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Capitalism reinvents itself

  The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:  The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff, PublicAffairs, US $38.00,    Pp 690, January 2019, ISBN 978-1610395694

A little more than a hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin said that imperialism was the last stage of capitalism. Imperialism is long gone but capitalism is still thriving — many would argue, with a human face. Lenin would have reached a better conclusion if he had understood that capitalism has the inherent ability to re-invent itself and survive. Before and after Lenin, Capitalism reinvented itself many times and readjusted in the new world environment. To be more precise, capitalism is in a continuous state of reinvention. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism is the latest or emerging stage of capitalism. In addition to this argument, Shoshana Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism and the emerging global capitalist system.

Shoshana Zuboff says that the surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement, the rest are declared as a proprietary ‘behavioral surplus,’ fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as “machine intelligence,” and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace for the behavioral prediction that Shoshana Zuboff call “behavioral futures markets.” Shoshana Zuboff argues that the competitive dynamics of these new markets drive surveillance capitalists to acquire ever-more-predictive sources of behavioral surplus — our voices, personalities, and emotions. Eventually, surveillance capitalists discovered that the most predictive behavioral data come from intervening in the state of play in order to nudge, coax, tune, and the herd behavior toward a profitable outcome. Competitive pressures produced this shift, in which automated machine process not only know our behavior but also shape our behavior at scale. With this reorientation from knowledge to power, it is no longer enough to automate information flows about us. The goal now is to automate us.

Shoshana Zuboff argues, in this phase of surveillance capitalism’s evolution, the means of production are subordinated to an increasingly complex and comprehensive “means of behavioral modification.” In this way, surveillance capitalism births a new species of power that Shoshana Zuboff calls instrumentarianism. Shoshana Zuboff says that instrumentarian power knows and shapes human behavior toward others’ ends. Instead of armaments and armies, its works its will through the automated medium of an increasingly ubiquitous computational architecture of “smart” networked devices, things, and spaces.

Shoshana Zuboff argues that it has become difficult to escape this bold market project, whose tentacles reach from the gentle herding of innocent Pokemon Go players to eat, drink and purchase in the restaurants, bars, fast-food joints, and shops that pay to play in its behavioral futures markets to the ruthless expropriation of surplus from Facebook profiles for the purposes of shaping individual behavior. Shoshana Zuboff says that, as industrial capitalism was driven to the continuous intensification of the means of production, so surveillance capitalists and their market players are now locked into the continuous intensification of the means of behavioral modification and the gathering might of instrumentarian power.

Shoshana Zuboff says that surveillance capitalism runs contrary to the early digital dream, consigning the Aware Home to ancient history. Instead, it strips away the illusion that the networked from has some kind of indigenous moral content, that being “connected” is somehow intrinsically pro-social, innately inclusive, or naturally tending toward the democratization of knowledge. Digital connection is now a means to others’ commercial ends. 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 experience.

Shoshana Zuboff says that Google invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism. But it is no longer the only actor on this path. Surveillance capitalism quickly spread to Facebook and later Microsoft. Shoshana Zuboff argues that Amazon has also veered towards this direction. It is a constant challenge to Apple, both as an external threat and as a source of internal debate and conflict. It is a comprehensive critique of these companies. Shoshana Zuboff views them as the Petri dishes in which the DNA of surveillance capitalism is best examined. “My goal is to map a new logic and its operations, not a company or its technologies.”

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism reveals that the emerging international economic order is being built on extreme inequalities of knowledge and power. Shoshana Zuboff powerfully argues that the digital revolution has put both our privacy and freedom in danger. This lucidly-written book argues how the newest version of capitalism feeds on our knowledge and how digital companies mine our minds for data. This is the newest form of capitalist exploitation. Shoshana Zuboff’s deep analysis of surveillance capitalism helps us understand how it controls the world. It is a very important book on the emerging economic order in the early 21st century. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is essential reading for everybody who is interested in understanding the global economic system.

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1 Comment

  1. Vibrators says:

    These ideas won’t get much of a hearing in today’s Washington. But the shift toward an information-based economy will outlast the current administration. Eventually, this country will have a government interested in encouraging the best parts of modern capitalism while restraining the worst.

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