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25 September 2019updated 04 Sep 2021 3:08pm

Why Shoshana Zuboff lost faith in the digital revolution

The author on why she believes capitalism has gone "rogue".

By Hettie O'Brien

One evening in late January, I waited on a London pavement for Shoshana Zuboff. A black cab pulled up and a small woman with a wide smile and immaculate 1980s blow-dry stepped out. “You must be Hettie,” she said in a liquid American accent. It was the same week her 700-page book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism had been published in the UK. She was on a whistle-stop tour, and had generously agreed to an off-the-record chat with a group of young people interested in technology. After we took our seats, Zuboff proceeded to ask each person in the room to share their feelings in one word – a move that could have been taken straight from a management guide to organisational change.

Occasionally, a book gains a broader currency. Surveillance Capitalism has been likened to this generation’s Das Kapital. Its timing – after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the election of Donald Trump – was opportune. Zuboff captured the connections between these events and gave a name to their unifying logic; Google and Facebook have become too big, too knowledgeable and too rapacious for democracy.

The book’s conception suggested a hermit-like genius. Many years ago in 1988, Zuboff had published another book about technology, The Age of the Smart Machine, which studied the computerisation of workplaces and anticipated many of the problems we now encounter in everyday life. Then she went quiet. Surveillance Capitalism took seven years to write; she pored over the discourse of Google’s and Facebook’s founders, files and papers scattered across her study floor. “I am an inchworm moving with determination and purpose,” she wrote.

It is now September and Zuboff has returned to London to launch the book in paperback. I wait in the lobby of a hotel near Broadcasting House and find her much the same: gracious and adamant. “If I told you all my stories,” she says, “you’d like me a lot more than you think you like me.” I can’t work out whether it’s a joke.

Her interest in how technology affects workplaces began in Venezuela, where she spent two years conducting graduate research for a telephone company. She later became fascinated by a paradox: though the computerisation of workplaces was supposed to free workers and bring about efficiency gains, it seemed as if the opposite was happening. While working as a consultant for Citibank, she noticed that the computers that were meant to liberate workers were pushing them out to sea.

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Zuboff worked the “graveyard shift” with the linotype operators at the Washington Post to find out how the move away from hot type would affect their jobs. Early one morning in 1978, after leaving work, she stumbled into the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC and encountered a deserted exhibition of sculptures made from industrial machinery. “It was suddenly crystal clear… the shift to computerisation would be a sea change as significant as industrialisation, and it would entail all of the same implications,” she says. It sounds obvious, but few people were saying it back then.

Digital technologies have altered how we socialise, consume, and use our time (the average person now spends three hours and 15 minutes of each day on their phone). “By the early 2000s, [digital technology] was overflowing the economic domain… like a tsunami… into the streets, our homes, our cars, our bodies,” Zuboff says. The apotheosis of this change is Google, which extracts revenue from “behavioural surplus” – information about our every thought, word and deed, traded for profit in new markets based on predicting our future actions.

“I came to understand that I thought [Facebook and Google] were innovative companies making mistakes, but really it was the mistakes that were the innovations,” Zuboff says. Beneath the sound-bites, it’s clear she harboured utopian hopes for the individualised consumerism represented by the iPod, and was sorely disappointed by the direction technology companies took. By the late 1990s, she began to “see these narcissistic and self-destructive aspects of capitalism already colonising the internet. It was the cookies, the language of ‘eyeballs’”.

Capitalism, she says, has gone “rogue”, severing the organic relationship between society and the market. But liberal capitalism has always contained the seeds of destruction. Surveillance Capitalism argues that Google and Facebook are engaged in an unprecedented project of totalitarian engineering. It might be simpler to name Google’s goals for what they are: profiting through advertising, and pursuing its economic and political interests – which happen to come at the expense of society.

When I ask whether the economic logic of such companies is the continuation of a more long-standing dynamic, Zuboff seems frustrated. “This preoccupied you last time – so we can go over it again.”

I still don’t believe surveillance capitalism is a radical break from a more benevolent form, but maybe that doesn’t matter: Zuboff has made people think, and opened our eyes to a development that should rightfully scare us.

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This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace