Das Zeitalter des Überwachungskapitalismus

by Shoshana Zuboff

Other authorsBernhard Schmid (Translator)
Ebook, 2018



Call number

MS 4745 Z93



Frankfurt New York Campus Verlag [2018]


"Shoshana Zuboff, named "the true prophet of the information age" by the Financial Times, has always been ahead of her time. Her seminal book In the Age of the Smart Machine foresaw the consequences of a then-unfolding era of computer technology. Now, three decades later she asks why the once-celebrated miracle of digital is turning into a nightmare. Zuboff tackles the social, political, business, personal, and technological meaning of "surveillance capitalism" as an unprecedented new market form. It is not simply about tracking us and selling ads, it is the business model for an ominous new marketplace that aims at nothing less than predicting and modifying our everyday behavior--where we go, what we do, what we say, how we feel, who we're with. The consequences of surveillance capitalism for us as individuals and as a society vividly come to life in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism's pathbreaking analysis of power. The threat has shifted from a totalitarian "big brother" state to a universal global architecture of automatic sensors and smart capabilities: A "big other" that imposes a fundamentally new form of power and unprecedented concentrations of knowledge in private companies--free from democratic oversight and control"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RajivC
This is an informative book and a frightening one. The book is heavy reading, so take your time to digest the matter contained within. Most of us know we are tracked by the companies that provide us with internet and social media services. In recent times, many of us have become concerned with the
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way these companies seek to manipulate our behavior and thinking.
Shoshana Zuboff lays bare the ruthless capitalist streak that all these business owners have. What becomes difficult to digest, but we must, is the concept of the "God View", and the work taking place to manipulate society.
This comes through clearly in the book.
Shoshana Zuboff blends historical trends in social development, with the theories of some behavioral scientists and what is happening today in her narrative.
It is a compelling narrative and must put us all on high alert if we are to preserve our own sense of individuality.

The book is about one hundred pages too long. She would have been more effective had the book been shorter.
Nevertheless, it is an important book, and one we must read and digest.
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LibraryThing member willszal
The band Editrix begins their debut album with the line, “I did it for the Instagram.” In “Surveillance Capitalism,” we quickly learn the poignant truth of this lyric. Zuboff has spent her career exploring the question, “do we run the machine, or does it run us?"

At the heart of this book
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is a question around the Myth of Progress, and the Paradigm of Total Control. Is hazard part of the cosmos? Is there such thing as human freedom?

In the middle of the last century, many thought leaders concluded: no. Prominent Harvard psychologist, B. F. Skinner founded a movement called behaviorism, focused on controlling human behavior through the manipulation of their environment and external stimuli and incentives. The title of his novel, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” aptly sums up the direction his work propelled us in.

Coming into the twenty-first century, societally we’ve realized that, no matter how extensive our data gathering, living systems are fundamentally unpredictable. Cosmologically, this is a big relief, because it leaves room for the foundational belief of ethics in the human right of free will. One way this has entered the zeitgeist is through Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s concept of the “black swan” event.

Luckily, fascism and capitalism have an answer to this unfortunate truth: hypernormalisation. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, in his 2016 film of the same title, describes a world in which global powers have realized their inability to control the course of history. Rather than let go of their attachment to control, they craft a fictitious and oversimplified world for their citizenry, of which they can still be seen to be in control. Fake news is one of the vital instruments of the hypernormalisation toolkit.

And this brings us to the subject of Google and Facebook, the two companies in the crosshairs of Zuboff’s inquisition. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has pointed out, advertising has moved beyond simply looking to predict consumer behavior to actively shaping it. The implicit aim is squashing all unpredictability and creativity out of the populous. In other words, regardless of their belief in the veracity of human agency, the big tech companies are moving down the path of hypernormalisation.

Since Edward Snowden’s 2013 global surveillance disclosures, Silicon Valley has officially lost its innocence. And yet, every year, these companies keep expanding their reach. There have been some promising developments:

The sweeping policies contained within the 2016 European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a step in the right direction (although, to minimize compliance, companies like Facebook and Google opted to move their official headquarters back to the libertarian utopia of the United States, where meaningful legislation has yet to be enacted).

Although the blockchain movement was born in the financial collapse of 2008, it isn’t much of a reach to suggest that much of the wind in its sails comes from a desire for tech tools that put users back in control. Decentralization and distributed trust are some of the founding principles of this space—polar opposites of what corporations like Google and Facebook represent.

