I Finished Surveillance Capitalism!

It’s a great, great book but it should be 300 pages shorter, for sure. To say that Zuboff’s writing is repetitive is like saying that Trump isn’t always extremely tactful. I kept thinking my Kindle was on the fritz because it felt like I was reading the same page over and over and over again.

This is the reason why most readers of this great book don’t get to the end. And it’s such a shame because not only is this absolutely, hands-down the best non-fiction book of the decade but the last three pages are absolutely stunning, unexpected, and wonderful.

In these last pages, Zuboff tells us that surveillance capitalism is not really capitalism at all. Surveillance capitalism uses the rhetorical devices of the massively successful neoliberalism in order to… destroy capitalism. It masks as neoliberalism but it isn’t. Zuboff demonstrates how the very foundation of what Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek understood as capitalism is destroyed by the surveillance mode of existence.

This is a fascinating argument that I need to keep thinking about. It looks like Zuboff us saying that the surveillance anti-capitalism (which would be a better name for it) is enamored of the idea of planned economy and that the chaos of what we know as a free market (or a free anything) is its enemy. Which is why China is at the forefront of this surveillance system.

As I said, this is all condensed in 3 pages at the end, although the whole book leads you to this conclusion without stating it so bluntly until the very end.

9 thoughts on “I Finished Surveillance Capitalism!”

  1. Congratulations and thanks for sharing!

    What is Marx was right about capitalism being doomed because of its contradictions, only wrong about which contradictions would be the once to destroy the old system since no one then could’ve imagined modern technologies and their possible applications?

    Don’t have something more to add now, but the subject is truly fascinating. 🙂

    Only want to mention re our previous discussions on this blog that the image of more and more non-working people functioning only as consumers, while receiving handouts from the global elites, seems unreal, unsustainable in the long run.

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  2. I haven’t read the book, but I think I know what you mean. As I understand, there’s been a recent shift in economics towards treating humans as “predictably irrational”, which moves the whole field of study towards empirical observation and extraction of regularities… And away from the old “rational self-interest” model, which would make the basic mode of analysis a formal study of when stable points of interaction between different interest-bearers appear and shift. (Both of them in contrast to a more classical idea of the field of basic interaction between humans essentially being about language and communication.)

    In theory, you can’t hijack rational self-interest (which makes you blind to all the ways you in fact can), but you very easily can the predictably irrational. As I understand it, the field still retains the “rational self-interest” model, but as a value orientation rather than as an analytical tool – the goal as stated is to make you as well off as you would be if you were reliably and rationally self-interested. You can argue on whether that’s a good goal to begin with, and certainly whether it’s just a covert cover for something else. Whatever the case on those issues, I do think it’s true that there’s basically no need other than tradition to keep the old idea around – it’s essentially a ladder value, and will be kicked off to the side when the field climbs to the status of default.

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  3. As a personal side note – a few times in my life, I’ve had a background maintenance position that allowed me to observe how key information for a large company gets gathered – and it gets massaged and smushed into whatever the pre-existing demands are – and then seen it used for decision making as if it was perfectly reliable by the higher ups.

    The implication in the term “surveillance capitalism” is that the main issues are going to be in dealing with the unparalleled access to reality that companies will have. My bet is that a lot of it is instead going to be about new and exciting ways to make algorithm-based shared delusions of unprecedented scope and scale.

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