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<nettime> Shoshana Zuboff > The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism

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05.03.2016, 13:23 Uhr

The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism

	Governmental control is nothing compared to what Google is up to. The
	company is creating a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic
	coherent new logic of accumulation we should call surveillance
	capitalism. Is there nothing we can do?surveillance capitalism

05.03.2016, von SHOSHANA ZUBOFF

Google surpassed Apple as the world's most highly valued company in
January for the first time since 2010.  (Back then each company was
worth less than 200 billion. Now each is valued at well over 500
billion.)  While Google's new lead lasted only a few days, the company's
success has implications for everyone who lives within the reach of the
Internet. Why? Because Google is ground zero for a wholly new subspecies
of capitalism in which profits derive from the unilateral surveillance
and modification of human behavior.  This is a new surveillance
capitalism that is unimaginable outside the inscrutable high velocity
circuits of Google's digital universe, whose signature feature is the
Internet and its successors.  While the world is riveted by the showdown
between Apple and the FBI, the real truth is that the surveillance
capabilities being developed by surveillance capitalists are the envy of
every state security agency.  What are the secrets of this new
capitalism, how do they produce such staggering wealth, and how can we
protect ourselves from its invasive power?

	"Most Americans realize that there are two groups of people who are
	monitored regularly as they move about the country.  The first group is
	monitored involuntarily by a court order requiring that a tracking
	device be attached to their ankle. The second group includes everyone

Some will think that this statement is certainly true. Others will worry
that it could become true. Perhaps some think it's ridiculous.  It's not
a quote from a dystopian novel, a Silicon Valley executive, or even an
NSA official. These are the words of an auto insurance industry
consultant intended as a defense of  "automotive telematics" and the
astonishingly intrusive surveillance capabilities of the allegedly
benign systems that are already in use or under development. It's an
industry that has been notoriously exploitative toward customers and has
had obvious cause to be anxious about the implications of self-driving
cars for its business model. Now, data about where we are, where we're
going, how we're feeling, what we're saying, the details of our driving,
and the conditions of our vehicle are turning into beacons of revenue
that illuminate a new commercial prospect. According to the industry
literature, these data can be used for dynamic real-time driver behavior
modification triggering punishments  (real-time rate hikes, financial
penalties, curfews, engine lock-downs) or rewards (rate discounts,
coupons, gold stars to redeem for future benefits).

Bloomberg Business Week notes that these automotive systems will give
insurers a chance to boost revenue by selling customer driving data in
the same way that Google profits by collecting information on those who
use its search engine. The CEO of Allstate Insurance wants to be like
Google. He says, "There are lots of people who are monetizing data
today. You get on Google, and it seems like it's free. It's not free.
You're giving them information; they sell your information.  Could we,
should we, sell this information we get from people driving around to
various people and capture some additional profit source...? It's a
long-term game."

Who are these "various people" and what is this "long-term game"?  The
game is no longer about sending you a mail order catalogue or even about
targeting online advertising. The game is selling access to the
real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly
influence and modify your behavior for profit. This is the gateway to a
new universe of monetization opportunities: restaurants who want to be
your destination. Service vendors who want to fix your brake pads. Shops
who will lure you like the fabled Sirens. The "various people" are
anyone, and everyone who wants a piece of your behavior for profit.
Small wonder, then, that Google recently announced that its maps will
not only provide the route you search but will also suggest a

### The goal: to change people's actual behavior at scale

This is just one peephole, in one corner, of one industry, and the
peepholes are multiplying like cockroaches. Among the many interviews
I've conducted over the past three years, the Chief Data Scientist of a
much-admired Silicon Valley company that develops applications to
improve students' learning told me, "The goal of everything we do is to
change people's actual behavior at scale. When people use our app, we
can capture their behaviors, identify good and bad behaviors, and
develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how
actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us".

The very idea of a functional, effective, affordable product as a
sufficient basis for economic exchange is dying. The sports apparel
company Under Armour is reinventing its products as wearable
technologies.  The CEO wants to be like Google. He says, "If it all
sounds eerily like those ads that, because of your browsing history,
follow you around the Internet, that's exactly the point--except Under
Armour is tracking real behavior and the data is more specific... making
people better athletes makes them need more of our gear."  The examples
of this new logic are endless, from smart vodka bottles to
Internet-enabled rectal thermometers and quite literally everything in
between. A Goldman Sachs report calls it a "gold rush," a race to "vast
amounts of data."