And then there’s proliferation of encrypted services and security-minded services: Helm (personal email server), Lavabit (next-generation encrypted email), Disconnect (VPN), Purism (secure laptop manufacturer), Signal (encrypted chat). Unfortunately, for these to be effective, they need to be deployed across someone’s entire digital life—an undertaking that only the enthusiast fringe are currently willing (and capable) of undertaking.

Despite this forward motion, we’re losing the privacy war. For this reason, Zuboff’s book could not be more timely. Her thorough treatment is required reading for anyone working in tech today. Zuboff regularly draws comparison of climate-change existentialism to the existentialism brought on by surveillance capitalism. The hype in merited, and hopefully this book will help to spur the conversations and political and economic mass action required for change.
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LibraryThing member kukulaj
Zuboff argues that our modern social media, Facebook on smartphones etc., are an unprecedented new form of power grab. She relates this to similar power grabs throughout history: the agricultural revolution, Columbus in the Caribbean, the Ford assembly line, etc. She sees the way we get embedded in
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the feedback loop of the news feed as being the fulfillment of the vision of B. F. Skinner.

Zuboff's diagnosis of the situation seems quite accurate. She doesn't offer much in the way of concrete ideas on how to avoid an irreversible slide into mass slavery. I would like to offer a step by step approach: 1) model the system, human psychology and deep machine learning and folks generating and targeting advertising, etc.; 2) measure what's going on, counting clicks, cookies, revenue, etc.; 3) analyze the evolution of the system, the cause and effect relationships, how new tracking improves click counts etc.; 4) with this knowledge, reasonably effective intervention methods can be engineered. It's a bit like e.g. financial derivatives. Hedge funds don't have to report holdings, so there is really no basis for regulation. Reporting is necessary before regulation can be put in place. Of course the FAANG gang will protest heartily at any requirement to report. They're too busy making money to understand what they're doing. But slowing down the innovation cycle to permit tracking the trackers, that's where the work has to start.

There's some limping poetry here. Durkheim's Division of Labor is already tricky verbage. The Division of Learning really doesn't work for me. Big Other instead of Big Brother... too cute and really a bit off target. Behavioral surplus, does that point back to Marx? I am no social scientist! Zuboff is correct that she does need to invent some new terminology. I found hers a bit clunky. But the concepts seemed quite on target, and that's what counts.
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LibraryThing member fpagan
An absolute must-read of a book. If you think the tracking of Web searching/browsing and the secretive analysis of social-network usage (not to mention the astonishing abuses enabled by the smartphone) have been problematic for privacy, just wait until much worse horrors like the Internet of Things
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and inescapable "voice assistants" take full hold of us. Zuboff, eruditely and with careful scholarship, thoroughly elucidates our time's baleful trend using many coinages such as "behavioral surplus", the "extraction imperative", "prediction product", and the "dispossession cycle" (incursion --> habituation --> adaptation --> redirection --> incursion --> ...). Surveillance capitalism is not just technology gone wrong but an economic/sociological monster that threatens not just privacy rights but all freedom and democracy. The apparent destination is what she calls "instrumentarianism", an oppressive societal power structure that is importantly different from totalitarianism (with "Big Other" in place of Big Brother), is rooted in the "radical behaviorism" of BF Skinner, and has been elaborated by the "social physics" of Alex Pentland. Everybody should, I'd say, (1) have nothing to do with anything connected with Google or Facebook (or, preferably, Verizon or Microsoft or ...); (2) shun all products described or describable as "smart", especially smartphones; (3) try to get Zuboff to run for president.
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LibraryThing member haloedrain
Parts 1 and 2 do a good job at putting things I already knew together into a pattern. Part 3 gets a little wild at times, but all in all a good book.
LibraryThing member ichadwick
An excellent loom at the technology, companies, and advocates for surveillance capitalism. Detailled and rich, it should stand as a warning to this and future generations much like Arendt did for hers. Perhaps a bit overly long and occasionally repetitive, it is nonetheless an important work.
LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
An epic read, terrifying, and a relief that it's not just my imagination and that other people are taking it seriously. It will take me months to digest but the most immediate idea I take away is how all sorts of things like insurance of all kinds, travel and medical monitoring will compel us to
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allow our data to be taken, in the same way that opting in to social media and finding information on the internet already do, on pain of termination of service. It's a very big book although looks even bigger as there are 160 pages of notes and such, in addition to the 525 pages of text. I'm quite comforted that I was forced to keep going and finish it at speed as there were two other library readers waiting for it - I wish them luck. The writing was very academic (I think) and it took me a long time to get started and get comfortable with the prose. And there was a lot I didn't understand.... for example page 505 'Now the hive emulates the "termite state".....' Does anyone know?
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LibraryThing member arosoff
There's a cliché that says if a company offers you something for free, you're the product. That's not quite true when it comes to the data driven technology firms reviewed in this book. What we are is the raw material, and the product is behavioral surplus--the corpus of data that the firms derive
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from our behaviors.

