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Age of Surveillance Capitalism: “We Thought We Were Searching Google, But Google Was Searching Us”

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Corporations have created a new kind of marketplace out of our private human experiences. That is the conclusion of an explosive new book that argues big tech platforms like Facebook and Google are elephant poachers, and our personal data is ivory tusks. Author Shoshana Zuboff writes in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power”: “At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. “Facebook planned to spy on Android phone users, internal emails reveal.” That’s a headline in Computer Weekly. “You Give Apps Personal Sensitive Information. Then They Tell Facebook.” That’s from The Wall Street Journal. Those are just two of the headlines this past week. This comes as a new report in Britain calls Facebook “digital gangsters.”

We end today’s show looking at how corporations have created a new kind of marketplace out of our private human experiences. This is the focus of an explosive new book that argues big tech platforms like Facebook and Google are elephant poachers, and our personal data is ivory tusks. The book is titled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Its author, Shoshana Zuboff. She writes, quote, “At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.” Shoshana Zuboff is professor emerita at Harvard Business School. She joins us now for the rest of the hour.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Thank you so much, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Thank you. It’s a privilege.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, well, let’s start at the beginning. Define “surveillance capitalism.”

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Surveillance capitalism departs in many ways from the history of market capitalism, but in a fundamental way it is continuous with that history. We know that capitalism has evolved by taking things that live outside of the market, bringing them into the market dynamic, transforming them into commodities that can be sold and purchased. So, famously, industrial capitalism claims nature for the market; it is reborn as real estate, as land that can be sold and purchased. It claims work for the market, reborn as labor that can be sold and purchased.

So, surveillance capitalism continues this tradition, but with that dark twist. In our time, surveillance capitalism claims private human experience for the market dynamic as a free source of raw material that is translated into behavioral data. These data are then combined with advanced computational abilities to create predictions—predictions of what we will do, predictions of our behavior, predictions of what we will do now, soon and later. And these predictions are then sold to business customers in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.

This was first invented in the context of online targeted advertising at Google back in 2000, 2001, in the teeth of financial emergency during the dotcom bust. But the same economic logic has now traveled not only from Google to Facebook and throughout the tech sector, but now throughout the normal economy into virtually every economic sector.

AMY GOODMAN: So, comment on these last few headlines, just of the last week. I mean, for example, the report in Britain that calls Facebook “digital gangsters.”

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Well, since just about a year ago now—we’re coming up on the 1-year anniversary of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. One of the consequences of those revelations is not only that a lot of us all around the world have been put on alert that all is not well in the digital realm—that’s one thing—but a second thing is that, at least in the U.K., the government has taken this very, very seriously. And there’s been a parliamentary committee investigating Facebook. This committee was able to get leaked documents, secret documents, from Facebook that had not been reviewed by the public. And just last week, they issued their 108-page report. It’s very powerful, very damning. And among other things, they refer to Facebook as behaving like “digital gangsters,” because they have understood that Facebook has been essentially stealing—in other words, as I’ve described, illegitimately taking—our private human experience for its production processes that create these prediction products, which is what they sell and how they make money.

The key thing that I want our viewers to know is that surveillance capitalism doesn’t stop at Facebook. And right now, it’s a hugely positive development that we are looking at Facebook with this kind of scrutiny and perhaps moving to finally regulate this corporation. But that is the beginning, not the end, of our challenge. Surveillance capitalism is an economic logic that includes, but moves far beyond, Facebook at this point in time. And so, we are going to need the social response that addresses, interrupts and outlaws this new economic logic, not just a single company or not just a couple of companies.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, “[A] global architecture of behavior modification threatens human nature in the twenty-firs century.” Explain.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: All right. Well, once you understand that surveillance capitalism is an economic logic, it is not the same as technology. This is one of the big lies that has been perpetrated, that these methodologies are the only way that digital technology can work, that there is an inevitablist propaganda that has been fed to us. So we need to pull these issues apart.

We have digital technology, which we believed would be emancipatory, empowering, democratizing. And it still can be. In the last 20 years, it has been overtaken, hijacked by an economic logic whose economic imperatives put it on a collision course with democracy, both from below and from above. One of the things that surveillance capitalists learned is that the most powerful predictions of human behavior come from actually intervening in our behavior, touching our behavior, to nudge, to influence, to tune, to herd our behavior toward its commercial outcomes. And what this has done is made them take hold of the digital milieu, all of the devices, beginning with our phones and our laptops, but the sensors, the facial recognition, the smart dishwasher, the smart television set, the smart car, the smart city. All of this digital infrastructure now has been taken by surveillance capitalism as a way to nudge and tune and herd our behavior toward its guaranteed outcomes. It does this with subliminal cues. It’s a highly scientific process. It does this in ways that it brags about are always outside of our awareness, so that we have no right of combat, we cannot resist, we cannot say no, and we cannot exit. So, this is what I call a global means of behavioral modification, where essentially this great digital architecture, that we built in order to be an emancipatory and life-giving process for us and help us in our lives, has now become commandeered by surveillance capitalism as a means to modify our behavior toward its commercial ends, which is a direct assault on human autonomy, a direct assault on our decision rights, a direct assault on the whole notion of individual sovereignty.

