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Capitalism is Spying on You

Say goodbye to ‘Big Brother’, there is a ‘Big Other’ in town.

23 November, 2020

Illustration by Zeyd Anwar; Ibrahim Rifath, Unsplah

Dense with information and detail, Zuboff’s work proves unprecedented in her depth of analysis and clarity of argument. After the first couple pages of Zuboff constructing the outline of her case, the reader starts to get used to the language and bold claims being made. Halfway into the book, they are already well-versed in the language of Surveillance Capitalism: not just a book title but a prophetic and entirely justified modern theory of capitalism.

Powerfully persuasive, she argues that the dig Ibrital revolution and tech incumbents welcome and practice a new form of exploitative capitalism that modifies our behaviour and ultimately undermines our individual right and claim to the future. She does this by showing how our data plays into “behavioural futures markets” which allow economic actors to place wages and profit from our future activity. Admittedly, such a feat requires extensive jargon. “Behavioural surplus” refers to the meta-data derived from our voluntary data, extracted from digital consumers via the “extraction imperative” and then re-invested and sold onwards to contribute to the “prediction imperative”.

In creating her own model detailing the mechanics of this new form of capitalism at work, Zuboff successfully discharges the burden imposed from the outset of the book. She argues traditional capitalism has mutated through its host, “instrumentarianism” or “Big Other”. But unlike its counterpart, Big Brother, this version has no interest in detaining, torturing or murdering. Instead, it observes, catalogues, categorises and influences with a sort of lethal silent impartiality.

For instance, it was pioneered and subsequently entrenched by Google in the form of targeted advertising (AdWords). Further, the benefits of economies of scale, scope, action and classic monopolisation have all reinforced Google’s dominance in the surveillance market, closely trailed by Facebook and Microsoft. Crucially, from events like 9/11 to processes of numbing and rhetoric of “inevitabilism” (i.e. technological determinism), humans have become complacent and radically indifferent to these activities and harms. Going so far as to name this unilateral interaction between companies and users as “the uncontract”, she proves how organic reciprocities inherent to capitalism have become usurped by illiberal behavioural economics.

While at times requiring full-blown attentive and analytical thinking, as a reader you really reap the rewards of understanding after each chapter of the book. At almost 500 pages long, it really is an impressive testament to Zuboff’s life’s work that is clearly here to stay and influence the dialogue surrounding technology and private power. Books like these, that can rarely be replicated in depth or detail in an article or even an extended essay, reminds one of the value of reading beyond newspapers.



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