The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
Human cognition is a function of language. It may seem obvious, but in the absence of articulated legibility, we are bereft of comprehension, left without the ability of analysis, if not planned action. This is a difficult task for scholars at times when social change is occurring so visibly and dramatically that it challenges academic calm. In the rapidly changing ecology of a digitised society, the challenge becomes greater when analysis is not limited to the present but extended to the future. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism attempts precisely this.
The phrase has a definite phonetic appeal. Though the coinage cannot be attributed neatly to Zuboff, she underlines its importance to the networked world. The polysemy of “surveillance capitalism” is defined in stark, clear terms of digital doom. Described as, “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material”, “a parasitic economic logic”, “a rogue mutation” even a “significant threat to human nature”. While to some this may seem polemical, the book serves an important function even as social invective.?
Monthly data breaches, disinformation spread over digital networks and the large-scale deployment of biometric technologies has sensitised large numbers of people in India. But to what? We lack the grammar and framework to understand the rapid changes in our environment. The pace of technological change is easily matched by its scale, creating a perpetual tension between the ways of the past and the reality of the present. As the firm roots of individual liberty of our constitutional values, democratic traditions of political participation and the relationship between the individual and the state are thrown into contest, we urgently need help. This has to start with language. Zuboff provides it readily, explaining this point of history as the “second modernity”: “[W]e live in this collision between a centuries-old story of modernisation and a decades-old story of economic violence that thwarts our pursuit of effective life.”
These are big concepts which are parsed by documenting the project of conservative economic thought with the execution of state policy, particularly in the US. References to Europe are inadequate, indicating the geographical limitation of the work. This is an important limitation that also affects learning from countries like India. For instance, one of the underlying elements of surveillance capitalism, is what is termed as the “uncontract”. This goes beyond the terms of service which many smartphone users promptly agree to, swiping them away as an annoyance delaying the delivery of desired digital reward. It is explained as, “uncontract desocialises the contract… [and] human agency… [it] bypasses all that social work in favour of compulsion…” It is hard to read these sentences without thinking about the compulsory biometric programme, Aadhaar which remains voluntary only in theory, but for all practical purposes has become a mandatory requirement?
Geographical limitation is not merely cosmetic. Large parts of the commentary are focussed on the rise and the commercial imperatives of Google and Facebook. As Zuboff explains, their actions are premeditated and with disregard for the harms that result from the ceaseless, pervasive and ubiquitous collection of personal data. Both companies service a large number of internet users in India, a number which continues to grow, even outstripping other countries. Hence, beyond Aadhaar, the entire project of surveillance capitalism is being implemented in India by Silicon Valley giants. It is only natural that the product choices made in such a large market will impact users even in Western liberal democracies, to which the book caters.?
This does not diminish the importance of Surveillance Capitalism, which is already providing fertile ground to scholars. But many of them have found it lacking in scholarly rigour. This is not to say that references are lacking — on the contrary, the endnotes are extensive, and care has been taken to make them engaging. However, there are obvious leaps of coinage, in which bridges to existing scholarship on surveillance are not built. For instance, influential conceptual frameworks which have been conventionally utilised for understanding surveillance and power asymmetries such as Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish (1975) are ignored.
Equally troubling was the disregard for the existing legal doctrines of informational privacy and competition law. While Zuboff argues that this modern predicament is unprecedented, the law, even its conceptual boundaries, are being tested and explored. For instance, in the Supreme Court of India’s right to privacy judgment in 2017 (which is ignorantly derided as a “bundle of essays”), several individual opinions of judges link privacy to a broad swathe of fundamental rights. They even point to the dangers of unchecked expropriation of personal data to be a fundamental re-ordering of power that poses a danger to free will and autonomy.?
Given the importance of Surveillance Capitalism, even if isolated to the conversations prompted by it, criticisms will need to be engaged with in good faith. This will help us deepen human understanding of both the nature of the problems we face and the opportunity for a better world. This is a tough ask. Many analysts draw an artificial boundary between digital convenience enabling a multitude of human function, and its critical examination. No wonder important works fail to find popular resonance and subsequent political action. While the solution to these problems may not seem to be any closer, this book provides it’s readers many mental Lego pieces.?
This book is a reminder that words are not only created by bureaucratic reviews of the board of editors of an English dictionary. They are more often defined by emotional weight, as in the personal essays employed by Zuboff. To know what we are feeling, we need terms capable of describing it accurately. In this service of a basic human need to articulate, Surveillance Capitalism not only provides us with language, but also sounds a much-needed alarm?
Gupta is a lawyer and the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.