by the left such as trade unionism. In his final remarks on the topic he leaves us with the question:

‘Will they [trade unions and traditional methods of resistance] be able to adapt themselves or will they give way to new forms of resistance against the societies of control?’ (Deleuze, 1990; p.6)

Rise of the surveillance capitalist

It is from this question Shoshana Zuboff’s latest book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism seeks to detail and develop. Zuboffargues that we are currently seeing the development of the Surveillance Capitalist(pp.8-12). This new form of capitalist extracts the raw data produced by everyone on a daily basis for free and transforms it into a product referred to as behavioural data which predicts your movements, choices, and preferences in the present and the future. The behavioural data is then sold onto be purchased by other companies to target their products (pp.93–7). The raw data which is being created is not only produced at your desktop through the sites you visit, the social media posts you like, or the products you purchase, but also through the harnessing of intimate information via location tracking, vocal recognition, and emotions through facial recognition (pp.284-6).

Zoboff (pp.41–6; also see Channel 4 interview) also points out the socio-political inequalities created by surveillance capitalism which is being masked by the language of open and inclusive networks. Global trends in austerity policies, extended working hours, and long-term wage decline have forced working-class families to become disproportionally reliant on these time-saving and social technologies. This makes their data creation more prone to exploitation for surveillance capitalist profit. These findings also reflect recent research by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation arguing that working-class and racial signifiers restrict populations from accessing social mobility networks.

Whilst Zubroff’s cycle echoes Marx’s theorising of the capitalist accumulation process, it is the invasion and exploitation of our private information that is the central concern of the book. Using the case study of Pokémon Go!, Zubroff (pp.308-18) argues that the surveillance capitalists can use behavioural data to modify our actions for profit. Created by Niantic Inc. and former Google Street View boss John Hanke, Pokémon Go! is an augmented reality game where players navigate real world environments to catch virtual monsters on their smartphones. Whilst the game collected a lot of raw data from players in relation to behaviours, location, and personal networks, it is the game’s ability to herd people to specific locations which the book finds alarming. By visiting a series of “sponsored locations” such as McDonalds and Starbucks, players could gain additional rewards in the game whilst purchasing the Pokémon Go Cappuccino. This illustrates how new technologies extend neoliberal desires to incorporate the market into every aspect of our personal lives and drive us to zero risk outcomes. The case study also provides a potential glimpse into how technologies can be used in authoritarian ways despite the language of technological liberation.

The state and digital technology

The final concern of the book concerns the functioning of the state under surveillance capitalism. Here Zubroff focuses her attention on China and how these technologies have been used to discipline citizens(pp.388-94). The current development of China’s social credit system echoes Deleuze’s concerns of an open virtual environment and surveillance capitalism’s use of herding and data collecting. The Chinese Communist Party is aiming to use private surveillance businesses to collect data on citizens’ purchases, locations, and contacts to track ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour. This will allow the government to use data to reward or punish citizens in order to modify behaviour to the benefit of the regime. As China slowly takes on the US as a new hegemonic superpower, it echoes Yanis Varoufakis’ concerns that modern capitalist systems are eroding democracy.

Whilst Zubroff gets her analysis and diagnosis right, it is her solution to this potential future where she falls short. Her conclusions assert that we should rely on extending civil rights, political processes, and the court system to counter the surveillance capitalist class and democratic erosions. These sentiments echo the ineffective methods of the modern liberal left which have been reflected in the People’s Vote campaign, for example. When Mark Zuckerberg was questioned by the US congress in 2018 it was clear that the politicians running these institutions do not understand how these modern companies work and are ineffective at legislating on the issue. Similarly, these new markets can develop and navigate legislation a lot faster than these institutions can legislate requiring a more radical response.

Whilst the book’s conclusions are unsatisfying The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does raise urgent questions for the left to respond to. The democratising of these technologies needs to take a central place in modern left-wing movements to combat the increasing authoritarian elements of modern technology. Similarly, if we consider the creation of behavioural data to be a modern means of production, we need to return the control of personal data to the individual owners and develop a more collaborative approach to data sharing.