Capitalism’s New Clothes
In a series of remarkably prescient articles, the first of which was published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the summer of 2013, Shoshana Zuboff pointed to an alarming phenomenon: the digitization of everything was giving technology firms immense social power. From the modest beachheads inside our browsers, they conquered, Blitzkrieg-style, our homes, cars, toasters, and even mattresses. Toothbrushes, sneakers, vacuum cleaners: our formerly dumb household subordinates were becoming our “smart” bosses. Their business models turned data into gold, favoring further expansion.
Google and Facebook were restructuring the world, not just solving its problems. The general public, seduced by the tech world’s youthful, hoodie-wearing ambassadors and lobotomized by TED Talks, was clueless. Zuboff saw a logic to this digital mess; tech firms were following rational—and terrifying—imperatives. To attack them for privacy violations was to miss the scale of the transformation—a tragic miscalculation that has plagued much of the current activism against Big Tech.
This analytical error has also led many clever, well-intentioned people to insist that Silicon Valley should—and could—repent. To insist, as these critics do, that Google should start protecting our privacy is, for Zuboff, “like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand or asking a giraffe to shorten its neck.” The imperatives of surveillance capitalism are almost of the evolutionary kind: no clever policy, not even in Congress, has ever succeeded in shortening the giraffe’s neck (it has, however, done wonders for Mitch McConnell’s).
Zuboff’s pithy term for this regime, “surveillance capitalism,” has caught on. (That this term had been previously used—and in a far more critical manner—by the Marxists at Monthly Review, is a minor genealogical inconvenience for Zuboff.) Her new, much-awaited book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism exhaustively documents its sinister operations. From Pokemon Go to smart cities, from Amazon Echo to smart dolls, surveillance capitalism’s imperatives, as well as its methods—marked by constant lying, concealment, and manipulation—have become ubiquitous. The good old days of solitary drunken stupor are now gone: even vodka bottles have become smart, offering internet connectivity. As for the smart rectal thermometers also discussed in the book, you probably don’t want to know. Let’s just hope your digital wallet is stocked with enough Bitcoins to appease the hackers.
No clever policy, not even in Congress, has ever succeeded in shortening the giraffe’s neck (it has, however, done wonders for Mitch McConnell’s).
Zuboff’s book makes clear that the promises of “surveillance capitalists” are as sweet as their lobbying is ruthless. Tech companies, under the pompous cover of disrupting everything for everyone’s benefit, have developed a panoply of rhetorical and political tricks that insulate them from any pressure from below. It helps, of course, that the only pressure coming from below is usually the one directed at the buttons and screens of their data-sucking devices.
Had Donald Trump not been elected president—reportedly by that accidental data wizard of Steve Bannon, his hapless colleagues at Cambridge Analytica, and a bunch of Russians who managed to use Facebook as it was always intended to be used—the power of Silicon Valley might have remained a niche topic: good for nerdy Twitter banter on the renegade think-tank circuit but pretty useless for anything else.
Zuboff stepped into this global conversation five years ago, just as the first signs of discontent about the power of Big Tech began to bubble up. Silicon Valley was no stranger to criticism, but Zuboff was no ordinary critic. One of the first female professors to receive tenure at Harvard Business School, she has also worked as a columnist for Fast Company and Businessweek, two bastions of techno-optimism not exactly known for anti-capitalist sentiment. If members of the establishment were beginning to bash Silicon Valley, something, it seemed, was truly rotten in the digital kingdom. What was it?
While Zuboff’s use of the phrase “surveillance capitalism” first appeared in 2014, the origins of her critique date further back. They can be traced to the late 1970s, when she began studying the impact of information technology on the workplace—a forty-year project that, in addition to leading to several books and articles, has also inundated her with utopian hopes and bitter disappointments. The mismatch between the possible and the real has framed the intellectual context in which Zuboff—previously cautiously optimistic about both capitalism and technology—constructed her theory of surveillance capitalism, the darkest and most dystopian tool in her intellectual arsenal to date.
The depressing conclusions of her latest book are a far cry from what Zuboff was saying just a decade ago. As late as 2009, she argued that the likes of Amazon, eBay, and Apple were “releas[ing] massive quantities of value by giving people what they wanted on their own terms in their own space.” Zuboff arrived at this sunny diagnosis via her overarching analysis of how information technology was changing society; in this respect, she was one of a cohort of thinkers to argue that a new era—some called it “post-industrial,” others “post-Fordist”—was upon us.
It is from within that analysis—and the initial positive expectations it engendered—that Zuboff’s current critique of surveillance capitalism has emerged. It’s also why her latest tome often ventures, in content and language alike, into the turf of the melodramatic: Zuboff, together with the entire American business-managerial establishment, besotted with the promises of the New Economy, had hoped that something very different was in the offing.
Her first book, In the Age of the Smart Machine, appeared to much acclaim in 1988. In it, Zuboff laid out a conceptual apparatus and a set of questions that would resurface in all her subsequent writings. Drawing on years of ethnographic work in industrial and office settings, the book painted an ambiguous future. Information technology, argued Zuboff, might exacerbate the worst features of automation, strip workers of their autonomy, and condemn them to undignified tasks. But when used wisely, it might have the opposite effect: boosting workers’ capacities for abstract and imaginative thinking and reversing the de-skilling process decried by many Marxist critics of work under capitalism.
Stitched together by information technology, modern enterprises, in Zuboff’s account, had to choose between “automating” or “informating.” The latter was her term for their novel ability to gather data—the “electronic text”—related to computer-mediated work. Under the prior era of Frederick W. Taylor’s scientific management, such data was gathered manually, through observation and time-motion studies. By extracting workers’ tacit knowledge about the work process, managers, abetted by engineers, could rationalize it, dramatically lowering costs and raising living standards.
Thanks to advances in information technology, the writing of the electronic text was becoming cheap and ubiquitous. Were this text made available to workers, it might even undermine the foundation of managerial control: the assumption that the manager knows best. The electronic text begat what Zuboff, following Michel Foucault, described as “panoptical power.” Wedded to authoritarian practices of the earlier, heavily centralized workplace, this power was likely to entrench existing hierarchies; managers would hide behind numbers and rule remotely instead of risking the ambiguity of personal communication. Amplified by workplace democracy and egalitarian rules of access to the electronic text, however, this power might enable workers to challenge managers’ interpretations of their own activities and grab some institutional power for themselves.
In the Age of the Smart Machine, a book about the future of work and also, inevitably, about its past, was remarkably silent about capitalism. Its extensive bibliography aside, this ambitious tome of nearly five hundred pages mentions the word “capitalism” only once—in a quotation by Max Weber. This seems odd, given that Zuboff was hardly an apologist for the firms that she studied. She harbored no illusions about the authoritarian nature of the modern workplace, rarely a place for workers’ self-realization, and she delighted in bashing self-obsessed and power-hungry managers.
The depressing conclusions of her latest book are a far cry from what Zuboff was saying just a decade ago.
Despite such occasional critical notes, Zuboff trained her analytical lens on the institutional conflicts over knowledge and its role in perpetuating or undermining organizational hierarchies. Private property, class, the ownership of the means of production—the stuff of earlier conflicts related to work—were mostly excluded from her framework. This was by design rather than oversight. The goal of the study, after all, was to understand the future of the workplace mediated by information technology. Zuboff’s ethnographic approach was simply better suited to interviewing managers and workers about what drove them apart than to sketching out the economic imperatives that connected each enterprise to the whole of the global economy. So the smart machine of Zuboff’s imagining operated largely outside the invisible constraints that capitalism imposed on managers and owners.
While “capital” fared better—the book did mention it a dozen times—Zuboff did not see it, as many on the Marxist left are wont to do, as a social relation or an eternal antagonist of labor. Instead, she followed neoclassical economists in viewing it as machinery or money tied up in investments; “labor,” in its turn, was mostly treated as a physical activity. Even though Zuboff also mentioned the historical role of the trade unions, her readers would not necessarily grasp the antagonistic character of “labor” and “capital”—instead, they heard mostly about situational conflicts within individual workplaces, between workers and managers.
That was scarcely surprising: Zuboff was no Marxist. In addition, she was an aspiring professor at Harvard Business School. However, her advocacy for more equal and dignified workplaces suggested that she might be, at least on some issues, a fellow traveler to leftist causes. What set her apart from the more radical voices in these debates was her continued insistence on the ambiguous effects of information technology. The choice between “automating” and “informating” was not just an analytical byproduct of her framework or a mere rhetorical prop. Rather, she presented it as an actual, existential choice facing modern firms struggling with information technology.
Such binary choices—between “distributed capitalism” and “managerial capitalism,” and between “advocacy-oriented capitalism” and “surveillance capitalism”—would also animate Zuboff’s later books. But even at this early stage, it was unclear whether she was justified in making the analytical leap from observing, based on ethnographic work, that some of the firms under study did face the choice between “informating” and “automating,” to the broader conclusion that the external conditions of modern and increasingly high-tech capitalism universalized that choice for all firms, representing a new juncture in capitalist development itself.
Accepted at face value, the possibility of a real rather than postulated choice between “automating” and “informating” undermined the traditional critiques of capitalism as a system of structural (and hence inevitable) exploitation or de-skilling. In Zuboff’s new digital era, a nimble and harmonious alliance between workers and managers could allow clever, enlightened firms to unlock the emancipatory power of “informating.”
Here we could glimpse the broader contours of Zuboff’s approach to capitalism: its ills, some of which she was happy to acknowledge, were not the unavoidable byproduct of systemic forces, such as the pursuit of profitability. Rather, they were the avoidable consequence of particular organizational arrangements, which, while having their uses in earlier eras, could now be made obsolete by information technology. This hopeful conclusion was derived almost entirely from observing capitalist firms, as capitalism itself—viewed as a historical structure, not as a mere aggregation of economic actors—was mostly absent from the analysis.
Key to Zuboff’s latest theory of surveillance capitalism is the notion of “behavioral surplus,” a refinement of the more vulgar term “data exhaust” used by many in the tech industry. It harkens back to the distinction between informating and automating laid out in her first book. Recall that the electronic text, reborn in the latest book as the “shadow text,” has immense value for different, often antagonistic actors. When “advocacy-oriented firms” deploy it to empower customers—as, for instance, Amazon does with book recommendations drawn from the purchases of millions of customers—the electronic text follows the utopian path of informating, feeding into what Zuboff calls the “behavioral reinvestment cycle.” When tech firms use the extracted data for targeting ads and modifying behavior, they create the behavioral surplus—and this key breakthrough creates “surveillance capital.”
