Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff says in the Introduction to her new book, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data”. Much of this data, she says, is declared as “proprietary behavioural surplus, fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as machine intelligence, and fabricated into prediction products”, which are traded in “behavioural futures markets”.
As surveillance capitalists acquire ever-increasing volumes of behavioural surplus, including our voices, emotions, and personalities, they are able to nudge or coax herd behaviour towards profitable outcomes.
Automated machine processes progress from knowing our behaviour to shaping our behaviour at scale — and surveillance capitalism is able to engender a new kind of power, which Zuboff calls “instrumentarianism”.
Instrumentarian power knows and shapes human behaviour towards the ends of others, she says, “working its will through the automated medium of an increasingly ubiquitous computational architecture of ‘smart’ networked devices, things, and spaces”.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power integrates her “lifelong themes of the historical emergence of psychological individuality, the conditions for human development, the digital revolution, and the evolution of capitalism”, Zuboff says on her website. “It explores the emergence of surveillance capitalism as the dominant form of information capitalism and its implications for individuals, society, and democracy in the twenty-first century.”
Who are the big surveillance capitalists of our age? Google, says Zuboff, “invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism”.
Surveillance capitalists, says Zuboff, employed tropes that included “dressing in the fashions of advocacy and emancipation, appealing to and exploiting contemporary anxieties”. Today, their presence is overwhelming, and “whether it’s a ‘smart’ home device, what the insurance companies call ‘behavioural underwriting’, or any one of thousands of other transactions, we now pay for our own domination”.