Two Complaints to Shoshana Zuboff

Harvard Business School hasn’t been a hotbed of liberating sociological analysis. But Shoshana Zuboff is showing us it can happen. Her work on “surveillance capitalism” is bold and essential.

Age of Surveillance Capitalism cover

Yet there are two pretty big problems with it.

First, Zuboff treats surveillance capitalism as a coup d’etat, rather than a logical and predictable extension of capitalism:

Facebook as we now know it was fashioned from Google’s rib. Mark Zuckerberg’s start-up did not invent surveillance capitalism. Google did that.

Zuboff, The New York Times, 12 Nov 2021

But, for all its importance, Google absolutely did not invent surveillance capitalism.

That phenomenon began with the marketing revolution of the 1950s, which itself traces back to the corporate revolution of the 1880s and the managerial revolution it immediately spawned. These things, in turn, derive from capitalist normalcy, as described by Adam Smith, among others.

Not to toot our own horn, but TCT is an extended riff on The Consumer Trap book. That book was published in 2003, and researched and written in the 1990s. Here is what it said, amid multiple references to then-extant big business practices, about the arrival of surveilance capitalism:

With their growing knowledge, corporate marketers gain more insights into how to alter the environmental, behavioral, demographic, and financial impediments that stand in the way of “inducing consumers to accept innovations or the further proliferation of products to be included in the household assort-ment. ” As one marketing consultant puts it, “database marketing is a sort of collective memory.” It is also a powerful mechanical brain, which, when coupled with the various new eyes and ears that corporate marketers are also rapidly inventing and promulgating, brings the modern marketing corporation ever closer to being able to obtain the kind of close, detailed time-and-motion studies of their targets’ personal lives that have allowed the scientific management of paid labor to achieve such astounding results.

Erik Larson aptly summarizes the ultimate meaning of this trend: “We are the most heavily probed, surveyed, and categorized society since the dawn of human history. The intensity of this assault has changed us, both as indi-viduals and as a culture.”

No particular new targeting technology is yet a sure thing. Nevertheless, as the existence of Clickstream Analytics already shows, it is certain that corporate marketers will find a way to develop new and improved abilities to conduct time-and-motion studies of our off-the-job activities. Given the unrelenting pressure big businesses feel to refine and extend their marketing operations, the requisite technologies simply will get invented and pushed into our personal lives. As corporate capitalism expands elite wealth and restricts the growth of popular purchasing power, and as rival business giants continue to compete with one another by trying to outdo rivals at modern marketing, the clear tendency, over time, has been for more big firms to adopt advanced targeting research practices and for these practices to become steadily more refined. As long as big business dominates our economic affairs, corporate marketing planners will aggressively pursue greater knowledge of our demographic, financial, and behavior patterns. Business-as-usual means there absolutely will be a widening “arms race” in targeting.

The Consumer Trap, pp. 50-52

Now, to dial down the horn-tooting, it has to be said: None of this was hard to see 25 years ago.

So, it won’t do for Zuboff to treat Google as a unicorn or an interloper. Doing that encourages shallow thinking and ineffective responses.

Which brings us to our second complaint about Zuboff’s treatment of surveillance capitalism: her preference — admittedly among passages of very strong language about the life-and-death meanings of what we here at TCT (following, again, from the TCT book) have long called “market totalitarianism,” — for “regulating big tech” rather than creating (or unleashing) public, not-for-profit competitor institutions.

TCT would suggest that regulation is incapable of doing anything to meaningfully restrain surveillance capitalism. What, pray tell, would such regulation regulate? What exactly would the new rule say?

Indeed, let us suggest this: It isn’t possible to enunciate a non-comical answer to this question.

Go ahead, try it…

Meanwhile, Zuboff, it seems, also doesn’t quite have even the full regulatory conviction. Instead of using law to forbid capitalist data-scraping, she speaks only of legislating “no secret extraction.”

But would making corporate data harvesting more apparent make any appreciable difference in its operations? If you think so, consider what you already do when you encounter the European gesture on this issue — i.e., the provision of pop-up windows asking for your permission to collect your information. Everybody, of course, reflexively clicks “yes” and goes on with their business.

The bottom line is that regulation, if you think about it with due seriousness, is simply not going to matter here. One doesn’t try to improve the training of a rampaging elephant.

So, either we start discussing the full truth about the nature and logic of our leading institutions, or we will remain their hapless and distracted slaves.

If we keep doing that, our future, as Zuboff knows and says, seems very likely to be dystopian. “People,” she notes, “live and die” in this regime.

The Peloton in the Room

Peloton share price graph

See that cliff-dive there yesterday, that drop from $86 to $56? That’s what happened when investors learned that Peloton Interactive Inc. has now sold just about all the exercise bikes it’s really going to sell.

Capitalism despises this outcome. Making a high-quality good then calling it a day? No bueno, say the money-masters.

Similarly, lowering prices/democratizing the product is no answer — Adam Smith notwithstanding. Here’s CNN Business:

Peloton’s move to slash the price its lower-end bike by 20% to $1,495 in August was also a disappointment. “While the price drop led to conversion rates that exceeded our forecast, overall traffic has not met our initial expectations,” admitted Woodworth.

Analysts at Stifel Financial (SF) have slightly soured on Peloton’s future, writing in a note Friday that the firm expects it will take “several quarters to determine a more normalized pace of growth, or more skeptically, whether or not the revised outlook is an indication that the core product may be closer to maturity in existing markets than previously thought.”

CNN Business, 5 Nov 2021
elephant photo

Our prevailing socio-economic order still rests on finding and lavishly promoting ways of avoiding sufficiency, product longevity, and price-cutting. In the year 2021.

This is something to think about.



TCT has already observed that Facebook’s evolution into Meta, insofar as it isn’t a mere diversion from the scandal of having standard operating procedures partially exposed to public scrutiny, is a way of redoubling — of doing the same old thing, harder and better.

Nicholas Carr has many useful things to say about this. TCT recommends reading his new piece, “Meanings of the Metaverse: Productizing Reality.”

One of Carr’s important points is that this effort to turn your home into a video game is NOT just about Facebook/Meta, but attaches to and mobilizes an array of trends and technologies inherent in the overall corporate capitalist sales effort.

As we TCTers know, this effort is, for deep institutional reasons, always growing, deepening, encroaching, totalizing…

Meta, Indeed

Power concedes nothing. When challenged, it doubles down.

Funny, then, this new name for the advertising-and-data-scraping enterprise formerly (as of today) known as Facebook: Meta — as in taking the same old thing up another level.

Sociologist Mike Savage hypothesizes that, beneath all the hoopla, what’s new in tech and media is really quite old:

“Knowledge and data do not blast us free of history; they more readily allow the past to be mobilized.”

Mike Savage, The Return of Inequality

“The past,” Savage asserts, means, mainly, accumulated wealth.

What did somebody once say about farce and tragedy, tragedy and farce?

Rockefeller Activism

So there is now a group called the Buy Nothing Project. On its Mission & Principles page, it asserts that “We value honesty and integrity in all our interactions.”

Now, with this in mind, we might ask this group, which was co-founded by none other than Rebecca Rockefeller of, yes, THOSE Rockefellers, how exactly a denizen of the modern world is supposedly going to buy nothing. One might also ask to take a peek around Ms. Rockefeller’s own lifespaces, to see exactly what purchased goods and services said places might include. Surely, the answer is not “zero.”

But we digress.

The real meat of the problem resides in the claim underlying this deluded effort to sell navel-gazing gestures as meaningful politics:

That is a screenshot from BNP’s manifesto.

The theory here is that it is not marketing and corporate capitalism, but human nature that is our main problem when it comes to material waste.

“Well before we are susceptible to marketing,” BNP says, we are already greedy for what it delivers to us. This, and not the dictates of our dominant economic institutions, is what causes “our homes [to be] literally overrun with stuff.”

While it’s (perhaps) merely cute to describe exurban house-clutter as the main manifestation of socio-economic waste, this kind of re-packaged elitist refusal to think is really quite destructive to the cause of progressive human survival. How many well-meaning people will this group lure into its rabbithole? The answer, again, is not “zero.”

For the umpteenth time, TCT asks: With friends like these, who needs enemies?