Shoshana Zuboff distinguishes surveillance capitalism from traditional capitalism through the use of behavioral surplus. In a traditional arrangement, money is exchanged for a product or service. While the company is interested in the behavior of its customers, that information is used to improve marketing and sell more product, and is not a product in itself. In surveillance capitalism, we trade our behavior for services, and the firm derives its profit from selling that behavioral surplus. In this arrangement, Apple is still largely traditional. Amazon is also still traditional, though it's expanding into surveillance capitalism through products such as Alexa. Google and Facebook are almost pure surveillance capitalism firms.

Surveillance capitalism operates through information asymmetry. Consumers may not be told about the information gathered, are given opaque terms of use (the average TOU should take 45 minutes to read; the average consumer takes 19 seconds--and if you don't really have a practical choice about using the product, what are you going to do?) and aren't aware of how much information can actually be extracted. For example, it's obvious that your shopping patterns can be used to form a picture of your tastes and spending habits. It's less obvious that your selfies and other pictures can be used to form a portrait of your personality.

The point, moreover, is not merely to analyze your behavior patterns, or even to use that data to make predictions. The ultimate goal is to use this data to shape future behavior, as Facebook did with its voting experiment--and then argued that it should be exempt from the laws and regulations surrounding psychological research. Pokémon Go functioned as both a collector and shaper of players' behavior, and the game was originally developed at Google.

The potentials for surveillance capitalism are worrying--applications already exist and are being developed for behavioral surplus. How will firms in other areas benefit from this, using surveillance techniques to determine creditworthiness, insurance, and health? Although in surveys people express a desire for strong privacy roles, we lack a robust regulatory framework to ensure this. The outcry over election manipulation also makes clear the potential (and reality) for large scale political disruption, which is particularly worrying given the dismissive attitudes of many tech titans towards democracy. Silicon Valley companies actively lobby against a regulatory framework that would protect consumers, instead arguing in favor of "the market" and claiming that behavioral surveillance is ultimately for the benefit of the consumer.

As a book, this is imperfect. Zuboff's language tends towards the hyperbolic, making it too easy to dismiss her as a conspiracy theorist. It's also a little long winded, rather than crisp and clear. None of this is enough to tank the book, but it keeps it from being quite as successful as it could be (were half stars allowed, I would have given this 4.5). That said, the content is worth ploughing through.
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LibraryThing member altonmann
This s a brilliant and essential book. Do not be intimidated by the length. as Zuboff is a fine writer and her insights into the subtleties of our technocratic imprisonment in this all seeing, all knowing dystopia are revelatory. You could read the last 25 pages to obtain a crisp overview, but
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invest the time to allow Zuboff to take you on the full tour.
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LibraryThing member AKBouterse
I struggled a bit with how I was going to rate this book. I do feel like I learned a lot from this book and it gave me a lot of ideas to chew on. I am the target audience for this book. I already agree with Zuboff on many of her ideas about the inherent issues when it comes to tech companies owning
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our data, even when that data is an essential part of our person. I don't like the idea that Facebook uses my face as data to be used in facial recognition software just because I put a picture of myself on Instagram. However, this was not a book that was "fun" to read. This isn't a devastating criticism. I've read a lot of very academic, hard-to-parse texts (Foucault comes to mind) and I understand that a lot can be gained from a book that is challenging to read. In this case though I felt that Zuboff did not always convey her ideas clearly and it was that and not the level of the ideas that made it hard to read.

This book reads a lot like theory and that's probably because it basically is. This book is very well researched with the last 30% being made up of all the notes and sources and Zuboff should be commended for this effort. This makes this book very dense but also very informative. Even when I disagreed with Zuboff, I was able to look at the notes and look further into her claims.

