Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

I had extremely high hopes for this book after listening to an interview with the author. Unfortunately, most of what I liked about the book I heard in that 20 minute interview. I believe that the core theme of this book is a topic that will shape the next 30 years of American life. Unfortunately the vast majority of the book is spent detailing (and at times exaggerating) how evil the current system is instead of charting a course for correction without simply stopping progress. With that in mind, I’m going to offer in this review a few things I like and then discuss a few places where she’s gone too far or failed to cover a topic.

I love three aspects of the way the problem is framed:

  1. I think it is brilliant that Zuboff connected Google’s (and then the rest of the Internet’s) switch from a “pay per impression” to “pay per click” model. This means that Google is taking responsibility not only for displaying someone’s ad… but getting the user to click on it. This incentivizes them to be actively matching customers and products. This was the first step on to our present slippery slope.
  2. I love the comparison of being able to commoditize and sell the ability to predict what we will click on to the ability to commoditize and sell labor which began in the industrial revolution. Now, instead of needing 25 cobblers to make enough shoes for my city, I needed 25 laborers to operate the shoe factory. This gave too much power to the capitalists who owned the factory and ended up resulting in unions (and eventually safety and wage related regulations).
  3. Zuboff points out on page 192 that “Demanding Privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the internet is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand or asking a giraffe to shorten its neck. Such demands are existential threats.” I agree, progress/evolution cannot be simply reversed.

My problem with the book is how evil she claims the surveillance capitalists already are. Though I credit Zuboff with the comparison to the labor market (#2 above) she spends far more time comparing it to the way totalitarian leaders take advantage of their people or the way Europeans took advantage of Native Americans. Zuboff uses hundreds of pages trying to analogize surveillance capitalism to various evil periods in history, leaving very little of the book for the laws, regulations, social protests, etc… that might be necessary to cause a course correction. Perhaps she’s already planning a sequel?

Overall, I think the book is a worthwhile read because of how it brilliantly identifies one of the biggest problems of our time. Even if you will have to glaze over the sections that over-elaborate problem and deal with the disappointment of a lack of resolutions.