Google is the arch-example of Zuboff’s theory. In its early years, when it still needed a business model—the licensing of its search technology to other sites was one of its first, but insufficient, revenue-generators—Google had the potential to become Zuboff’s favorite “advocacy-oriented” firm: its only incentive to gather data was service improvement. Once it embraced personalized advertising, things changed. Now Google wanted more user data to sell ads, not just to improve services. The data it gathers in excess of the objectively determined need to serve users—an important threshold that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism introduces but never explicitly theorizes—is Zuboff’s behavioral surplus. As a capitalist firm, Google wants to maximize that surplus, expanding in depth—drilling ever deeper into our data souls and households—but also in breadth, by offering new services in new domains and diversifying its “surveillance assets.”
Over more than seven hundred pages, Zuboff describes this “dispossession cycle” in all its ignominy: we are regularly robbed, our experiences kidnapped and expropriated, our emotions plundered, by “personality mercenaries.” She vividly portrays the unbearable “psychic numbing” induced by surveillance capitalists. “Forget the cliché that if it’s free, ‘You are the product,’” she exhorts. “You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life.” The worst, though, is still to come, she argues, as tech giants shift from predicting behavior to engineering it. “It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us,” she warns; “the goal now is to automate us.”
This new global infrastructure for engineering behavior produces “instrumentarian power,” as the “panoptical power” of Zuboff’s first book transcends the walls of the factory and penetrates the whole of society. Unlike totalitarian power, it eschews physical violence; inspired by the brute behavioralist insights of B.F. Skinner, it instead herds us towards desired outcomes (think of insurance companies that charge higher premiums to riskier clients). “Computation thus replaces the political life of the community as the basis for governance,” Zuboff concludes. Instead of founding a fascist newspaper, today’s Benito Mussolini would probably be chasing venture capital, launching apps, and mastering the martial art of growth hacking.
We are regularly robbed, our experiences kidnapped and expropriated, our emotions plundered, by “personality mercenaries.”
Zuboff picks plenty of fights, blaming this emerging “tyranny” on Silicon Valley’s intellectual enablers, an odd bunch of useful idiots and rogue entrepreneurs perched in quasi-academic institutions like MIT’s Media Lab. Naming this soul-crushing system for what it is, she argues, is the prerequisite to an effective counterstrategy, as its “normalization leaves us singing in our chains.” It’s no easy task, as the ideological power wielded by Big Tech—with its think tanks, lobbyists, tech conferences—is immense.
Current policy debates, however, fail to grasp the systemic dimension of the problem. Does it matter if our behavior is modified by ten or two “surveillance capitalists”? To insist on “advanced encryption, improved data anonymity, or data ownership” is mistaken, Zuboff argues, as “such strategies only acknowledge the inevitability of commercial surveillance.”
Still, Zuboff proposes some interventions, repeating the demand of her previous book for a right to sanctuary, as well as insisting on a right to the “future tense.” Europe’s right to be forgotten—which allows users to request that outdated or erroneous information disappear from search results—moves in that direction. Zuboff also hopes that a new social movement will push for stronger democratic institutions and ensure that human experience is not reduced to a “fictitious commodity”—much like the earlier “double movements,” described by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, that challenged the commodification of labor, land, and money. Enlightened capitalists, like Apple, would do the rest.
More than a roll call of the victims of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff’s new book seeks to decode its broader historical meaning. In a single sentence, it’s this: “Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism.” This phrase does not mean to suggest that what is good for Google is also good for America—even though that proposition would have commanded wide assent among many Obama administration appointees. Rather, Zuboff contends that surveillance capitalism is not the same old capitalism only with extensive surveillance; rather, it’s a new “economic order,” a “market form,” a “logic of accumulation.”
To grasp the inner workings of this new regime, we must also understand those of its predecessor. Alfred Chandler, Harvard’s bard of “managerial capitalism,” was an important and frequent interlocutor in Zuboff’s earlier work. While he barely gets a mention in her latest book, its framework, positing a break between managerial capitalism and its surveillance-based successor, is unmistakably Chandlerian.
A professor of business history, Chandler argued that, starting from the mid-nineteenth century, the “invisible hand” of the market, then composed of small and predominantly family-run firms, was being increasingly overpowered by the “visible hand” of the hired and professional managers working for large corporations. Chandler found much to like about this transformation: superior administrative coordination inside the vastly expanded modern corporation dramatically lowered coordination costs, enabling the kinds of economic activity that were hard to pull off in a chaotic marketplace of small producers who mostly had to bargain with each other.
Chandler’s narrative had sweeping explanatory power. It held that, from the 1850s onward, companies in capital-intensive industries tapped the power of rapidly changing transportation and communication technologies to drastically increase the scale of their operations. The technological revolution allowed them to access new and increasingly homogenous markets, secure greater and continuous supply of raw materials, as well as to automate parts of the production process. This greater scale, in turn, led to dramatic reductions in the costs of production, yielding lower prices, much to the delight of new generations of consumers.
Such corporate expansion required careful and active administration, especially as it became clear that many functions that were previously external to the firm—from distribution to marketing, once the preserve of independent niche-service providers—could now be done more effectively and securely if brought inside the firm, in a process known as “vertical integration.” Capitalist owners, if they hoped to stay in the game, held little choice but to turn to external, hired help.
This is how America’s managerial class was born. Its operating assumption, from the very outset, was simple but powerful: achieving greater efficiency meant getting bigger. Those pesky Marxists, always banging on about something called “monopoly capitalism,” had simply never met the type of charming, conscientious leaders that passed through Chandler’s strategy classes at Harvard Business School. Their market power was society’s gain. Marx, in positing that the working class represented the universal interests of humanity, got it all backwards: to Chandler, it was clearly the managerial class.
This is not history but a fishing expedition.
Chandler was a student of the great American sociologist Talcott Parsons, who advanced the functionalist approach to sociology. Social systems were presumed to have certain needs, and their fulfillment—undertaken by their various constituent parts—was integral to the continued operation of these systems. As broader historical change occurs, the needs of the social systems also change—and so do the functions and operations of their constituent parts. A process of adaptation commences. Historians working within the Parsonian framework usually go about studying this process by chronicling the many successes or failures of adaptation in the face of the changing external environment.
As a good Parsonian, Chandler did just that in positing that managerial capitalism—the right evolutionary response to the changing environment of the mid-nineteenth century—emerged as firms followed the imperatives of technological change. They did so by redefining the border between the market and the firm (through vertical integration) and by inventing new organizational structures (such as the multidivisional firm) to yield greater efficiencies. In the American case, this adaptation happened only for firms that were able to achieve what Chandler called “economies of speed.” These companies could make better use of existing production capacity simply by ensuring the continuous supply of raw materials and the faster distribution of final products. Markets were less effective at these two tasks; thus, these functions had to be brought in-house—that is, under the control of managers.
As Chandler discovered, however, other countries developed their own forms of managerial capitalism which were not marked by the presence of “economies of speed.” His theory thus expanded to the more conventional framework of “economies of scale” and “scope” (where, for example, a firm was able to make better use of its existing “organizational capabilities” by constantly expanding its product line). Firms that fully exploited these economies gained first-mover advantage and dominated their industries, which, per Chandler, boosted overall efficiency and innovation.
It’s important to grasp the overall vector of Chandler’s argument before returning to Zuboff’s. Chandler starts by zeroing in on what looks like an undeniable phenomenon: the existence of large business firms with similar organizational structures—the stuff of “managerial capitalism.” This social arrangement is presumed to be more efficient than what preceded it—family-run capitalism. This efficiency, in turn, is explained by the greater size of the firms under study, while the size itself is explained by the ability of managers to coordinate things better than the markets.
Donning the mantle of the historian, the Chandlerian business theorist does venture into the archives—to illustrate the analytical model elaborated elsewhere. Business history written in this vein is actually functionalist sociology in disguise—and it’s of a somewhat vulgar type. It uses vast amounts of historical evidence merely to find proof of the validity of preselected and never-questioned analytical models marshaled under rubrics such as managerial capitalism.
This is not history but a fishing expedition. What else can it be when no historical evidence is ever allowed to undermine the original causal mechanism behind the analytical model—the one that posits that change is propelled by adaptation and evolution, not by power struggles and revolution? As a result of this self-imposed analytical handicap, power relations almost always disappear from view. The chill formalist thrust of the Chandler-Parsons version of history lands us in a bizarre democracy of sorts, one in which everyone is forced to adapt and no organized collective efforts ever emerge to make some historical actors adapt more or better than others.
Chandlerian business history is only history in as much as it draws on historical data to prove what it postulates, namely that managerial capitalism is driven by the imperatives of managerial capitalism and whoever grasps and adapts to them survives. We can, of course, find plenty of historical evidence to illustrate this thesis. However, if big firms and their managers are not dragged into the managerial capitalism framework from the very outset, then we might discover many other historical narratives and analytical models to account for their existence. Historians would normally test such models against each other, settling on the one that explains more with less. But the Chandlerians usually skip this step—a crucial omission that often becomes invisible as they mount streams of data, graphs, charts, and definitions to describe the inner workings of the one regime that they have chosen to analyze.
Zuboff’s method, both in her latest book and in the two that preceded it, is Chandlerian to the letter. Surveillance capitalism, like its managerial predecessor, is presumed to have imperatives which successful surveillance capitalists must follow. These are the imperatives to extract data and predict behavior. Those who do it well—Google and Facebook—leverage the economies of scale (extracting as much data as possible), scope (sourcing it from varied sources), and action (producing desired outcomes, such as getting users to click on an ad or having them nudged by fitness trackers). Much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is dedicated to exploring these imperatives and economies in extensive detail. Zuboff elaborates their dynamics with revealing charts and lucid models, showing how they shape the strategies of the firms.
Zuboff’s historical explanation for the emergence and consolidation of surveillance capitalism is also Chandlerian in spirit. Just like the companies of the nineteenth century faced a choice between family-run capitalism and managerial capitalism, the “information civilization” of the early twenty-first century faced a choice between advocacy-oriented capitalism and surveillance capitalism. The latter has triumphed due to selective affinities between the imperatives of surveillance capitalists, the informational needs of the post-9/11 Pentagon, and the enabling environment created by neoliberal deregulation. Adherents of advocacy capitalism, meanwhile, failed to mount the political fight to ground their regime in political and social institutions.