Back in the 1970s, there was a Senate committee that included people like Edward Kennedy and Sam Ervin. These folks met for many months, and they decided that behavioral modification was a pernicious action, that it was a complete defiance of democratic principles. And they decided that no federal money would fund any kind of program based on behavioral modification in prisons, in schools, in hospitals. Today, in the year 2019, we’ve just spent the last two decades where, as democracy slept, the private sector, under the aegis of surveillance capitalism, has been able to command the digital to create a, literally, ubiquitous means of behavioral modification, without anybody saying no, and without most of us even noticing or understanding what has occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about herding, so let’s go to herds, elephants, where you say that tech platforms like Facebook and Google are elephant poachers, and our personal data is ivory tusks.

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: Well, we’ve been fed a lot of lies, a lot of euphemism, a lot of misdirection. Those are some of the strategies that have allowed surveillance capitalism to succeed. One of them is the notion that, you know, if it’s free, you’re the product. Right? Everybody has heard that cliché. I confront that head on. Once you understand that we are in the regime of an economic logic, not of technology itself, it’s like going backwards in—like, we’re in Wonderland. Now we go backwards through the looking glass, and we come out in a place called reality, where we can start to see clearly. And when we start to see clearly, what we see is, first of all, these services are not free. We think the services are free. But they think that we’re free. We’re their free raw material. We think that we’re the product. But they understand that we are not the product, we are simply the free source of raw material, like those elephant tusks. Everything about us, like what our problems are, what our real needs are, what our real concerns are—everything about us is ignored. They have no interest in us. It doesn’t matter if we are happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if we’re doing well or poorly. It only matters that we do these things in ways that they can scrape the experience and turn it into data.

There are a few other interesting lies here. We think we’re searching Google; Google is actually searching us. We think that these companies have privacy policies; those policies are actually surveillance policies. We’re told that if we have nothing to hide, then we have nothing to fear. The fact is, what they don’t tell us and what we are forgetting, that if you have nothing to hide, then you are nothing, because everything about us that makes us our unique identities, that gives us our individual spirit, our personality, our sense of freedom of will, freedom of action, our sense of our right to our own futures, that’s what comes from within. Those are our inner resources. That’s our private realm. And it’s intended to be private for a reason, because that is how it grows and flourishes and turns us into people who assert moral autonomy—an essential element of a flourishing, democratic society.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to professor Shoshana Zuboff. Well, she’s professor emerita at Harvard Business School. She has this remarkable new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. I wanted to get your comment on this latest news headline: “A New York regulator is ramping up a promised investigation of how Facebook gathered sensitive personal information from popular smartphone applications, after a report by The Wall Street Journal revealed many such apps were sending the social-media giant data including users’ body weight and menstrual cycles.”

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: All right, well, so we’re living in a time right now where every week there are a series of mini-scandals. And this is one of the mini-scandals this past week. There were several, and this was one of them. So, what happens is, we get mobilized around a mini-scandal. If you understand surveillance capitalism and you understand its economic imperatives, that it needs always scale, volumes of behavioral data, that it needs scope, varieties of behavioral data, that it needs the kind of behavioral data that comes from actually intervening and influencing our actions, as we talked about a moment ago, then all of these mini-scandals are utterly predictable as the routine, humdrum, please-pass-the-salt, everyday operations of any self-respecting surveillance capitalist.

So, these apps that The Wall Street Journal researched—and I cover this in depth in the book—just about every app that you download is shunting your data to third parties. Virtually every app is doing that. When you look at those third parties, the two Goliaths among those third parties are Facebook and Google. Most of the sites, the URLs that these data get shunted to, are owned by Facebook and Google. So what this means is that you download an app. Many of these apps are—you know, we use them to help us with our daily life, because we have needs that—you know, we need support. No one’s really helping us with our lives. Certainly, our institutions are not. So, we have apps that help us with our health, that help us with our fitness, apps that help us keep track of our menstrual cycle, apps that help us think about our mental health. These very personal information going into these apps, it doesn’t stop there. All going to third parties, primarily these Goliaths, Facebook and Google.

AMY GOODMAN: In this—we’re finishing up this segment right now.


AMY GOODMAN: Then we’re going to do Part 2 and post it online at But what surprised you most as you did this research?

SHOSHANA ZUBOFF: At every stage of this research, there were times when I would be sitting in my study—I worked on this book for seven years—I’d be sitting in my study, and I’d start screaming, literally, out loud, often to no one but my beautiful dog, because there were so many revelations for me. I think the biggest one is understanding that we’re entering the 21st century now with a new domain of social inequality. We’ve been focused on economic inequality. It’s tremendously important. We now enter the 21st century, where private surveillance capital has institutionalized asymmetries of knowledge unlike anything ever seen in human history. They know everything about us; we know almost nothing about them.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much, Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, author of the new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks.

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Big Tech Stole Our Data While Democracy Slept: Shoshana Zuboff on the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

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