### The assault on behavioral data

We've entered virgin territory here. The assault on behavioral data is
so sweeping that it can no longer be circumscribed by the concept of
privacy and its contests.  This is a different kind of challenge now,
one that threatens the existential and political canon of the modern
liberal order defined by principles of self-determination that have been
centuries, even millennia, in the making. I am thinking of matters that
include, but are not limited to, the sanctity of the individual and the
ideals of social equality; the development of identity, autonomy, and
moral reasoning; the integrity of contract, the freedom that accrues to
the making and fulfilling of promises; norms and rules of collective
agreement; the functions of market democracy; the political integrity of
societies; and the future of democratic sovereignty.  In the fullness of
time, we will look back on the establishment in Europe of the "Right to
be Forgotten" and the EU's more recent invalidation of the Safe Harbor
doctrine as early milestones in a gradual reckoning with the true
dimensions of this challenge.

There was a time when we laid responsibility for the assault on
behavioral data at the door of the state and its security agencies. 
Later, we also blamed the cunning practices of a handful of banks, data
brokers, and Internet companies. Some attribute the assault to an
inevitable  "age of big data," as if it were possible to conceive of
data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place
where facts sublimate into truth.

### Capitalism has been hijacked by surveillance

I've come to a different conclusion:  The assault we face is driven in
large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of
capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call
surveillance capitalism. Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative
surveillance project that subverts the "normal" evolutionary mechanisms
associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply
and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered
capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus
enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.

Surveillance capitalism is a novel economic mutation bred from the
clandestine coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical
indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and
its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three
decades, especially in the Anglo economies. It is an unprecedented
market form that roots and flourishes in lawless space.  It was first
discovered and consolidated at Google, then adopted by Facebook, and
quickly diffused across the Internet. Cyberspace was its birthplace
because, as Google/Alphabet Chairperson Eric Schmidt and his coauthor,
Jared Cohen, celebrate on the very first page of their book about the
digital age, "the online world is not truly bound by terrestrial's the world's largest ungoverned space."

While surveillance capitalism taps the invasive powers of the Internet
as the source of capital formation and wealth creation, it is now, as I
have suggested, poised to transform commercial practice across the real
world too.  An analogy is the rapid spread of mass production and
administration throughout the industrialized world in the early
twentieth century, but with one major caveat. Mass production was
interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and
employees. In contrast, surveillance capitalism preys on dependent
populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and are
largely ignorant of its procedures.

### Internet access as a fundamental human right

We once fled to the Internet as solace and solution, our needs for
effective life thwarted by the distant and increasingly ruthless
operations of late twentieth century capitalism.  In less than two
decades after the Mosaic web browser was released to the public enabling
easy access to the World Wide Web, a 2010 BBC poll found that 79% of
people in 26 countries considered Internet access to be a fundamental
human right. This is the Scylla and Charybdis of our plight. It is
nearly impossible to imagine effective social participation ––from
employment, to education, to healthcare–– without Internet access and
know-how, even as these once flourishing networked spaces fall to a new
and even more exploitative capitalist regime. It's happened quickly and
without our understanding or agreement. This is because the regime's
most poignant harms, now and later, have been difficult to grasp or
theorize, blurred by extreme velocity and camouflaged by expensive and
illegible machine operations, secretive corporate practices, masterful
rhetorical misdirection, and purposeful cultural misappropriation.

Taming this new force depends upon careful naming.  This symbiosis of
naming and taming is vividly illustrated in the recent history of HIV
research, and I offer it as analogy.  For three decades scientists aimed
to create a vaccine that followed the logic of earlier cures, training
the immune system to produce neutralizing antibodies, but mounting data
revealed unanticipated behaviors of the HIV virus that defy the patterns
of other infectious diseases.

### HIV research as analogy

The tide began to turn at the International AIDS Conference in 2012,
when new strategies were presented that rely on a close understanding of
the biology of rare HIV carriers whose blood produces natural
antibodies. Research began to shift toward methods that reproduce this
self-vaccinating response.  A leading researcher announced, "We know the
face of the enemy now, and so we have some real clues about how to
approach the problem."