The novel choice between advocacy capitalism and surveillance capitalism was not a product of technological change or business competition. Instead, Zuboff argues, it followed from the changing needs of consumers. She leans here on the work of Joseph Schumpeter, another of Chandler’s mentors, to put the consumer in the driving seat of historical change: changing consumer needs trigger new adaptation strategies among firms. Such strategies, however, will only become sustainable—turning into a new market form—if undergirded by new laws and institutions.
Paradoxically, this pressure to institutionalize new market forms has not always come from consumers, but, rather, from the “double movements” of those negatively affected by the adaptation process. (Workers have been traditionally at the forefront of such fights.) The paradox is easily resolved, however, once the interests of consumers are presumed to be aligned with those of the workers toiling in large and efficiency-boosting factories; the latter churn out cheaper consumer products that are also consumed by the workers themselves. Zuboff fully endorses Schumpeter’s conclusion that “the capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses.” Marx gets twisted once again: the managers, no longer the representatives of the universal interests of humanity, have now to surrender that role to the consumers.
Interestingly, Zuboff does not follow Schumpeter into his prediction that the combination of large-scale Chandlerian industry and mass democracy will result in the collapse of capitalism, as entrepreneurial spirit gets tamed by excessive bureaucracy and constant demands for more social welfare. Rather, she sees the various types of social emancipation achieved by double movements as a stabilizing force that will allow each new market form, pregnant with revolutionary potential, to deliver on its early promises.
Indeed, she argues that this is exactly what happened under managerial capitalism. That regime rested on mutual reciprocities between capitalists and society: workers got decent wages, kept quiet, and got relatively cheap products in return. That regime, however, wasn’t set in stone and Zuboff believed in the possibility for change and improvement within capitalism, guided by the needs of the consumers.
Why renegotiate something that has been so effective? According to Zuboff, the dark secret behind managerial capitalism was its aggressive use of marketing. The lords of sales and marketing made standardized products like Ford’s Model T appeal to consumers who themselves had to be standardized. But the information revolution of the 1990s portended the end of such forced standardization, especially as emancipated, post-1968 consumers became more sophisticated and demanded new experiences. Zuboff’s disappointment in surveillance capitalism is shaped by that earlier hope of an even better successor regime to managerial capitalism. Her 2002 book The Support Economy, co-authored with her husband James Maxmin, argued that a very different emerging economic order, “distributed capitalism,” would be just that successor. And rapid changes in information technology made it all the more likely.
One company did make billions from the countercultural rhetoric of individual empowerment and self-determination, exhorting all of us to “think different”—preferably while paying for its expensive products
As the railroad gave us Adorno’s “totally administered society,” the web would give us an economy that supports, not administers. It might even resuscitate guild-like federations of firms, which Chandler had condemned to the dustbin of history, their functions overtaken by centralized and vertically integrated corporations. The future of distributed capitalism augured vertical disintegration: firms would no longer run their own systems for accounting, payroll, or logistics but simply pool them into a single shared web platform, accessible to all the members of the federation. Vertical disintegration also meant that the knowledge conflicts that loomed so large in Zuboff’s first book would soon fade away: the large and centralized firms that gave rise to such conflicts would gradually dissolve, transforming themselves into lean and horizontal entities deprived of the power-hungry managerial class.
Most firms, argued Zuboff and Maxmin, were still thinking in the outdated terms of mass production; they used information technology to hijack the autonomy of their customers and to treat them with condescension. Instead, these firms needed to embrace “distributed capitalism” and cultivate sophisticated, multidimensional consumers. This was in the companies’ best interests, moving them closer to where the value now was. Under managerial capitalism, value was produced in the “organization space” of the firm; under distributed capitalism, it was to be found outside, in the “individual space.” The task of the firm was to capture it:
Once value is deemed to reside in individuals, everything changes. Firms no longer “create” value; they can only strive to realize the value that already exists in individual space. In this way, distributed capitalism further expands the concept of ownership. Not only is share ownership dispersed, but value itself is dispersed. Individuals “own” the sources of value, as all value originates in their needs, and all cash flows from the fulfillment of those needs. . . . As the origins of value and the source of all cash flow, individuals can no longer be written off as anonymous “consumers” who sit at the far end of the value chain, devouring the value created by managers and underwritten by shareholders. Instead, they are preeminent stakeholders in the new collaborative structures that are fundamentally aligned with the requirements of relationship value realization.
Translated into today’s language, the central premise of The Support Economy was that smart businesses should jump on the opportunity to offer “LaaS”: Life as a Service. This was a rational response to modern individuals opening their checkbooks and swiping their credit cards not because they were tricked into it by the imperatives of mass production, but because, encouraged by the support apparatus of enlightened capitalists, they were finally “pioneering wholly new kinds of consumption experiences, hoping to find what they are after.”
“Today’s dreamers of psychological self-determination,” argued Zuboff and Maxmin, “want to buy something that has never been for sale—support in the invention and sustenance of a unique life.” The virtues of distributed capitalism and its superiority over managerial capitalism were quite clear: “No longer an anonymous abstraction, the individual as the originator of all value and the source of all cash enjoys structurally based opportunities for the expression of voice and participation in governance.”
One company did make billions from such countercultural rhetoric of individual empowerment and self-determination, exhorting all of us to “think different”—preferably while paying for its expensive products. Starting from its famous 1984 ad, Apple did its best to convince the public that its products were the most effective weapons in the global rebellion against the rigidities of mass society. Zuboff believes that the marketing was authentic and that there was something genuinely serious in Apple’s proposition to launch a new modernity. In The Support Economy, she was already pining for “an Apple Federation,” which could “appeal to individuals and constituencies drawn to its style of brainy but whimsical panache and its empowering creative and high-tech values.”
Such Apple-philia also pervades her latest book. The company once held out the promise, writes Zuboff, of “a third-modernity capitalism summoned by the self-determining aspirations of individuals and indigenous to the digital milieu.” Alas, there emerged no Apple-ism corresponding to Ford’s Fordism—the real tragedy of the 2000s. Instead, Google’s model won; managerial capitalism was followed by surveillance capitalism, not distributed capitalism.
The background presuppositions of Zuboff’s argument can now be stated more explicitly: “managerial capitalism,” cemented by a social pact between capitalists and society, had its uses, but, by the early 2000s, it was time to try something new. Distributed capitalism—reimagined as “advocacy-oriented” capitalism in her latest book—was its natural heir. Apple could have spearheaded a new social pact, but it failed in that mission. Google, in turn, benefited from post-9/11 data anxieties while decades of neoliberalism’s signature policy victories made it easier to avoid regulation. As surveillance capitalism has triumphed over the “advocacy-oriented” kind, a double movement should emerge to create the institutional conditions that would allow Apple-ism to fill the political and economic spaces vacated by Fordism.
Before assessing the validity and importance of these arguments, it’s important to remember just how much they owe to the Chandlerian framework. Zuboff’s narrative holds because it is able to posit the existence of three different regimes, each with its own set of distinct imperatives and economies. These regimes describe the operations of large economic actors: General Motors and Ford in the case of managerial capitalism; Google and Facebook in the case of surveillance capitalism; Apple and early, pre-Alexa Amazon in the case of advocacy capitalism.
By themselves, however, such descriptions carry little weight, as we can come up with many alternative ways to slice economic and political reality. Such alternative approaches might invoke different sets of imperatives, but they can still offer better accounts of what drives these same economic actors. The Chandlerian framework, grounded in functionalist explanations, doesn’t easily admit the existence of alternative narratives. Its sharp explanatory power derives partly from its self-imposed posture of omniscient functionalism; Chandlerians don’t often bother to engage alternative explanations in any searching fashion, even if only to dismiss them as inaccurate. As a result, the kinds of important questions that normally shape the choice of explanatory schemes—does the chosen analytical framework explain reality better than the alternatives? does it have much predictive power?—are rarely asked.
Thus, readers of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism will search, in vain, for Zuboff’s take on “platform capitalism” or “cognitive capitalism” or “biocapitalism”—some of the alternative, well-established ways to frame the same set of historical and political problems. That these rival frameworks do not explain “surveillance capitalism” as Zuboff defines it is obvious; that they do not describe some of the same phenomena that she lumps under that label is not obvious at all. And yet Zuboff’s discussion of alternative explanations never arrives. Perhaps seven hundred pages were not enough.
The same problem plagued her earlier books. The Support Economy makes no mention of long-running debates about post-Fordism (a term that never appears in the book itself). In the Age of the Smart Machine, likewise, ignores critiques of automation as well as the plenteous suggestions for using information technology in more humane, non-automating ways—suggestions that had, by then, already been made by the now-forgotten discipline of management cybernetics. Zuboff works in a very different style: she outlines what she believes to be a unique phenomenon, describing it in depth, but without building any bridges (if only to burn them) to the alternative conceptions of that same phenomenon.
Does the world need a new Chandler to understand the transformation of capitalism in the digital era? If so, Zuboff is a leading contender. But the larger currents of historical change strongly indicate that we need less Chandler, not more. The Chandlerian framework, for all its analytical insights, is chronically blind to power relations—the result of its inborn lack of curiosity toward non-functionalist explanations. This, in turn, limits the opportunities for Chandlerians to detect often tacit but unavoidable imperatives imposed by the capitalist system. As a result, all these theories—of “managerial capitalism,” “advocacy capitalism,” “surveillance capitalism”—have a lot to say about each of the adjectives that qualify them but are silent on matters of capitalism itself, usually reducing it to something relatively banal, like the fact that there are markets, commodities, and occasional social pacts between capitalists and the rest of society.
The reception of Chandler’s work is a case in point. To his critics, Chandler’s account of managerial capitalism was just an elaborate fairy tale, one that allowed American elites to legitimize their rule with myths rivaling those now pumping forth from Silicon Valley. Chandler lauded America’s managerial cadres, the presumed champions of efficiency, for serving not the interests of capital but those of society. Zuboff has accepted much in Chandler’s account, quibbling only with the durability of managerial capitalism in the face of technological change, its toll on the inner world of consumers, and its highly gendered, narcissistic, and hierarchical organizational culture.
Chandler’s critics, in contrast, charged him with the methodological crime of reversing the causality of historical explanation. What drove the expansion of American industry was a search for profit and power, not a search for efficiency; the latter, where it arose, was the byproduct of the former. Focused on long-term profitability, firms tried to gain market share through anti-competitive practices, such as rebates, kickbacks, and exclusive contracts. Low prices were achieved not only or even primarily through efficiency but also by externalizing the costs of production on society (e.g. pollution), suppressing labor rights, and obstructing non-commercial alternative modes of social organization.
Zuboff’s discussion of alternative explanations never arrives. Perhaps seven hundred pages were not enough.
These new and occasionally subversive activities did require a new managerial class. However, lobbying, sabotage, and anti-labor activism outside the firm mattered as much as clever management did inside it. Such actions were hardly driven by considerations of efficiency, even if they did increase the size of firms. Many of the horizontal mergers celebrated by Chandler were, likewise, driven solely by the need to consolidate power, or just survive; often, they actually reduced efficiency. Big business has to be evaluated not only in terms of the efficiencies it produced but also in terms of the efficiencies it suppressed.
For the critics, the main question was not whether the hands of social coordination were visible (à la Chandler) or invisible (à la Adam Smith) but, rather, whether they were dirty. And, for the most part, they were—especially when it came to procuring a continuous supply of raw materials from abroad. In that context, Chandler’s odes to managerial capitalism were just the flip side of theories of underdevelopment advanced by critical economists in Latin America: the smooth functioning of American managerial capitalism came at the cost of making many foreign economies highly dysfunctional and stunted in their development. These economies became mere appendages of the American production system, unable to develop their own industry.
The most important disagreement was over who “built” managerial capitalism. For Chandler, it was the pull of exogenous technological development and the imperatives of mass society. For his critics—who instead preferred terms like “corporate liberalism”—it was the capitalists who, finding allies in the apparatus of the state, trapped open-ended technologies inside narrow corporate agendas. Managers were the consequence, not the cause, of such developments.
Since Zuboff, like Chandler, did not have to fully engage such criticisms, she could afford to wax nostalgic about the “constructive producer-consumer reciprocities” of managerial capitalism in her earlier work. She was not unfamiliar with the “corporate liberalism” thesis, even citing Martin Sklar, one of its main proponents, in The Support Economy. And yet she made no use of such critiques. Instead, she continued to see managerial capitalism as a win-win compromise between consumers, workers, and producers; one cemented through democratic institutions, but, unfortunately, still lacking in opportunities for individual self-realization
A full accounting for the methods and costs of managerial capitalism, however, must look beyond the consumer-producer-worker axis. What did it mean for race relations, family structure, the environment, the rest of the world? What about people’s self-determination outside of the marketplace? Shouldn’t its putative successor regime—whether it’s rooted in advocacy or surveillance—be evaluated on this much greater scale of potential costs? These additional considerations, however, never really enter the picture, as the overall functionalist tenor of the argument already dictates the very criteria on which the attractiveness of the new regime must be assessed.
It’s much easier to come to grips with the paradoxes of Zuboff’s thought by viewing her as the genuine American counterpart to Italian autonomist Marxism. If Toni Negri taught at Harvard Business School, he would sound like Shoshana Zuboff. In surveying the ruins of the industrial society in the late 1970s, the Italians—best known through the work of Negri but comprising many other interesting thinkers—reached conclusions very similar to hers. Like Zuboff, they viewed information technology as a potentially liberating force, something that could help unleash workers’ cognitive and communicative skills after their long period of suppression under the physical-labor regime of Taylorism.
Just like Zuboff’s standardized mass consumer was superseded by the idiosyncratic individuated consumer who creates value outside of the factory, so was the autonomists’ Taylorized “mass worker” superseded by the “social worker.” This newly empowered figure also created value outside the firm, in what the autonomists dubbed the “social factory.” This seemingly innocuous assumption challenged orthodox leftist theories that restricted membership in the working class to factory workers while ignoring immense toil on the invisible margins of the social factory—e.g. women’s housework—which was essential to continuous production.
As wage workers started rebelling in the 1970s, capitalists were chased out from the factories. They did not suffer much, and they soon learned how to appropriate value on the margins of the “social factory,” commodifying many of the activities that were previously offered through the welfare state or informal arrangements. Thus was the “service economy” born.
But here the normative programs diverged. Zuboff previously hoped that the more enlightened of such capitalists could usher in the next, humane stage—that of the “support economy.” The autonomists, by then marginalized or exiled after decades of tumult, saw value-extraction from the social factory as just another form of rent: an unnecessary tax on the social activity of the autonomous and disobedient “multitude,” their preferred collective political subject. They sensed other problems. Since work was increasingly collaborative and intangible, it was no longer possible to pay workers—let alone those on the margins of the social factory who were rarely compensated at all—for their individual, easily observable contribution to production. To restore justice, the Italian autonomists demanded universal basic income.
They did not posit the same imperatives as Zuboff did, but the assumption of their theory was an assumption as functionalist as anything in Chandler or Parsons: what drove capitalism was not so much its need to expand, but, rather, the ability of labor to always be one step ahead of capital, threatening its dominance at every move. Where Zuboff posited that consumers desire and capitalists adapt, the autonomists held that workers advance and capitalists adapt—usually by retreating. This explanation of things had great rhetorical power but was of little help in charting political strategies: to see the period between the 1970s and 2010s as a retreat of disorganized capitalism at the hands of a well-organized multitude requires a lot of creative imagination. The autonomists had a big thesis, with imperatives and all, and they turned to history and current affairs to find enough evidence to prove it. But as was the case for the functionalist Chandlerians, their engagement with alternative explanations often left much to be desired.
As actual factories began shutting down and relocating to the East, the Italians shifted their focus as well. Eventually, they produced a theory of “cognitive capitalism,” which preached imminent emancipation of cognitive and immaterial workers from the old surly bonds of Taylorism. There was no longer any safe harbor for capitalists to retreat to: the digitization of everything meant that the multitude had won the war. And, as the denizens of the social factory were waiting for their reparations, why not advocate for transitional measures like a universal basic income?
To see the period between the 1970s and 2010s as a retreat of disorganized capitalism at the hands of a well-organized multitude requires a lot of creative imagination.
By her second book, Zuboff, too, seemed to have lost much interest in production. Aside from many pages on the power of federations of firms, The Support Economy made production almost invisible. Was this a tacit admission that the ambiguity of her first book had been resolved—and not in the favor of workers? Perhaps. Neither clerical work nor industrial production had embraced “informating.” Workers in other sectors soon found themselves trapped in new temples of “panoptical power,” such as Amazon’s warehouses. Clerical workers haven’t fared much better, with some digitally chained to “smart desks” that monitored their every move. Germany’s Industry 4.0—the world’s most advanced initiative of digitized production—is the culmination of Taylorism, not of workplace democracy.
With production mostly out of the picture, it was the changing nature of consumption that justified the early optimism of the numerous prophets of the postindustrial society. Our working lives might not have bought much empowerment, but we could, perhaps, still reclaim some dignity through “individuated consumption”—one of the key concepts of The Support Economy. You didn’t need to be at Harvard Business School to appreciate these changes. In fact, many on the left joined the bandwagon. Marxism Today, a now defunct theoretical publication of the Communist Party of Great Britain, was the most exuberant, eventually paving the path toward Tony Blair’s “Third Way” between the compassionate, anti-Thatcherite neoliberalism and the slick, consumerism-friendly communitarianism.
The Italians didn’t go so far, but they did extend the concept of the social factory to include consumption: consumers were actually “prosumers,” in their schema, engaged in “immaterial labor” like, for example, unwittingly producing the intangible value of brands. Prosumption, however, was not the only social role assigned to members of the “multitude”; nor was it something to celebrate. To diagnose prosumption as a source of value extraction was not to endorse it but to argue that the standard ways of accounting for value, including those favored by many orthodox Marxists, were inadequate.
Here the normative differences surface once again. For Zuboff, a business professor, a re-orientation of corporate ethos was in order; the condescension of mass production was to be replaced by support for and advocacy of consumers’ own interests. The emancipated consumers would pay cash to satisfy their needs while the enlightened capitalists adjusted their business models accordingly: there was no hint of social conflict because “prosumption” and its equivalents in Zuboff’s own theory (The Support Economy never uses that term) is what consumers wanted all along.
The Italians disagreed and insisted on finding ways to redistribute some of the value back to those toiling in the social factory. In addition to a UBI, they wanted more welfare (the precondition of sound social development), but reinvented it as “commonfare,” with a radically democratized administrative model in which citizens—not bureaucrats—would be in charge.
What to make of these theories in 2019? The greatest challenge for the Italians has been the difficulty of implementing their utopia of collective self-empowerment through horizontal, decentralized, and non-state institutions. While self-run policlinics or schools were easy to imagine, especially in the 1970s, how was a self-run AI or cloud computing infrastructure supposed to come into existence, especially without a sustained push by the long-despised state? And, in the absence of citizen-run computer infrastructure, what good is a self-run school that would be totally dependent on Google?
The key premise of the Italian autonomist theory—that capital was becoming external to labor, allowing empowered cognitive workers, now scattered through the social factory, to self-valorize—looks increasingly questionable. The autonomists’ conception of techno-capitalists as passive and freeloading rentiers is hard to reconcile with the massive, multibillion-dollar capital investments undertaken by today’s tech giants. If these are the rentiers, then who are the capitalists?
Nonetheless, the autonomists furnished a utopian vision of almost biblical proportions: capital, in its transition to the service economy, inadvertently unchains the workers, turning capitalists into minor parasites on broader global networks of social cooperation. Since some means of immaterial production—e.g. free software or Wikipedia—are now beyond capitalist control, the multitude, unlike the workers of mass production, can flee their prisons and prosper autonomously. The social factory turns into one big happy squat.
As most alternative institutions of the emancipated society that have failed to appear, the Italian vision, shrunk to vulgar slogans, now mostly survives in the idea that users of tech platforms produce value and should be paid for it, through a guaranteed basic income or otherwise. Some recent European proposals to institute a new kind of tax on digital services make use of similar propositions, insisting that the data furnished by their users is what accounts for their immense commercial success and thus has to be taxed accordingly.
Located much closer to the management headquarters of the world’s social factory, Zuboff, in contrast, didn’t see capitalists becoming superfluous. Nor, judging by her work prior to The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, did she want to. It would be much better for society to subdue the capitalists, she argued, demanding some corporate humanism on the cheap. Moreover, there was no reason to insist that the data and other types of intangibles furnished by consumers called for unique tax arrangements, let alone novel redistribution schemes such as the basic income. To argue this was to get distributed capitalism backwards: the wholescale realization of consumer needs wouldn’t be possible without the appropriation of such data. In distributed capitalism, consumers got most of their complex needs satisfied—if anything, it’s they who should be paying.
“Managerial capitalism” hunted and automated the body; “surveillance capitalism” hunts and automates the mind.
