October 22, 2019

The Truth About Surveillance Capitalism

“IN A SERIES of remarkably prescient articles, the first of which was published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the summer of 2013, Shoshana Zuboff pointed to an alarming phenomenon: the digitization of everything was giving technology firms immense social power. From the modest beachheads inside our browsers, they conquered, Blitzkrieg-style, our homes, cars, toasters, and even mattresses. Toothbrushes, sneakers, vacuum cleaners: our formerly dumb household subordinates were becoming our “smart” bosses. Their business models turned data into gold, favoring further expansion.

Google and Facebook were restructuring the world, not just solving its problems. The general public, seduced by the tech world’s youthful, hoodie-wearing ambassadors and lobotomized by TED Talks, was clueless. Zuboff saw a logic to this digital mess; tech firms were following rational—and terrifying—imperatives. To attack them for privacy violations was to miss the scale of the transformation—a tragic miscalculation that has plagued much of the current activism against Big Tech.

This analytical error has also led many clever, well-intentioned people to insist that Silicon Valley should—and could—repent. To insist, as these critics do, that Google should start protecting our privacy is, for Zuboff, “like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand or asking a giraffe to shorten its neck.” The imperatives of surveillance capitalism are almost of the evolutionary kind: no clever policy, not even in Congress, has ever succeeded in shortening the giraffe’s neck (it has, however, done wonders for Mitch McConnell’s).”

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