I do think Zuboff may overreach slightly in some of her claims, especially in the claim that tech companies and surveillance capitalists are trying to completely erase individuality and that they are already on the way to doing so. I actually don't think this is completely off base as those companies can make more profit if they know exactly how we will react and that is much easier to do if everyone acts the same. These companies also often discuss how the want to streamline our lives and this is much easier to do if they can stop us from making "bad choices." I think the problem with Zuboff's argument to this point is that she simply does not provide enough evidence to support her claim that tech companies are well on their way to controlling us to this extent.

I think Zuboff's stronger claim comes with her argument that these companies are eroding our belief in democracy. I think this has become clear with their insistence to stand by the policies of taking a completely hands off approach. Recently, after Jack Dorsey of Twitter made the decision to flag some of Donald Trump tweets for misinformation surrounding mail-in ballots, Mark Zuckerberg went on Fox news and said he did not think Facebook should be the arbiter of truth. Well, unfortunately they already are and it sucks. People will often talk about how people need to get out of their echo-chambers but these companies make that really hard because showing people things they disagree with but won't get angry at is bad for their bottom line. I think Zuboff does a good job showing the history of how and why we got to this point.

I was a little surprised at which social theorists and sociologists were not in this book. Zuboff does discuss Marx, Polanyi, and Goffman, all theorists I have read, and she does discuss Bentham's panopticon, but only cites Foucault once in this 704 page book. I don't understand how you write a book with this title and not address the ideas of the man who first explicitly connected surveillance and capital accumulation. I also think a discussion of how Louis Althusser's ideas of the ideological state apparatus applies to tech companies in their attempts to get us to act in a certain way would have added an interesting layer to her arguments. As a sociology student, I was left somewhat wanting for more sociological reasoning for her arguments and I think including more sociological theory would have strengthened her argument.

I also would have liked to see at least some discussion of the basic flaws in the data these tech companies may be gather to full their algorithm and new technologies. One area I thought about on this topic for a while is predictive policing. Any data put into a predicitive policing algorithm will be biased due to the fact that communities of color have been subject to higher rates of policing for years due to many different racist reasons. Because people of color tend to live in segregated communities due to red-lining and those communities are over-policed, more people of color are arrested. Even if the algorithm somehow doesn't pick up on the race disparities in current police data, it will likely pick up on the geographic differences and therefore, communities of color will continue to be over policed. Zuboff makes the claim that tech companies gathering our data makes them all knowing about our behavior but she does not acknowledge the ways that this data could be biased going in and therefore their conclusions could contain those biases. Even the data provided by the users can be biased because of systematic issues of racism that create differences in access to education and other areas of knowledge. Zuboff makes claims about the "division of learning." I think she should have addressed how not all people are given equal access to this domain to begin with.

This book also led to some ideas for me to think about in my own research and thinking as a sociologist. I really liked reading about Stanley Milgrams' breaching exercises and how it created such strong social anxiety because he was aware of the fact that he was breaking social norms. I think it would be interesting to think about and study how the increase of social norms related entirely to how we interact online and on social media adds to this social anxiety or transforms the sort of action we perceive as breaking social norms offline.

I think this is a great and well researched argument about some of the problems with the way we currently allow private companies to own data we have given them no right to. We are no longer the customer. Targeted advertising does not help me. It is not something that I want, it is something advertisers want and it helps the companies bottom line. I think we should acknowledge this book for what it is; an excellent start to theorizing about this topic. I expect in the future other theorists will flesh out, push back on, build on, and improve the ideas presented in this book, as is the tradition of social theory.
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LibraryThing member susanbooks
Overly verbose. The ideas here are important & valid, but they're lost amidst an ocean of anecdotes and purple prose. I don't need to know about Zuboff's house fire, her ancestor's immigrant experiences, or about the cozy bakery in Spain. The important work of dissecting surveillance capitalism
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gets lost in the pages and pages of fluff. If this book had been at least 1/3 shorter, it would have made a clearer and more effective argument.
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LibraryThing member NonFictionFan
This book could have been condensed down to half its size and still clearly gotten its point across. It did have a number of interesting chapters that kept me in it for the long haul, but it wasn't easy. Overall, I enjoyed the majority of the content, minus one star for the writing.


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