Google searches for “Carol Brady’s maiden name” peaked five times in one day in April 2002. Each time at 48 minutes past the hour. Weird, the data logs team at Google thought. Carol Brady was a character in the 1970s television show The Brady Bunch. Why were people googling her?
That day, it turned out, she featured in a question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The five peaks reflected the successive American time zones during which the show aired, from the east coast to Hawaii. The 2002 Carol Brady episode was when “surveillance capitalism took root”, Shoshana Zuboff says in her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
Surveillance capitalism, for Zuboff, describes how companies measure our behaviour as it happens (eg, thinking about Carol Brady) and use that measurement to predict what to sell us (Brady Show DVDs?). Or, in Zuboffian: “A new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” Zuboff’s definition goes on for another 130 words: “parasitic”, “instrumentarian power”, “rogue mutation of capitalism”, “new global architecture of behavioural modification”. You get the picture.
Central to Zuboff’s argument is what she calls “behaviour surplus”. It’s the data we generate while using products and services that go beyond what those products and services need to function. Google didn’t need to know why people were searching for Carol Brady, but when it found out it saw huge commercial potential in its search logs. It’s a reference to Karl Marx’s labour surplus – a worker labouring more than they need to live – and the sense is that Zuboff wants her 704-page book to be the Das Kapital of the 21st century.
For Marx, labour was the commodity and capitalists the villains. They coerced workers to labour longer than necessary for their subsistence, and then appropriated the surplus value. For Zuboff, our personal data is the commodity and Google is the chief villain. She takes the saying widely used in critiques of tech companies – you’re not the customer, you’re the product – and goes further: “You are not the product. You are the abandoned carcass.” Zuboff takes aim at Google – it “invented and perfected surveillance capitalism in much the same way that a century ago General Motors invented and perfected managerial capitalism” – but the problem we have now, she argues, is that everyone is doing surveillance capitalism. It is our mode of production, to use a phrase.
“In the past few months,” Zuboff said in an interview with Bloomberg this January, “the CEO of Ford Motors said I want to get these PEs [share price to earnings ratios] to the same level as Google and Facebook… We are going to make our profit from data.”
Here Zuboff is clearly right. We’re in a qualitatively different era. It’s about more than data privacy and it’s about more than online advertising. “We need to de-centre from the world of online advertising,” she told Bloomberg. Companies are determining our most intimate behaviour every single day. In one of Zuboff’s best sentences: “These operations challenge our elemental right to the future tense, which is the right to act free of the influence of illegitimate forces that operate outside our awareness to influence, modify, and condition our behaviour.”
If that sounds far-fetched, consider Zuboff’s example of Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game that went viral in 2016. The game augments a player’s reality by locating digital goods throughout their real environment. The game rewards them for finding those digital goods. “Pokémon Go was a surveillance capitalist’s dream come true,” Zuboff writes. It allowed companies to direct players into their stores, bars, and restaurants in search of game rewards.
Zuboff is so right on this point – our “elemental right to the future tense” – that you wonder why she over-egged the pudding. Is Google omnipresent because, at least in part, we find it helpful? You wouldn’t know it from this book. Its search engine, mapping, email and whatever else it does is usually the best-in-class. We can choose other providers – Microsoft’s Bing for search, Apple’s Maps – but we don’t, because they’re inferior products.
It’s telling that the backlash against surveillance capitalists didn’t come from the over-extraction of behavioural surplus in a commercial sense. It was political; the disinformation spread around the Donald Trump and Brexit campaigns or Cambridge Analytica harvesting our personal data on Facebook to determine our voting behaviour. For the most part, people find surveillance capitalism, in a strict commercial sense, incredibly helpful. It brings to mind something a Marxist lecturer told me in a moment of self-doubt: how do you tell people they’re being oppressed?
And if companies weren’t extracting a behavioural surplus, how much would they charge us to go from product to customer? A lot of money, according to a 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research paper. Around $17,500 a year for search engines, $8,400 for email, $3,650 for maps and, interestingly, only $322 for social media. These are, in other words, the prices we should be prepared to pay not to be surveilled. You can’t just not pay, though; there’s no escape from surveillance capitalism. Everyone’s doing it.
So, do we pay up and go back to managerial capitalism? “The Berlin Wall fell for many reasons,” Zuboff concludes her book, “but above all it was because the people of East Berlin said, ‘No more!’” That’s it. That’s what we have to do.
Marxists are always predicting the end of things. First it’s the end of capitalism, then the Berlin Wall falls and it’s time for the end of capitalism again. But Zuboff is at her best when she says what’s emerging.
Zuboff was one of the first women to hold a chair at Harvard Business School in 1981. Until her retirement in 2004, she was Harvard’s Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration. Zuboff also did her PhD at Harvard, in social psychology. In 1988, she wrote the book that brought her to the world’s attention: In the Age of the Smart Machine. The book predicted the ways in which technology – a mixture of automation and enrichment – now shapes our workplaces. Soon after, however, Zuboff went into a funk.
Asked in a 1994 interview to make the case for companies improving the nature of work, Zuboff realised she didn’t believe what she was arguing. She moved to Nobleboro, Maine, a hamlet an hour and a half north of Portland, commuting to Harvard to teach. She later publicly said that she couldn’t teach on Harvard’s MBA programme any longer because she believed it to be part of the problem, not the solution. “It’s a bit like Galileo being forced to teach the Ptolemaic system at the Vatican,” she had told an interviewer about her decision.
Her second book, The Support Economy, was published in 2004 to mixed reviews. It’s about what she called “distributive capitalism” – how people would increasingly turn to platforms like eBay to support each other rather than go through layers of intermediaries. The main critique was that few people used eBay at the time. More people use Amazon now.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism presents all the problems, but not many of the answers. Zuboff’s next book may show us what the next capitalism is.