But by 2013, when Zuboff published the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung article that eventually culminated in her theory of surveillance capitalism, the grounds for her early optimism were gone. Distributed capitalism had not arrived. Rather, the worst part of managerial capitalism—the Taylorist method of extracting tacit knowledge to control workers—came to rationalize the entire social factory, not just its productive quarters. It has now invaded and overtaken one key part of the capitalist economy—consumption—that formerly excited Zuboff. (As novel as Zuboff’s neo-Taylorist revolution might seem in 2019, it’s worth noting that some of the more radical observers of hi-tech capitalism—such as the British sociologist Frank Webster—posited the arrival of surveillance-powered “social Taylorism” already in the late 1980s.)
If Taylorism extracted and rationalized the tacit knowledge of the worker, surveillance capitalism extracts and rationalizes the tacit knowledge of the supposedly emancipated consumer. As Zuboff notes, “the focus has shifted from machines that overcome the limits of bodies to machines that leverage ubiquitous knowledge to modify the behavior of individuals, groups, and populations in the service of market objectives.” “Managerial capitalism” hunted and automated the body; “surveillance capitalism” hunts and automates the mind.
While the power of Taylorism was raw and its methods visible, the new regime covers its tracks, creating an illusion of genuine autonomy. But underneath today’s social factory runs a complex web of algorithmic and data-extracting processes that turn our mundane everyday existence into just another raw material. Thus, the fearful prediction of Zuboff’s first book, that technology might augment the “panoptical power” of managers, not only came to pass but has been realized on a much grander scale—and in the very individual space outside the firm that her seconded book posited as a potential site of liberation. The task of her most recent book, then, is to document the destructive nature of this expansion, as well as to insist that a return to the more humane, advocacy-based capitalism is still possible: the social factory can informate, not just automate.
Seen through the lens of surveillance capitalism, the Italian utopia of cognitive workers on the run from the shackles of capitalism is dead on arrival: our digital institutions are deaf to the demands of the multitude, marching to the beat of surveillance capital instead. The latter insidious force structures our every social interaction, with just one goal: to extract more data, to sell ads, to nudge us toward more “positive”—but for whom?—social outcomes. As smart capitalists digitized the social factory, it morphed back into the actual factory it once was. Here, value is generated not through rent extraction, as Italians still argue today when, for example, discussing finance or Google’s PageRank algorithm. No, instead of the almost pre-capitalist figure of the rentier leveraging property rights to appropriate social surplus, we are dealing with normal capitalist enterprises subject to standard laws and imperatives.
Whatever the similarities, there is one key difference between Zuboff and the Italians: where they tend to think in terms of the multitude, however ambiguous and misleading this concept might be, Zuboff thinks in terms of the singularity—that of the sovereign consumer. Her digital version of the social factory resembles Go, the automated, cashier-less supermarket that Amazon is now launching across America: the only visible social actor there is the consumer. All the social movements she invokes serve the secondary role of merely assisting that consumer in the pursuit of self-realization; the sparse references to the state in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism also appear mostly in the same context. The choices, thus, are predictably few: let the consumer leverage advocacy capitalism for the purposes of self-realization, or surrender to the pillaging of surveillance capitalists, who will hijack the consumer’s mind in the pursuit of their own objectives.
After this rather long, eight-chapter prelude—this review aspires to rival the book in prolixity—it’s time to examine just how well Zuboff’s account of surveillance capitalism holds as a theory. One of the unstated advantages of operating inside the Chandlerian framework is that, if Zuboff succeeds in the task that she has tacitly set out for herself, her book will yield a strong analytical model that will inform all subsequent interpretations of the digital economy. This, after all, is what happened to Chandler: his framing became the dominant, if occasionally contested, model to think about the era of mass production.
Zuboff, however, does not explicitly state that she is offering an analytical model of such humongous intellectual ambition; she barely mentions Chandler himself. In fact, she always leaves the door open to a different interpretation: that she only wants to illustrate the destructive battle for the world’s data that is currently unfolding between companies such as Google and Facebook, with individual consumer autonomy as its collateral damage. A detailed explanation of the moves and tactical considerations that shape this battle leads her to introduce a phenomenon called surveillance capitalism, but the theoretical ambitions of this concept, under the current interpretation, are very modest.
For the sake of clarity, let’s call this interpretation Thesis I. Offering nothing more than a description, Thesis I implies very little about the durability, overall importance, and impact of surveillance capitalism on capitalism itself. There are definitely many negative social effects, but Thesis I doesn’t hold them to be worse than those of alternative models.
Zuboff provides enough disclaimers to suggest that illustrating Thesis I—a set of observations, not a hypothesis—is all she intends to do. Just when surveillance capitalism seems revolutionary—why else call it a “new economic order” that affects even vodka bottles and rectal thermometers?—Zuboff concedes that capitalism’s regular laws of motion remain, merely complemented now by the new data-focused imperatives. Read as a meticulous exposition of Thesis I, the book is a mystery: why go to such lengths to reveal the occasional harm of Google and Facebook—no shocking news in 2019—only to withhold broader and bolder conclusions?
So the argument in Zuboff’s book that we might dub Thesis II is, perhaps, a better fit. First, it’s a proper hypothesis: it posits that surveillance capitalism not only produces effects that are unequivocally worse than those of alternative digital regimes, but that it’s also becoming the hegemonic form of capitalism. The older laws of capitalism apply, but only formally, with class, capital, and the means of production retaining little analytical purchase. To adapt to the rapidly changing environment, today’s capitalists must follow the imperatives of the new, surveillance-based logic; they must worry about the means of behavioral modification, not about the means of production.
Thesis II has groundbreaking implications. It identifies data extraction and behavior modification not as occasional consequences of capitalist competition, but as the underlying causes that propel the emergence of the new economic order, while its imperatives, in turn, come to overpower those of capitalism itself. Thesis II augurs a Copernican revolution in how we understand the digital economy. But this revolution rests on rather delicate foundations, for Zuboff must prove, not just posit, its underlying reversal of causality. If she fails, we are back to Thesis I: data is being appropriated—extensively, rationally, nefariously—and efforts to monetize it occasionally have deleterious social effects—an argument that’s surely correct, but somewhat banal.
The critical and dispositive proof for Thesis II never arrives, however—hardly a surprise to anyone familiar with the Chandlerian business theory. Instead, the simplicity of Thesis I and the ambition of Thesis II blend to yield the tautology of Thesis III, equally well-known to the Chandler aficionados: surveillance capitalists engage in surveillance capitalism because this is what the imperatives of surveillance capitalism demand. Zuboff makes regular use of this auxiliary thesis, as it handily postulates what she otherwise needs to prove.
Thesis III, however, is not a hypothesis to be proven but an axiom impossible to falsify: any cases that do not fit the theory can always be dismissed as lying outside of surveillance capitalism as the theory defines it, and thus, not subject to its imperatives. What can be falsified is Thesis II, as it posits actual causal mechanisms.
Before you, dear reader, get queasy, suspecting, not incorrectly, that a boring and cruel exercise in analytic philosophy is about to unfold, let us be clear about its rationale: without a clear restatement of Zuboff’s thesis in lucid and testable language, we are always at risk of drowning in the tautological bogs of Thesis III. With this proviso, we can proceed with our own miniature Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Thesis II is a bundle of several propositions:
i) information civilization could choose between surveillance capitalism and advocacy capitalism;
ii) both leverage data extraction: one to procure behavioral surplus, one to improve services;
iii) certain features of information civilization have made surveillance capitalism hegemonic;
iv) as it becomes hegemonic, so do its imperatives;
v) in its social effects, surveillance capitalism is worse than its alternatives.
The evidence furnished to prove each of the Thesis II claims above is often incomplete and does not preclude alternative explanations. In such cases, Thesis III fills the gaps. Let us tackle each of those propositions on their own terms.
Proposition i seems unassailable; Zuboff can slice the intellectual pie however she wants (as she already did with informating and automating, for example). We might ask, nevertheless, why “information civilization” faces a choice only between two capitalisms. This was forgivable in the speculations of Francis Fukuyama circa 1989; 2019 requires, perhaps, more nuance. This, undoubtedly, has to do with the sacrosanct role that consumption is afforded in Zuboff’s overall theory. More on this later on.
Proposition ii is crucial, since it posits causal relationships between data extraction and the imperatives of the two economic orders: in the information civilization, data is collected either because it constitutes behavioral surplus (giving us surveillance capitalism), or because it improves services (giving us advocacy capitalism). The proposition might hold for ideal cases such as Google and Apple. But what about border cases? Just how well does the focus on the afterlife of user data explain the dynamics of “information capitalism” itself?
Consider Amazon. Kindle e-readers constantly collect data—books read, pages turned, paragraphs underlined—which helps Amazon to decide which books to publish through its own imprints. This fits under the brief of advocacy capitalism: consumers eventually get more relevant books. Amazon, however, also makes cheaper Kindle models that contain advertising. If the advertising is personalized, we must be in full-blown surveillance capitalism. If it’s generic, we must be in the no man’s land of digital capitalism, stuck between advocacy and surveillance. If surveillance capitalism is, indeed, diagnosed, then a double movement of some kind should arise and ensure that we are all paying the full price for those e-readers; otherwise, our autonomy is at threat.
Notice that this normative prescription, as well as the explanation of why personalized advertising exists, are furnished by the miraculously persuasive powers of Thesis III. But haven’t we merely postulated that data either improves services or modifies behavior instead of showing that these outcomes occur? What if those Kindle ads, personalized or not, are there merely to allow Amazon to appeal to price-sensitive consumers? After all, the facts that tech leviathans collect data and disburse advertising also fit different explanations. What if Amazon merely wants to flood the market with cheaper devices, securing its market position? Why is “cornering” the supply of data more important than cornering the market itself?
Consider, likewise, Amazon’s expansion into our homes. Amazon might indeed be harvesting our conversations from Alexa-enabled devices to eventually modify our behavior; moreover, it might even be modifying our behavior to extract more data. But it’s also possible that Amazon simply wants to improve its voice recognition capacity, which it then monetizes through Amazon Web Services, the main source of its profits. Amazon, like most large tech concerns, does conceal its data extraction. But the invisibility of its operations proves, at most, that they are rogue. Zuboff’s definition of surveillance capitalism hinges upon whether behavioral surplus is used to modify behavior, not whether data extraction is visible. The processes of data extraction inherent in Zuboff’s positive alternative (when the data enter behavioral reinvestment cycle) are, after all, as opaque as those same processes under surveillance capitalism (when the data yield behavioral surplus).