The point for us is that every successful vaccine begins with a close
understanding of the enemy disease.  We tend to rely on mental models,
vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes. I am thinking
of the twentieth century's totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic
predations of Gilded Age capitalism. But the vaccines we've developed to
fight those earlier threats are not sufficient or even appropriate for
the novel challenges we face. It's like we're hurling snowballs at a
smooth marble wall only to watch them slide down its façade, leaving
nothing but a wet smear: a fine paid here, an operational detour there.

### An evolutionary dead-end

I want to say plainly that surveillance capitalism is not the only
current modality of information capitalism, nor is it the only possible
model for the future. Its fast track to capital accumulation and rapid
institutionalization, however, has made it the default model of
information capitalism. The questions I pose are these: Will
surveillance capitalism become the dominant logic of accumulation in our
time or, will it be an evolutionary dead-end — a toothed bird in
capitalism's longer journey? What will an effective vaccine entail?

A cure depends upon many individual, social, and legal adaptations, but
I am convinced that fighting the "enemy disease" cannot begin without a
fresh grasp of the novel mechanisms that account for surveillance
capitalism's successful transformation of investment into capital. This
has been one focus of my work in a new book, Master or Slave: The Fight
for the Soul of Our Information Civilization, which will be published
early next year.  In the short space of this essay, I'd like to share
some of my thoughts on this problem.

### Fortune telling and selling

New economic logics and their commercial models are discovered by people
in a time and place and then perfected through trial and error. Ford
discovered and systematized mass production. General Motors
institutionalized mass production as a new phase of capitalist
development with the discovery and perfection of large-scale
administration and professional management. In our time, Google is to
surveillance capitalism what Ford and General Motors were to
mass-production and managerial capitalism a century ago: discoverer,
inventor, pioneer, role model, lead practitioner, and diffusion hub.

Specifically, Google is the mothership and ideal type of a new economic
logic based on fortune telling and selling, an ancient and eternally
lucrative craft that has exploited the human confrontation with
uncertainty from the beginning of the human story. Paradoxically, the
certainty of uncertainty is both an enduring source of anxiety and one
of our most fruitful facts. It produced the universal need for social
trust and cohesion, systems of social organization, familial bonding,
and legitimate authority, the contract as formal recognition of
reciprocal rights and obligations, and the theory and practice of what
we call "free will." When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human
replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability
in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of
perpetual compliance with someone else's plan.

### Only incidentally related to advertising

Most people credit Google's success to its advertising model. But the
discoveries that led to Google's rapid rise in revenue and market
capitalization are only incidentally related to advertising.  Google's
success derives from its ability to predict the future – specifically
the future of behavior. Here is what I mean:

>From the start, Google had collected data on users' search-related
behavior as a byproduct of query activity.  Back then, these data logs
were treated as waste, not even safely or methodically stored. 
Eventually, the young company came to understand that these logs could
be used to teach and continuously improve its search engine.

The problem was this:  Serving users with amazing search results "used
up" all the value that users created when they inadvertently provided
behavioral data. It's a complete and self-contained process in which
users are ends-in-themselves. All the value that users create is
reinvested in the user experience in the form of improved search.  In
this cycle, there was nothing left over for Google to turn into capital.
As long as the effectiveness of the search engine needed users'
behavioral data about as much as users needed search, charging a fee for
service was too risky. Google was cool, but it wasn't yet capitalism ––
just one of many Internet startups that boasted "eyeballs" but no

### Shift in the use of behavioral data

The year 2001 brought the bust and mounting investor pressures
at Google. Back then advertisers selected the search term pages for
their displays.  Google decided to try and boost ad revenue by applying
its already substantial analytical capabilities to the challenge of
increasing an ad's relevance to users — and thus its value to
advertisers. Operationally this meant that Google would finally
repurpose its growing cache of behavioral data. Now the data would also
be used to match ads with keywords, exploiting subtleties that only its
access to behavioral data, combined with its analytical capabilities,
could reveal.

It's now clear that this shift in the use of behavioral data was an
historic turning point. Behavioral data that were  once discarded or
ignored were rediscovered as what I call behavioral surplus. Google's
dramatic success in "matching" ads to pages revealed the
transformational value of this behavioral surplus as a means of
generating revenue and ultimately turning investment into capital.
Behavioral surplus was the game-changing zero-cost asset that could be
diverted from service improvement toward a genuine market exchange. Key
to this formula, however, is the fact that this new market exchange was
not an exchange with users but rather with other companies who
understood how to make money from bets on users' future behavior. In
this new context, users were no longer an end-in-themselves.  Instead
they became a means to profits in  a new kind of marketplace in which
users are neither buyers nor sellers nor products.  Users are the source
of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process.

