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‘Technology is the puppet, but surveillance capitalism is the puppet master.’ Photograph: Getty Images
‘Technology is the puppet, but surveillance capitalism is the puppet master.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Shoshamãng cầu Zuboff’s new book is a chilling exposé of the business Mã Sản Phẩm that underpins the digital world. Observer tech columnist John Naughton explains the importance of Zuboff’s work và asks the author 10 key questions

We’re living through the most profound transformation in our information environment since Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of printing in circa 1439. And the problem with living through a revolution is that it’s impossible lớn take the long view of what’s happening. Hindsight is the only exact science in this business, và in that long run we’re all dead. Printing shaped & transformed societies over the next four centuries, but notoàn thân in Mainz (Gutenberg’s home town) in, say, 1495 could have known that his technology would (amuốn other things): fuel the Reformation & undermine the authority of the mighty Catholic church; enable the rise of what we now recognise as modern science; create unheard-of professions and industries; change the shape of our brains; & even recalibrate our conceptions of childhood. And yet printing did all this and more.

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Why choose 1495? Because we’re about the same distance into lớn our revolution, the one kicked off by digital giải pháp công nghệ & networking. And although it’s now gradually dawning on us that this really is a big giảm giá & that epochal social & economic changes are under way, we’re as clueless about where it’s heading & what’s driving it as the citizens of Mainz were in 1495.

That’s not for want of trying, mind. Library shelves groan under the weight of books about what digital công nghệ is doing khổng lồ us & our world. Lots of scholars are thinking, researching and writing about this stuff. But they’re lượt thích the blind men trying lớn describe the elephant in the old fable: everyone has only a partial view, và nobody has the whole picture. So our contemporary state of awareness is – as Manuel Castells, the great scholar of cyberspace once put it – one of “informed bewilderment”.

Which is why the arrival of Shoshana Zuboff’s new book is such a big event. Many years ago – in 1988, khổng lồ be precise – as one of the first female professors at Harvard Business School khổng lồ hold an endowed chair she published a landmark book, The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, which changed the way we thought about the impact of computerisation on organisations & on work. It provided the most insightful trương mục up to lớn that time of how digital công nghệ was changing the work of both managers & workers. And then Zuboff appeared to go quiet, though she was clearly incubating something bigger. The first hint of what was to lớn come was a pair of startling essays – one in an academic journal in năm ngoái, the other in a German newspaper in năm 2016. What these revealed was that she had come up with a new lens through which khổng lồ view what Google, Facebook et al were doing – nothing less than spawning a new variant of capitalism. Those essays promised a more comprehensive sầu expansion of this Big Idea.

And now it has arrived – the most ambitious attempt yet to paint the bigger picture and to explain how the effects of digitisation that we are now experiencing as individuals and citizens have come about.

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The headline story is that it’s not so much about the nature of digital giải pháp công nghệ as about a new mutant form of capitalism that has found a way to lớn use tech for its purposes. The name Zuboff has given to lớn the new variant is “surveillance capitalism”. It works by providing không tính tiền services that billions of people cheerfully use, enabling the providers of those services khổng lồ monitor the behaviour of those users in astonishing detail – often without their explicit consent.

“Surveillance capitalism,” she writes, “unilaterally claims human experience as không tính tiền raw material for translation into behavioural data. Although some of these data are applied to lớn service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary behavioural surplus, fed inlớn advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will vì chưng now, soon, & later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace that I điện thoại tư vấn behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.”

While the general modus operandi of Google, Facebook et al has been known & understood (at least by some people) for a while, what has been missing – and what Zuboff provides – is the insight và scholarship lớn situate them in a wider context. She points out that while most of us think that we are dealing merely with algorithmic inscrutability, in fact what confronts us is the lademo phase in capitalism’s long evolution – from the making of products, to lớn mass production, to lớn managerial capitalism, to lớn services, to financial capitalism, & now to lớn the exploitation of behavioural predictions covertly derived from the surveillance of users. In that sense, her vast (660-page) book is a continuation of a tradition that includes Adam Smith, Max Weber, Karl Polanyi & – dare I say it – Karl Marx.

Digital giải pháp công nghệ is separating the citizens in all societies inkhổng lồ two groups: the watchers và the watchedViewed from this perspective, the behaviour of the digital giants looks rather different from the roseate hallucinations of Wired magazine. What one sees instead is a colonising ruthlessness of which John D Rockefeller would have sầu been proud. First of all there was the arrogant appropriation of users’ behavioural data – viewed as a không tính tiền resource, there for the taking. Then the use of patented methods lớn extract or infer data even when users had explicitly denied permission, followed by the use of technologies that were opaque by design & fostered user ignorance.

When the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote that “surveillance is the business mã sản phẩm of the internet” he was really only hinting at the reality that Zuboff has now illuminated. The combination of state surveillance and its capitamenu counterpart means that digital technology is separating the citizens in all societies into lớn two groups: the watchers (invisible, unknown và unaccountable) and the watched. This has profound consequences for democracy because asymmetry of knowledge translates inlớn asymmetries of power. But whereas most democratic societies have sầu at least some degree of oversight of state surveillance, we currently have sầu almost no regulatory oversight of its privatised counterpart. This is intolerable.

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And it won’t be easy khổng lồ fix because it requires us to lớn tackle the essence of the problem – the ngắn gọn xúc tích of accumulation implicit in surveillance capitalism. That means that self-regulation is a nonstarter. “Demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists,” says Zuboff, “or lobbying for an end lớn commercial surveillance on the mạng internet is lượt thích asking old Henry Ford to lớn make each Model T by hvà. It’s lượt thích asking a giraffe to lớn shorten its nechồng, or a cow lớn give up chewing. These demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.”

The Age of Surveillance Capital is a striking và illuminating book. A fellow reader remarked to lớn me that it reminded hlặng of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in that it opens one’s eyes lớn things we ought to have sầu noticed, but hadn’t. And if we fail khổng lồ tame the new capitadanh sách mutant rampaging through our societies then we will only have sầu ourselves to blame, for we can no longer plead ignorance.

Ten questions for Shoshamãng cầu Zuboff: ‘Larry Page saw that human experience could be Google’s virgin wood’