So, what drives Amazon: profitability and survival, or data extraction and behavior modification? Zuboff’s Copernican revolution says the latter agenda has overtaken digital-capitalist enterprise. “Amazon is on the hunt for behavioral surplus,” she writes. “This explains why the company joined Apple and Google in the contest for your car’s dashboard, forging alliances with Ford and BMW.” Here is the same hypothesis as it would likely have been formulated prior to Zuboff’s Copernican revolution: “Amazon joined Apple and Google in the contest for your car’s dashboard, forging alliances with Ford and BMW. As a result, it’s on the hunt for behavioral surplus.”
Why Amazon would join Apple and Google in that mission is something to be investigated, not assumed. To do it properly, we might even need to stop focusing on the consumer-facing operations of such firms and examine how they interact with their business- and government-facing operations. Since the latter do not involve consumers, they are rarely invoked by Zuboff—even though they often reap much higher profit margins than the advertising arms of the tech giants do.
In any event, Zuboff doesn’t have to investigate why Amazon would join Apple (Apple?!) and Google in that mission, since Thesis III conveniently supplies all the answers. Thus, the hunt for behavioral surplus becomes the cause, not the effect, of what the tech firms do. And even though Zuboff concedes that the broader imperatives of market competition shape their battle, these firms do their work only after the goal of the battle—data harvesting—has been set, from the outside, by Thesis III. Surveillance capitalism is, unsurprisingly, more “surveillance” than “capitalism.”
The criterion by which Proposition ii classifies firms—do they extract data to modify behavior or to improve services?—also yields some odd results. Consider Uber, which is barely mentioned in the book, and perhaps for good reason. Not dependent on advertising revenue, Uber faces different incentives than Google or Facebook do. Does it practice advocacy capitalism? Its executives would say so: Uber’s aggressive tactics ensure that passengers get better and cheaper services. This meets Zuboff’s definition: “when a firm collects behavioral data with permission and solely as a means to product or service improvement, it is committing capitalism but not surveillance capitalism.”
Uber, however, also does many other odious things with data. Consider the Greyball scandal uncovered by the New York Times in 2017. Greyball was Uber’s internal spying system that made its vehicles invisible to users near government buildings while flagging their data, such as credit card details, that suggested they worked in law enforcement. Here the goal of data extraction, however rogue and invisible, was neither the modification of user behavior nor service improvement. Rather, it was the creation of a permanent underclass of non-users in order to escape regulation and keep costs low.
There’s a simpler, more general theory to account for data extraction and behavior modification that Zuboff overlooks, trapped as she is inside the Chandlerian framework, with its burning need to find a successor to managerial capitalism. This simpler theory goes like this: tech firms, like all firms, are driven by the need to assure long-term profitability. They achieve it by overpowering their competitors through faster growth, externalizing the costs of their operations and leveraging their political power. Data extraction and the behavioral modification it enables—clearly more important to firms in industries such as online advertising—arise, where they do, in that context.
In other words, they are just a local effect of the global cause. It’s that cause—the need to ensure long-term profitability in the face of competition—that drives their data strategy. This parsimonious explanation handles the cases of both Google and Uber, without any need to posit new, hybrid “regimes” such as, say, rogue “advocacy-oriented capitalism.” In fact, the regime is just one—capitalism—and using it as an analytical category helps to make up for numerous deficiencies in accounts of managerial capitalism and surveillance capitalism alike.
The recent revelations about Facebook’s controversial data-sharing practices confirm that the imperatives of “surveillance capitalism,” if they exist, are only secondary to those of capitalism itself. The company, preoccupied with growth, handled data as a strategic asset: where the imperatives of expansion suggested that it ought to be shared with other tech companies, it did so without hesitation, giving access to Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, and even Apple (though Apple denied their involvement). Under capitalism, who gets to appropriate behavioral surplus is of only secondary importance; what matters is who gets to appropriate actual surplus—and to thereby remain in the position of doing so over the long term.
Proposition iii, that the present conjuncture favors surveillance capitalism over advocacy capitalism, seems plausible. As I’ve noted above, Zuboff evokes “selective affinities” between the imperatives of surveillance capitalism and those that shaped post 9/11 military operations and neoliberal deregulatory initiatives. This, however, only explains why surveillance capitalism has prospered, not why it has prospered at the expense of advocacy capitalism. To do that, we would need to show that the selective affinities hospitable to surveillance capitalism were not simultaneously hospitable to advocacy capitalism.
Is that true? Apple, hardly a victim of neoliberalism, channels money via Braeburn Capital, a giant hedge fund. Amazon, with its 600,000 employees, is a major beneficiary of weaker labor laws. Amazon lists the CIA as a major client. Apple’s Siri comes from the Stanford Research Institute, a beneficiary of defense funding. Such selective affinities turn out on closer inspection to be legion. But this is where Thesis III does its magic again, altering the original proposition: surveillance capitalism has proven to be hegemonic in environments where it has proven to be hegemonic.
However, even this hegemony is postulated, not proven. Wouldn’t the dynamics of competition prod Google and Facebook into following the path of Amazon and Microsoft, selling services such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence? Since such computing projects promise lucrative profit margins, and advertising increasingly entails higher costs, a theory that views capitalists as chasing profitability (not efficiency or behavioral surplus) suggests so. Might not such services overtake advertising and behavior modification as the primary model of the digital economy? Of course, they might—but it’s not a problem for Zuboff, as Thesis III allows her to reinsert such dynamics into the quest for behavioral surplus. Paradoxically, even the triumph of other logics is just another confirmation that surveillance capitalism still rules supreme.
Some shortcomings of the Proposition iv—stipulating that the imperatives of surveillance capitalism overpower those of capitalism itself—have already been discussed. Recall that Thesis II explains the strategy of surveillance capitalists by their primary imperative to corner supplies of behavioral surplus. Since 2001, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, acquired more than 220 firms; Facebook swept up more than seventy. Did the hunt for data drive these acquisitions? Or were some of them, including the acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, driven by a quest for market power? Looking merely at what happened to the data of the two merging firms can’t answer this question. Thesis III, however, can.
Let’s return to Uber. Does it extract data, and should we worry about it? Certainly. But should we accept Zuboff’s Copernican revolution, and reimagine the digital economy by putting data extraction at its center?
In Uber’s case, the pre-Copernican narrative explains far more. In 2017, Uber lost $4.5 billion; its expected loss for 2018 is of a similar magnitude. The company stays afloat on an ocean of debt, awaiting an IPO which might inject new funds of external investors, by burning the cash of Saudi Arabia and Japan’s SoftBank—the latter of which is itself more than $150 billion in debt. Why would such a heavily indebted firm invest in a loss-making company? Why has SoftBank’s debt financing been so cheap? And why does Saudi Arabia pour cash into tech ventures? Answers to these questions won’t illuminate what Uber does with data, but they will reveal the company’s primary imperative: crush the competition. Undoubtedly, this prime directive occasionally involves data extraction. But the reverse doesn’t hold.
To view surveillance capitalism as our new invisible Leviathan is to miss how power, under capitalism, has been operating for several centuries.
We should, of course, aspire to balance micro and macro explanations. But Zuboff’s own attempt is always mediated by the internal logical consistency of Thesis III. “Technology is an expression of other interests,” she writes. “In modern times this means the interests of capital, and in our time, it is surveillance capital that commands the digital milieu and directs our trajectory toward the future.” This conclusion that surveillance capital, not plain old capital, dictates the development of technology today is merely postulated. The earlier, non-Chandlerian categories lose their analytical importance by fiat. The reports of their irrelevance are true: Zuboff’s account began by presuming that they do not matter. This is also what she did in her first book, where the chosen focus on conflicts between managers and workers left no space for class analysis. Back then, however, Zuboff did not muster the courage to claim that her own peculiar analytical choices have invalidated the earlier frameworks.
Such tunnel vision is common in much of Chandlerian business theory; its practitioners, moreover, hardly keep this a secret. Chandler himself was quite explicit about his focus in the opening pages of his The Visible Hand, “I deal with broad political, demographic, and social developments only as they impinge directly on the ways in which the enterprise carried out the processes of production and distribution.” We can tolerate, with considerable effort, such narrow focus in business history, if only because much of this hagiography is consumed by the companies themselves. When, however, it becomes the foundation of theory, as Chandler’s history was for subsequent theories of the firm and Zuboff’s might become for theories of the digital firm, we risk substituting corporate solipsism for theoretical insight.
This leaves us with Proposition v: the idea that the harms of surveillance capitalism are worse than those of alternative logics. By this point, we are rooting for this proposition to hold: why spend so many pages on what Zuboff calls “instrumentarian power” if it’s just one of the many powers in digital capitalism and possibly even not the worst kind? Alas, Zuboff hedges her bets, conceding that the “monopolistic and anticompetitive practices in the case of Amazon” and “pricing, tax strategies, and employment policies [in the case of] Apple” are also problematic.
In the absence of a framework for comparing the harms of surveillance capitalism with those of its alternatives, there’s only one solution: ask the reader to assume, following Proposition iii, that it is hegemonic, so its problems deserve more attention. If it’s not, why worry about the consumers in Alexa-run smart homes more than the workers in Amazon’s neo-Taylorist smart warehouses?
Lacking an account of how anonymous power under capitalism operates, Zuboff ends up contrasting the “instrumentarian power” of surveillance capitalism with “the totalitarian power” of dictatorships. Where “totalitarianism operated through the means of violence . . . instrumentarian power operates through the means of behavioral modification” and “has no interest in our souls or any principle to instruct.”
Perhaps, but what of Marx’s “dull compulsion of economic relations”? Did it represent no power at all? Here is Friedrich Hayek, the anti-Marx, writing in the 1970s: “Competition produces . . . a kind of impersonal compulsion which makes it necessary for numerous individuals to adjust their way of life in a manner that no deliberate instructions or commands could bring about.” Isn’t Hayek referring here to behavioral modification, undertaken by impersonal forces of capitalism with no totalitarian injunctions? To view surveillance capitalism as our new invisible Leviathan is to miss how power, under capitalism, has been operating for several centuries: the invisible Leviathan has been with us for quite some time.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s most pronounced shortcomings have to do with the relationship it establishes between capitalism and surveillance capitalism—as well as the way in which it prioritizes the problems of this new market form over those of capitalism itself. Let’s dig a bit deeper into how these dynamics are supposed to operate.
Why is surveillance capitalism capitalist? Because, it appears, there’s a private appropriation of behavioral surplus. The latter bears some resemblance to Marx’s notion of “surplus labor”—the idea that, due to their ownership of the means of production, capitalists can get workers to give some of their labor away for free. But Zuboff also contends that behavior and human experience are raw material, not labor, without quite explaining the differences. There are, of course, exciting new and ongoing ways to expand the theory of value familiar to Marxists by incorporating factors other than labor (e.g. nature). Zuboff, however, does not pursue that route. Her own theory of value is still the one used in The Support Economy: all value is created by emancipated consumers.
