The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - Critical summary review - Shoshana Zuboff

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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - critical summary review

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Technology & Innovation and Society & Politics

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 1541758005

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Critical summary review

For the larger part of the 20th century, dystopian novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” and George Orwell’s “1984” were both modeled after the authoritarian governments of Marxist states and interpreted as sweeping and insightful criticisms of the dangers of communism. Just a few decades after the end of the Cold War, the very same books can be taken as warnings of something far more sinister and more disempowering: surveillance capitalism. 

Fundamentally anti-democratic, this new economic logic was first identified, named and elucidated by American scholar Shoshana Zuboff in a series of remarkably prescient articles, the first of which appeared in the pages of the German newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” in 2013. 

Published in 2019 and clocking in at 700 pages – densely populated with original concepts and chilling forewarnings – “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” is the pinnacle of Zuboff’s efforts to understand the perverted logic of 21st century capitalism and her most thorough attempt to unmask the “bloodless battle for power and profit” furtively waged by Silicon Valley billionaires against the future of the entire humanity. Get ready for a necessarily brief, but enlightening historical outline!

The two modernities

Capitalism may evolve in response to the needs of people in a time and place, but people also evolve in response to the new conditions that have been made for them by capitalism. This was something French sociologist Emile Durkheim noticed in 1893, remarking that while to economists, the division of labor consists in greater production, to people it is just a necessary consequence of the phenomenon: they specialize not to produce more, but to survive in a new environment. 

Over many millennia, this mutually-reinforcing feedback mechanism resulted in unprecedented economic growth and, more importantly, the advent of the individual. For hundreds of thousands of years, each human life was “foretold in blood and geography, sex and kin, rank and religion.” But then, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, life stopped being “handed down one generation to the next according to the traditions of village and clan,” and it became “’individualized’ for great numbers of people as they separated from traditional norms, meanings, and rules.” This was “the first modernity.” 

As liberating as it was for many people, this new industrial society “retained many of the hierarchical motifs of the older feudal world in its patterns of affiliation.” People were still given social roles and were expected to suppress any sense of self that spilled over its edges. During the first modernity – as best exemplified in Henry Ford’s assembly lines or the factory-like education system of Victorian England – capitalists were interested in collective solutions and not in the growth of self. However, by the second half of the 20th century and the arrival of the second modernity, the self turned out to be all people have.

It happened more or less by accident. The practices of mass production capitalism produced unimaginable amounts of wealth, and the threat of totalitarianism inspired democratic and distributional policies that gave hundreds of millions of people access to “experiences that had once been the preserve of a tiny elite.” Suddenly, Western societies became societies of individuals and formal laws started acknowledging the sanctity of individual life. Now, many other parts of the world can be described as such. We are not born anymore with fixed roles. Nothing is given to us either. We can renew, renegotiate, and reconstruct anything – family, religion, sex, gender, marriage, career, etc. – on the terms that make sense to us.

The promise of a third modernity

The “second modernity” produced a new kind of a human being – an individual interested in information. When your destiny isn’t fixed and you can become the author of your own life, the more information you have – and the better you can translate it into skills and connections – the more you are in control of your own story. This demand for data “summoned the internet and the burgeoning information apparatus into our everyday lives.” In an unexpected twist, it also helped to enable surveillance capitalism.

At the beginning of the 20th century, during the first modernity, Ford didn’t need to care about the individual preferences of his customers. The only way he could produce cheap cars was if he produced them for the masses. His famous maxim, “You can have any color car you want, so long as it’s black,” summarizes both the process of mass production, but also the undifferentiated psychology of the mass consumer.

A century after Ford, Steve Jobs and Apple thoroughly inverted the experience by developing tools that shifted “the focus of consumption from the mass to the individual, liberating and reconfiguring capitalism’s operations and assets.” As revolutionary as it was when it first appeared, a compact disc was still a “mass product” produced and owned by institutions – containing a specific and definite collection of songs. However, the iTunes platform and the iPod device made it possible for listeners to continuously reconfigure their song lists at will and thus recreate the product they owned in step with their ever-changing individual preferences. Unlike compact discs and just like people – no two iPods were the same.

“Just as Ford tapped into a new mass consumption,” writes Zuboff, “Apple was among the first to experience explosive commercial success by tapping into a new society of individuals and their demand for individualized consumption.” Soon enough, new companies such as Google and Facebook brought “the promise of inversion to life in new domains of critical importance, rescuing information and people from the old institutional confines, enabling us to find what and whom we wanted, when and how we wanted to search or connect.” 

The subversion of the promise

The Apple inversion promised something “utterly new, urgently necessary, and operationally impossible outside the networked spaces of the digital.” By customizing the supply, it individualized the demand and ratified our newly-discovered feelings that we are not just cogs in a large mechanism, but human beings that matter. For millions of years, producers of goods were indifferent to individual needs; now, the doors were opened to “the possibility of a new rational capitalism able to reunite supply and demand by connecting us to what we really want in exactly the ways that we choose.”

If history has taught us anything, it’s surely that one should fear whenever promises inflate. In theory, communism was supposed to be the most genuinely democratic political system, but in practice, it produced some of the most brutal totalitarian regimes in history. Quite similarly, the promise of a new rational capitalism concerned with the individual and tailored to their needs gave birth to the panoptical tyranny of the Silicon Valley and reduced humans to something less than customers, employees or even products – namely, to “raw material for new procedures of manufacturing and sales.”

Blame it on neoliberal and libertarian thinkers. In their attempts to discredit the centralized economy of the Soviet Union, many of them – Nobel Prize laureates Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, most prominently – heaped effusive and extravagant praises upon the self-regulating market, and – even going so far as to misrepresent their predecessors – advocated for a less regulated economy. Under Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, the United States accepted their ideas and, law by law, dismantled the necessary network of institution-integrated measures and policies “designed to check the action of the market relative to labor, land, and money.” Subsequently, and in varying degrees, these new fiscal and social policies spread to Europe and other regions. 

Indeed, they resulted in economic growth, but they also resulted in unwarrantable social and economic inequality. Most importantly, they also brought about the subversion of the promise of rational capitalism, because as institutions stopped regulating corporations, corporations started amassing wealth and power. Recognizing the gap between the non-existent laws for online privacy and their sophisticated tools for collecting individual information, they also started amassing detailed, granularized data on each and every human being on the planet. This gave rise to surveillance capitalism.

What is surveillance capitalism?

As defined by Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is a new economic order that “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data” and later uses this data “for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” “Although some of these data are applied to product or service improvement,” Zuboff elucidates further, “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 behavioral predictions” – something Zuboff calls the “behavioral futures markets.” Let us break the process down and explain each of these terms individually – with reference to the practices of Google, the pioneer of surveillance capitalism:

  • The raw material: behavioral surplus. Each of your Google search queries produces “a wake of collateral data such as the number and pattern of search terms, how a query is phrased, spelling, punctuation, dwell times, click patterns, and location.” Google’s engineers initially used this data to improve the search results and spur product innovations such as spell-check, translation, and voice recognition. However, they neither knew what to do with the waste – the surplus of information – or how to monetize it. Then, one day they discovered “a way to translate its nonmarket interactions with users into surplus raw material for the fabrication of products aimed at genuine market transactions with its real customers: advertisers.” In other words, they stopped mining behavioral data strictly to improve their service for the users and started mining it with the goal to match ads to their users’ interests, which, they realized, could be safely deduced from “the collateral traces of online behavior.” Henceforth, Google Ads became the company’s main source of revenue, and remains so today. In other words – and quite literally – just as the raw material of the Industrial Revolution was coal, the raw material of the age of surveillance capitalism is your behavior.
  • The means: machine intelligence. During the Industrial Revolution, steam engines and trains transformed coal into energy and power; analogously, during our age of surveillance capitalism, there are specific technologies and techniques that feed on behavioral surplus. Zuboff groups them under the name “machine intelligence.” The equation is simple: the more surplus Google’s machine intelligence capabilities consume, the more accurate their predictions become. Ever since Google’s engineers learned how to monetize behavioral surplus, their goal has been more accurate predictions. Gone are the promising days when their objective was to develop a perfect search engine for the greater good of humanity; now they work for money and power. In the words of Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of Wired magazine, “although it seems like Google is committed to developing its artificial intelligence capabilities to improve Search, it’s more likely that Google develops Search as a means of continuously training its evolving AI capabilities.”
  • The products: prediction products. With the help of machine intelligence, Google can process behavioral surplus in ways that are of interest to many people. These ways are what Zuboff terms “prediction products.” Designed to forecast what users will feel, think, and do in the future, prediction products go beyond pure supply-and-demand capitalism, because they allow corporations to evolve in response to future needs. There are many people wealthy enough to pay millions of dollars to know what you’re doing, but there are also a few who are willing to pay billions to know what you are going to do in the future. “Prediction products” are how Google can get away with claiming that it is not selling your personal information to anybody. The truth is – it is not. It is selling predictions – but such that can only be manufactured with the help of its own advanced machine intelligence and only from its own “world-historic private hoard of behavioral surplus.”
  • The marketplace: behavioral futures. Advertisers were the dominant players in the early history of surveillance capitalism. However, “in the same way that Ford’s new system of mass production was only incidentally about automobiles,” the new prediction systems are only incidentally about ads. In both cases, the systems can be applied to many other domains. “Any actor with an interest in purchasing probabilistic information about our behavior and/or influencing future behavior can pay to play in markets where the behavioral fortunes of individuals, groups, bodies, and things are told and sold,” writes Zuboff.

