Capitalism has always been a fraught system. Capable of both tempering and magnifying human flaws, particularly the lust for power, it can expand human possibility or constrain it, liberate people or oppress them. (The same can be said of technology.) Under the Fordist model of mass production and consumption that prevailed for much of the 20th century, industrial capitalism achieved a relatively benign balance among the contending interests of business owners, workers, and consumers. Enlightened executives understood that good pay and decent working conditions would ensure a prosperous middle class eager to buy the goods and services their companies produced. It was the product itself — made by workers, sold by companies, bought by consumers — that tied the interests of capitalism’s participants together. Economic and social equilibrium was negotiated through the product.
By removing the tangible product from the center of commerce, surveillance capitalism upsets the equilibrium. Whenever we use free apps and online services, it’s often said, we become the products, our attention harvested and sold to advertisers. But, as Zuboff makes clear, this truism gets it wrong. Surveillance capitalism’s real products, vaporous but immensely valuable, are predictions about our future behavior — what we’ll look at, where we’ll go, what we’ll buy, what opinions we’ll hold — that internet companies derive from our personal data and sell to businesses, political operatives, and other bidders. Unlike financial derivatives, which they in some ways resemble, these new data derivatives draw their value, parasite-like, from human experience.
To the Googles and Facebooks of the world, we are neither the customer nor the product. We are the source of what Silicon Valley technologists call “data exhaust” — the informational by-products of online activity that become the inputs to prediction algorithms. In contrast to the businesses of the industrial era, whose interests were by necessity entangled with those of the public, internet companies operate in what Zuboff terms “extreme structural independence from people.” When databases displace goods as the engine of the economy, our own interests, as consumers but also as citizens, cease to be part of the negotiation. We are no longer one of the forces guiding the market’s invisible hand. We are the objects of surveillance and control.
Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism sounds like it is worth adding to my TBR pile: