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.

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