But puzzles remain. Advocacy-oriented capitalism, Zuboff’s preferred alternative, is as capitalist as the surveillance brand is; it, too, features private appropriation of user feedback, even if firms seem to pursue such appropriations in the mandate of service improvement. Why, then, is advocacy capitalism superior to surveillance capitalism? Partly because, in the absence of advertising, it is deemed to be free from the power imbalances of unequal exchange, making the relationship between companies and consumers one of “reciprocity.” Under surveillance capitalism, consumers become subjugated to imperatives that are not theirs, their autonomy is undermined, and so forth.
It’s an odd argument to make. To contend that the absence of behavioral surplus means that the relationship between Apple and its customers is free from the dynamics of unequal exchange is to ignore all the ways in which Apple regularly pushes its customers around, even preventing them from using third-party repair services. Doesn’t that prosaic model of market dominance undermine autonomy as well? Since “advocacy” firms are defined only by their refusal to appropriate behavioral surplus, however, such habitual exercises of corporate power are not detected by the theory.
Note that Zuboff’s entire understanding of capitalism is underpinned by her understanding of consumption. Remove the consumer, and there’s no surveillance capitalism, just as there’s no “capitalism” without “labor” in Marx. This means, among other things, that behavioral surplus (and thus surveillance capitalism) can only exist if there’s an autonomous human subject whose will may be modified by commerce. Thus, a hedge fund deploying satellites to survey the movement of vehicles near supermarkets or warehouses—a common practice to gauge the level of a venue’s commercial activity—lies outside of surveillance capitalism, strictly construed.
So, for that matter, does much of the commercially profitable surveillance of social and economic activity that is not directly tied to behavior modification. Recall that the behavioral reinvestment cycle turns into behavioral surplus only when some objective limit of user monitoring needed to improve the service is exceeded. Zuboff’s real concern, then, is not surveillance, but the behavior manipulation that follows it—just like, thirty years ago, her concern was not the writing of the “electronic text” per se, but its use to dominate, not empower. Why, then, speak of “surveillance capitalism” and not, say, “behavior modification capitalism,” when it’s clear that the latter is Zuboff’s real object of concern?
Apart from lamenting that it employs few workers, Zuboff does not identify the dynamics that undermine surveillance capitalism from within. The absence of such countervailing tendencies is strange. Even Marx, convinced of capitalism’s inevitable decline, identified a few, e.g. that automation shrinks the labor surplus to be appropriated, pushing the profit rate down, even as it also works to push that same profit rate back up by cheapening the cost of inputs.
Are Zuboff’s surveillance capitalists interested in turning us into a uniform gray mass, as she posits? Maybe, but they seem as interested in keeping us diverse and eccentric. How else would they get fresh viral content to monetize? In Zuboff’s telling, it also appears that surveillance capitalism hurts everyone equally. And yet, aren’t the retirees of Oslo, whose pensions are—via Norway’s sovereign wealth fund—invested in the stocks of surveillance capitalists, predisposed to like it more than the landless workers of São Paulo?
What about the relationship between the laws of surveillance capitalism and those of capitalism itself? As I’ve suggested earlier, Zuboff posits that surveillance capitalism has its own laws of motion, but that capitalism’s more generic laws of motion also hold: firms compete, cut costs, chase profitability. Marxists would also emphasize the centrality of class to the distribution of power, the private ownership of the means of production, and the corrosive social effects of the commodity form.
Advocacy-oriented capitalism, Zuboff’s preferred alternative, is as capitalist as the surveillance brand is.
In describing key features of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff insists that this regime feeds on more than just the labor emphasized by Marxists, indirectly acknowledging the earlier validity of a Marxist interpretive template. Why she felt the urge to do so is a mystery, as it immediately makes her own argument vulnerable to attacks from the more radical flank. She writes, “The struggle for power and control in society is no longer associated with the hidden facts of class and its relationship to production but rather by the hidden facts of automated [sic] engineered behavior modification.”
Much hinges upon this “no longer”—it basically posits that class had great explanatory power once, but it no longer does; instead, we need to look to behavior modification. Moreover, under surveillance capitalism, “the means of production are subordinated to an elaborate new means of behavioral modification.” These are all bold claims with vast political and theoretical implications. Being merely postulated, they are not really given the attention they deserve, let alone subjected to empirical testing.
We can, nonetheless, try. For Zuboff, Google’s business cycle starts with the procurement of behavioral surplus, which, after passing through the “means of behavioral modification,” gets transformed into “prediction products”; these are eventually sold to customers, such as advertisers. The conventional means of production does seem irrelevant to this story: at best, it helps extract the behavioral surplus from user-consumers, but it’s Google’s powerful ad auctions that do most of the work. Zuboff’s story, however, is quite partial. The supposed irrelevance of production is just the natural consequence of the exclusive focus on consumption typical of the post-Fordist prophecy. If we treat consumers as the main source of value, it’s only logical that we will lose sight of the value produced elsewhere.
The means of production behind Google’s search engine includes its constantly updated index of “all of the world’s information,” drawing on trillions of previously crawled pages that are being queried, in real-time, by users searching for answers to their questions. The immense utility and reliability of the index, in turn, generates high traffic, which then—but only then— creates opportunities for monetization via advertising. The personalization of search results, enabled by the extraction of user data tied to search queries, user location, and other data points, does increase the utility of the service. Google’s behavioral surplus, however, is surely not the only surplus that boosts its balance sheet.
To test Zuboff’s claim that the means of production is now subordinated to the means of behavioral modification, we simply need to turn off Google’s crawler and see how long its advertising business will last. What keeps the search engine going? Well, plenty of engineers and computer scientists. Are they drained of their labor surplus? Perhaps, even if they seem too busy to notice. But surely, there must be some other trick. And in fact, there is: Google pays virtually nothing for indexing the content from other sites. This is how it can make so much money linking search queries to targeted ads; its production costs are minimal, as the indexed content arrives almost for free.
Who fills the index with useful content? The usual suspects: bots, hobbyists, academics, teenagers. But, also, plenty of precarious media professionals who are building their online reputations, hoping to produce “viral” content. That last group does sound like a “class,” and one that’s not so “hidden.” Google free-rides on content produced elsewhere, completely indifferent to how—through work or passion, laughter or tears—it is produced. Those with valuable data to index— Twitter, for example—got Google to pay them hefty data licensing fees; it costs Google to index, and profit from, their content. Most content providers, however, were not so lucky, as they lacked the bargaining power or even the awareness of what was going on.
Zuboff doesn’t have much to say about indexing, despite mentioning it in passing throughout the book. Instead, she draws on Marxist terms like “accumulation by dispossession” to argue that violent appropriations of raw materials are endemic to capitalism, not just limited to its early stage of “primitive accumulation.” The new neoliberal phase, she argues, intensifies such practices, with Google emerging as the master of what Zuboff calls “digital dispossession”: they are pillaging human experiences left and right.
Terms like “dispossession,” applied to the intangible realm, often confuse as much as they reveal. There is, after all, one important aspect in which data is decisively not like oil: it’s not scarce. The fact that Google, after a search query, knows that I like avocado toast does not mean that I myself have now forgotten that I like it. To posit that this is the same type of “dispossession” as the sort that involves someone coming along and physically removing avocado toast from my plate is simply wrong. This is not to argue that my search for “avocado toast” produces no value for Google, only that treating it as “dispossession” is erroneous.
Examined more closely, Zuboff’s grievances about “dispossession” and “primitive accumulation” enable her to pummel callous individual capitalists, while, at the same time, avoid criticizing commodification—the corrosive systemic imperative at the heart of capitalism that is touted as a source of emancipation, not enslavement, in her earlier work. The only time Zuboff actually criticizes commodification—in two paragraphs of almost identical wording, separated by two hundred pages—it is to complain about the commodification of “human behavior,” the supreme good at the center of her universe.
Instead, she prefers to recast even the most banal examples of commodification under “primitive accumulation” and “dispossession.” Zuboff writes, “in our time of pro-market ideology and practice, this cycle [of ongoing primitive accumulation] has become so pervasive that we eventually fail to notice its audacity or contest its claims. For example, you can now ‘purchase’ human blood and organs, someone to have your baby or stand in line for you or hold a public parking space, a person to comfort you in your grief, and the right to kill an endangered animal.” Nothing to disagree with here, but these are almost all textbook examples of commodification, not of “the accumulation by dispossession” described by David Harvey (whom she quotes, approvingly). The latter does often entail commodification, but they are not the same thing. And, in any event, aren’t most of these activities part of Zuboff’s support economy, itself a powerful license for full-blown commodification?
Such theoretical inconveniences aside, a proper analytical focus on production would reveal that even if Google had embraced Zuboff’s advocacy model, it would have been subject to the very same dynamics that Zuboff reserves for surveillance capitalism. Why is Google’s freeriding on the searches of its users in order to show them targeted advertising more of a problem than Google’s freeriding on the indexed content produced by its non-users, even if it’s in order to offer its users a superior, paid service that is free of advertising? For Zuboff, the former is more of a problem only because the advocacy option does not involve behavior modification. That its provision presupposes continuous shakedowns of the social factory for indexable content does not even register as a problem in the consumption-focused arguments of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, mostly because such shakedowns are made invisible to the final user-consumer and are presented as the inevitable byproduct of online search.
Here, then, is one of the main consequences of Zuboff’s Copernican revolution. The concept of surveillance capitalism shifts the locus of the inquiry, and the struggles it informs, from the justice of relations of production and distribution inside the digitized social factory to the ethics of exchange between companies and their users. To make the behavioral surplus of users—the emancipated consumers that people Zuboff’s earlier work—so crucial to the theory is to conclude that the extraction of surplus from all the other parts doesn’t matter, or perhaps even doesn’t exist.
It’s all a bit like saying that, under managerial capitalism, the struggles between capital and labor over the ownership of the factory’s equipment became subordinate to the struggles between managers and workers over access to the “electronic text” it produced. Zuboff never made that claim in her first book, as she wasn’t offering a theory of value—Marxist or otherwise—but, rather, documenting institutional struggles that arose due to information technology.
The latest book seeks to do both, but Zuboff’s theoretical apparatus is not particularly fit for the purpose. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism offers a thorough examination of how advertising-supported firms have incentives to extract ever more data, harming users, democracy, and much else in the process. What Zuboff doesn’t offer is an account of how value—all of it, not just those parts accruing to behavioral surplus—is produced in the digital economy. In its absence, Zuboff’s earlier assumption about surveillance capitalism being the worst of all possible information capitalisms is hard to evaluate, let alone justify.
