The Nightmare of Surveillance Capitalism

We talk to Shoshana Zuboff about The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, her game-changing account of what's gone wrong with the world of big tech and how to fix it. What is surveillance power and why is it destroying the things we value? How have we allowed this to happen? Where will the resistance come from? Plus we ask whether the real problem here is technology or capitalism itself. With John Naughton.

Talking Points:

In her new book Zuboff writes, “"surveillance capitalists know too much to qualify for freedom.”

  • What is the relationship between knowledge, freedom, and capitalism?
  • The neoliberal argument is that markets must be free because they are so complex that they are ineffable. No one knew anything, so everyone must be free.
  • Today, the major tech companies are claiming the same thing. But in fact, these same arguments are the opposite of what Hayek and Smith intended because surveillance capitalists make it their business—literally—to know everything.
  • Surveillance capitalism is a radical asymmetry of knowledge, and this knowledge creates a new and unique form of power.

Surveillance capitalists have succeeded in part because of an ideology of inevitablism. Blame the networks, this is just how they are.

  • This is insidious because it threatens free will and human autonomy.
  • Democratic society is impossible without the notion that individuals have the capacity to choose their actions and shape the future.

What can be done?

  • Lifting the veil: naming what’s going on allows us to deem it intolerable. We need a sea change in public opinion.
  • Building better systems: people do not want to be trapped in the current environment. There is space for someone to forge an alternative path to the digital future.
  • Collective Action: Power is not just exerted in the economic domain—it’s everywhere all the time. How do we come together to tame this kind of capitalism?

Will this be enough? The excesses of raw capitalism during the Gilded Age were tempered by the World Wars. The historical conditions today are different. Democracy was in trouble before Facebook.

  • Thomas Paine says that every generation needs to fight for democratic values. These principles are never won for all time.

In surveillance capitalism, we are not the customers or the employees. This is rogue capitalism that is cut loose from society.

  • Are predictions of human behavior legitimate products that should be sold in the marketplace? Should we have markets that trade in human futures?
  • Information technology always produces more information. Who gets to know, who decides who knows, and who decides who decides who knows?

The Chinese state sees in surveillance capitalism the means to its own political ends.

  • The conflation of authoritarian power and instrumentarian power is the ultimate nightmare—and this is a realistic prospect for the future of humanity.
  • A happy ending is not inevitable, nor is it impossible.

Mentioned in this episode: