The book retraces the history of the internet industry, from the moment Google first realised its users were inadvertently giving its search engine more information than was needed to simply answer the search query, to where we are today, when a handful of companies have now “amassed an unprecedented concentration of knowledge” about billions of individuals on the planet, and are using that knowledge, not for the betterment of humanity, but to make “an elitist, self-referential, self-authorising” group of mostly American businessmen and women richer than god.
The excess of information that we all leak out when we use search and social-media platforms – how fast and how well we type, how large our vocabulary is, our exact location, who we know and what we’re interested in, to touch on just a few of the tens of thousands of datapoints these companies collect on their users – are what Zuboff calls the “behavioural surplus” that powers post-internet capitalism.
In the late 1990s, it was Google that first realised it could analyse the behavioural surplus it was gathering in its databases, and use it to predict the behaviour of its users in ways that could be sold to advertisers.
Advertisers would use the behavioural predictions to try to modify user behaviour, getting the users to buy what the advertisers were selling by approaching the users with a proposition that was spookily prescient, and spookily well-timed.
Facebook, then Amazon and then eventually Microsoft caught on, and now all of the big five tech companies except Apple are engaging in wholesale surveillance of their user base, Zuboff argues, not to enrich our lives but simply to enrich themselves.
It’s not exactly totalitarianism, she says, though the social credit system that China is now experimenting with is only a slight pivot “toward political and social outcomes rather than simply commercial outcomes”.
Totalitarian power operates through terror and murder. It wants to own you from the inside out. It wants the re-engineering of the soul.
Surveillance capitalism “is a different kind of power”.
“The overall social principle is a principle of confluence, the idea that everybody marches to the same computational truth.
“It uses the instrumentation of the digital age to know you and to actuate your behaviour, to shape your behaviour towards its commercial ends.
“But it doesn’t wanna kill you or terrorise you. It really doesn’t care what you’re soul is doing. It really doesn’t care what you think or what you feel. It only cares that you think and feel in ways that it can get the data.”
If you’ve ever wondered why you’re so addicted to Facebook or to Instagram, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism explains it. Facebook wants you addicted; it employs experts to make you addicted, to keep you using its service just so it can hoover up your behavioural surplus, analyse it, and sell its computer-generated model of your future self to advertisers.
“If you’re happy it just wants to be able to get the data from your happiness. And if you’re sad or depressed or whatever, it just wants to get the data from your sadness or your anger or your depression.
“It doesn’t want to fix your depression or solve your problems. It just wants the data for its own purposes.”
Ever since the scandals of Cambridge Analytica, ever since Facebook sold the behavioural surplus of American citizens to Russians to help them influence the outcome of a presidential election, the public is starting to wake up to what’s going on, says Zuboff (somewhat hopefully, if you ask this Skype-insisting journalist).
Certainly, books like The Age of Surveillance Capitalism help us to wake up, by reminding us of the Faustian bargain we all know we’re making every time we use Google Maps, and by giving us a social scientist’s framework in which to think about what’s been going on these past 20 years.
But will it be enough to stop the data elite with their computational truths?
Zuboff hopes new internet businesses will arise, that offer the same services, only “without these pernicious consequences that we’ve had to buy into”.
“It’s not making us wealthy. It’s making them wealthy. We can do better.”
As for Google, Facebook and the like?
“They’re going to have find a new business.”