The future is instrumentarian

In capitalism, as we noted at the beginning, products appear in response to needs. However, in surveillance capitalism, rather than working to please you, corporations are using you to earn money. “We are no longer the subjects of value realization,” writes Zuboff. “Nor are we, as some have insisted, the ‘product’ of Google’s sales. Instead, we are the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated for Google’s prediction factories. Predictions about our behavior are Google’s products, and they are sold to its actual customers but not to us. We are the means to others’ ends.” Strictly Kantian speaking, nothing can be less ethical than this. Unfortunately, in the real world, it can.

Because, of course, it’s not just Google – it’s also Facebook and Microsoft and Amazon, and maybe one or two others. The competitive dynamics between these companies have led their engineers to find “ever-more-predictive sources of behavioral surplus” – such as our voices, our personalities, and even our emotions – and develop even better AI-based models to process them. Eventually, surveillance capitalists discovered something magicians and illusionists have known since the first “abracadabra.” Namely, that the best way to predict a person’s behavior is to push it in the desired direction.

So, they started nudging, coaxing, tuning, and herd-influencing people’s behavior toward profitable outcomes and introduced the world to a new, even more rogue stage of surveillance capitalism. The surveillance capitalists of today aren’t interested in merely automating information flows about us, they are interested in automating us! In the process of achieving this, they produced a new species of power that Zuboff calls “instrumentarianism.” Instrumentarian power, she explains, “knows and shapes human behavior toward others’ ends,” aiming “to organize, herd, and tune society to achieve […] social confluence, in which group pressure and computational certainty replace politics and democracy, extinguishing the felt reality and social function of an individualized existence.”

Orwell was afraid of police-state totalitarianism and spoke of the pervasive and panvasive political entity Big Brother. Zuboff, on the other hand, speaks of the “ubiquitous sensate, networked, computational infrastructure” that she calls the Big Other and warns that we’re on our way to becoming something worse than a police state - an “instrumentarian collective.” In totalitarian states, she opines, you know the face of the enemy and who to rebel against. In our instrumentarian world, the enemy is faceless and rebelling against them means rebelling against your own convenience. “Although it is not murderous,” writes Zuboff, “instrumentarianism is as startling, incomprehensible and new to the human story as totalitarianism was to its witnesses and victims[…] Totalitarianism was a political project that converged with economics to overwhelm society. Instrumentarianism is a market project that converges with the digital to achieve its own unique brand of social domination.”

Final Notes

Described by Zadie Smith as “this generation’s ‘Das Kapital,’” “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” is a rare, extremely intelligent work of original research and penetrating insight. 

As John Thornhill wrote in Financial Times, many adjectives can be used to describe it: “groundbreaking, magisterial, alarming, alarmist, preposterous.” He proposes one few would dare to dispute: “unmissable.”

Indeed, it is.

12min Tip

To quote Zuboff – “let there be a digital future, but let it be a human future first.” Fight to reclaim your privacy – before it’s too late and nobody is able to.

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Who wrote the book?

Shoshana Zuboff is an American scholar. One of the first tenured women on the Harvard Business School faculty, she is the author of three outstanding books, each of which has been... (Read more)

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