There’s little doubt that Zuboff’s Copernican revolution is a step backward in our understanding of the dynamics of the digital economy. But even erroneous analytical frameworks can produce beneficial social effects. Google and Facebook will certainly find themselves under closer scrutiny by anyone who reads this book—not a trivial achievement. Should we accept the political utility of Zuboff’s framework while rejecting its analytical validity? I’d argue that we can proceed down that path only if we understand the price of doing so: a greater sense of confusion with regard to the origins, operations, and vulnerabilities of digital capitalism.
As a good Chandlerian, Zuboff deduces, often by examining speeches and papers of leading tech executives, imperatives that drive their firms. One problem with such discourse-based analysis is that it is prone to detect novelty where none might exist. Thus, in framing behavioral surplus as a new locus of capitalist appropriation, Zuboff merely rediscovers feedback mechanisms debated by cybernetics since the 1940s. Consider how, back in 1974, the British cybernetician Stafford Beer—who headed Project Cybseryn, Chile’s brief experiment with cybernetic socialism—described the dangers of letting the tech-savvy advertising industry appropriate user feedback:
We shall use the power of computers to undertake an editing process on behalf of the only editor who any longer counts—the client himself . . . If we can encode an individual’s interests and susceptibilities on the basis of feedback which he supplies . . . marketing people will come to use this technique to increase the relatively tiny response to a mailing shot which exists today to a response in the order of 90 percent. . . . The conditioning loop exercised upon the individual will be closed. Then we have provided a perfect physiological system for the marketing of anything we like—not then just genuine knowledge, but perhaps “political truth” or “the ineluctable necessity to act against the elected government.”
Zuboff’s dating of the “discovery” of behavioral surplus to Google’s foray into advertising, likewise, hides the geopolitical foundations that made that foray possible. Why did Google and Facebook emerge in America to conquer the rest of the globe? A non-functionalist historical explanation would flag carefully planned efforts—begun during the Cold War and undertaken in Washington, Wall Street, Hollywood, and, only later, Silicon Valley—to facilitate the “global free flow of information,” a euphemism for the global expansion of data-intensive US businesses. Any challenges to this regime by countries in the Global South were crushed.
The story of U.S. dominance in global telecommunications didn’t begin on 9/11; it’s much longer and uglier. How we identify and date its victims—whether we start in 2003 or 1973, when Beer’s Chilean experiment in cybernetic socialism was suppressed—matters. To claim that “surveillance capitalism was invented by a specific group of human beings in a specific time and place” is to erase much of this anonymous history. By seeking to explicate, and denounce, the novel dynamics of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff normalizes too much in capitalism itself.
Related to this is her Fukuyama-style framing of the choice facing information civilization as the choice between surveillance capitalism and advocacy-oriented capitalism. Shouldn’t we first ask why, by the 1990s, our information needs were no longer fulfilled by public institutions—such as libraries, universities, or the post-office—but rather by corporations? Was neoliberalism limited to boosting shareholder value and deregulation, as Zuboff, observing neoliberalism through the lens of the firm, notes? Or did it have other, more consequential dimensions?
For example, one of the key factors that contributed to the success of the neoliberal agenda was the pervasive rhetoric of “consumer sovereignty,” which sounds like something that Zuboff might well endorse. This ideology reimagined society as composed of opportunistic consumers rather than members of solidarity-infused institutions like trade unions. Credit and policy instruments aimed at behavioral modification were embraced by neoliberal policy-makers precisely because they worked to turn that notion into reality. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.” Will a post-neoliberal identity, receptive to ideas of solidarity, emerge on its own without a similar effort at behavioral modification? And should we categorically renounce behavioral modification in fighting global warming or sexism?
By seeking to explicate, and denounce, the novel dynamics of surveillance capitalism, Zuboff normalizes too much in capitalism itself.
Beyond demanding new rights and laws, Zuboff—a reformist, not a revolutionary—offers little by way of a concrete agenda. This policy lacuna might stem from how surveillance capitalism and its primary fictious commodity, human experience, are defined. Clearly, no one advocates socializing human experience. But if we were to define the fictitious commodity as data, sensible political demands, such as those for new kinds of data ownership, become possible. In dismissing such demands as merely reinforcing the status quo, Zuboff refers only to plans, such as those of the World Economic Forum, to treat data as an asset class. But what about proposals for more egalitarian regimes of data ownership, which, transcending private property, do not even appear on the corporate radar?
To attack Zuboff for the paucity of her policy agenda, however, is to overlook how its very meagerness comports with the scale of the problem it targets. Presupposing that the problem is the modification of human behavior, she extends the analytical template supplied by the liberal theory of individual rights—to “sanctuary” and “future tense”—into new domains. This response is logical within Zuboff’s framework: new forms of capitalism violate individual rights; in such cases, society traditionally created new rights; that’s what we must do now.
If we abandon the epistemological shackles of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s tautological Thesis III and the Chandlerian myths about the idyllic nature of managerial capitalism, we discover that the earlier problems were greater in scope, and that they were solved—when they were—differently. This doesn’t mean abandoning the struggle for rights, but recognizing that they can also be of a different kind. What, for example, about new social and economic rights, such as the right to unconditional and unlimited use of computer infrastructure, backed by the universal right to strong encryption when needed, which might lead to new forms of coordination grounded in solidarity, not the pursuit of profit?
The major obstacle standing in the path toward such rights is the fact that Zuboff’s emancipated user-consumer is almost constitutionally incapable of making collective demands, at least when they are not meant to lead to more and better consumption. Thus, she writes, approvingly, that “the first modernity suppressed the growth and expression of self in favor of collective solutions . . . by the second modernity, the self is all we have.” It’s from within this bleak conception of sociality that consumption emerges as the arch-institution of a modernity populated by individuals, not collectives.
Contrary to the expectations of the Italian autonomist theorists—who foresaw the coming of emancipatory futuristic feudalism, with its cognitive workers reclaiming the means of production while watching capitalists lose their collective grip on value extraction—the capitalists did not disappear. They just took a brief sabbatical to invent subtler forms of Taylorism. Steve Jobs promised us computers as “bicycles for the mind”; what we got instead are assembly lines for the spirit.
Is it worth remaking these assembly lines into artisanal workshops? In writing of “mutation” within “information capitalism” and of a “vaccine” to be applied against surveillance capitalism, Zuboff clearly believes that a more humane capitalist alternative is possible. We just need to ditch behavioral modification. Would a healthcare system furnished by Apple—expensive but data-secure—be better than a healthcare system furnished by Google—free but data-leaky? Perhaps. But must we really choose between the two? Or can our institutional imagination chart other alternatives?
The choice between Google and Apple rests on an earlier choice between capitalism and non-capitalism, which Zuboff’s Chandlerian gaze does not often register. Since the firm is the basic unit of analysis, seeing beyond capitalism is difficult, even if double movements are allowed to modify capitalism’s operations. Besides, Zuboff has long reached the conclusions that there’s no meaningful zone outside the commodity form. The commodity, as The Support Economy argued, is no longer something to fear; “everything that can be commoditized,” it proclaimed, “will be commoditized.”
We might tame the commodity via one of these double movements, but a life beyond commodities? Forget it. The postindustrial society has seen its own “end of history” arrive ahead of schedule. We don’t need to recur to the elitist pessimism of the Frankfurt School—oddly, an inspiration for Zuboff—to see that a theory with no outside to consumption is of little help in countering the likes of Facebook and Google. The central paradox of Zuboff’s thought remains: human experience should be protected from becoming a fictitious commodity, so that it can be emancipated and enriched by other commodities.
Steve Jobs promised us computers as “bicycles for the mind”; what we got instead are assembly lines for the spirit.
The autonomists, despite their very similar surrender to functionalist explanations and their almost theological reading of modern capitalism, rightly suggest that a more decentralized and decommodified social existence is both possible and desirable. Their own version of second modernity, like Zuboff’s, sees individuals breaking away from the standardized suburban cells assigned to them by the incomplete modernity of mass production. But, unlike her, they argue that true emancipation—including from massive bureaucratic institutions, not just market ones—is not to come from individuated consumption of advocacy services, but from the collective production of new democratic institutions. They reject Zuboff’s earlier notion of “individual space,” insisting that the space of genuine self-realization is always social.
Lacking a theory of what institutions and practices ought to lie outside the logic of capitalism, Zuboff can only turn to individual rights and consumption. Defined so narrowly, her preferred double movement will surely be hijacked by Apple’s Tim Cook. Should we give Apple a pass just because its “advocacy” involves an overpriced device which, while offering a modicum of privacy, also leads to its inevitable commodification? Do we not care if strong encryption is a universal right or a commercial service? Is behavioral modification through monetary imperatives less evil than oppression through data-related ones? If so, our problem is with “surveillance dataism,” not surveillance capitalism.
Zuboff, surprisingly, leaves this interpretative door open. Recast as a warning against “surveillance dataism,” the book holds up quite well. Anti-data-ist prophecy allows Zuboff to deflect accusations of tautology by downplaying explanations related to capitalist imperatives. Instead, she can claim that “instrumentarian power” actually consolidates a broader political logic—perhaps, of Foucault’s “governmentality”—which turns capitalist firms into mere pawns in the game of disciplining human behavior. Capitalists have no choice but to partake in this anonymous project of taming the infinities of human becoming; where they can, they also make profits, but such vulgar imperatives are only secondary to their overarching mission. Such reframing, however, robs the book of its own rationale: it’s supposed to be a theory of capitalism, Chandlerianism 2.0, written by a business professor—not a treatise on the disciplinary society of “dataism.” This is also not to mention that much of the social theory Zuboff herself invokes in order to speak of a “third modernity” goes directly against the darker Foucauldian interpretation of this epoch.
Zuboff’s Copernican revolution is much easier to explain by its debt to Chandler than Foucault. Chandler’s own prescriptions were usually limited to demanding that managers be more responsible. Zuboff transcends such defeatism. But her double movement will not win before both managerial capitalism and surveillance capitalism are theorized as “capitalism”—a complex set of historical and social relationships between capital and labor, the state and the monetary system, the metropole and the periphery—and not just as an aggregate of individual firms responding to imperatives of technological and social change. That the latter, miniaturized account of competitive enterprise is the working definition of “capitalism” in American business schools is no reason to impoverish the broader discussion of the system’s rationales and shortcomings.