While these facts are known, their significance has not been fully
appreciated or adequately theorized. What just happened was the
discovery of a surprisingly profitable commercial equation — a series
of lawful relationships that were gradually institutionalized in the sui
generis economic logic of surveillance capitalism. It's like a newly
sighted planet with its own physics of time and space, its sixty-seven
hour days, emerald sky, inverted mountain ranges, and dry water.

### A parasitic form of profit

The equation: First, the push for more users and more channels,
services, devices, places, and spaces is imperative for access to an
ever-expanding range of behavioral surplus.  Users are the human
nature-al resource that provides this free raw material.  Second, the
application of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and data
science for continuous algorithmic improvement constitutes an immensely
expensive, sophisticated, and exclusive twenty-first century "means of
production." Third, the new manufacturing process converts behavioral
surplus into prediction products designed to predict behavior now and
soon. Fourth, these prediction products are sold into a new kind of
meta-market that trades exclusively in future behavior.  The better
(more predictive) the product, the lower the risks for buyers, and the
greater the volume of sales. Surveillance capitalism's profits derive
primarily, if not entirely, from such markets for future behavior.

While advertisers have been the dominant buyers in the early history of
this new kind of marketplace, there is no substantive reason why such
markets should be limited to this group. The already visible trend is
that any actor with an interest in monetizing probabilistic information
about our behavior and/or influencing future behavior can pay to play in
a marketplace where the behavioral fortunes of individuals, groups,
bodies, and things are told and sold.  This is how in our own lifetimes
we observe capitalism shifting under our gaze: once profits from
products and services, then profits from speculation, and now profits
from surveillance. This latest mutation may help explain why the
explosion of the digital has failed, so far, to decisively impact
economic growth, as so many of its capabilities are diverted into a
fundamentally parasitic form of profit.

### Unoriginal Sin

The significance of behavioral surplus was quickly camouflaged, both at
Google and eventually throughout the Internet industry, with labels like
"digital exhaust," "digital breadcrumbs," and so on. These euphemisms
for behavioral surplus operate as ideological filters, in exactly the
same way that the earliest maps of the North American continent labeled
whole regions with terms like "heathens," "infidels," "idolaters," 
"primitives," "vassals," or "rebels."  On the strength of those labels,
native peoples, their places and claims, were erased from the invaders'
moral and legal equations, legitimating their acts of taking and
breaking in the name of Church and Monarchy.

We are the native peoples now whose tacit claims to self-determination
have vanished from the maps of our own behavior. They are erased in an
astonishing and audacious act of dispossession by surveillance that
claims its right to ignore every boundary in its thirst for knowledge of
and influence over the most detailed nuances of our behavior.  For those
who wondered about the logical completion of the global processes of
commodification, the answer is that they complete themselves in the
dispossession of our intimate quotidian reality, now reborn as behavior
to be monitored and modified, bought and sold.

The process that began in cyberspace mirrors the nineteenth century
capitalist expansions that preceded the age of imperialism. Back then,
as Hannah Arendt described it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, "the
so-called laws of capitalism were actually allowed to create realities"
as they traveled to less developed regions where law did not follow.
"The secret of the new happy fulfillment," she wrote, "was precisely
that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning
classes." There, "money could finally beget money," without having to go
"the long way of investment in production..."

### "The original sin of simple robbery"

For Arendt, these foreign adventures of capital clarified an essential
mechanism of capitalism. Marx had developed the idea of "primitive
accumulation" as a big-bang theory — Arendt called it "the original sin
of simple robbery" — in which the taking of lands and natural resources
was the foundational event that enabled capital accumulation and the
rise of the market system. The capitalist expansions of the 1860s and
1870s demonstrated, Arendt wrote, that this sort of original sin had to
be repeated over and over, "lest the motor of capital accumulation
suddenly die down."

In his book The New Imperialism, geographer and social theorist David
Harvey built on this insight with his notion of "accumulation by
dispossession."  "What accumulation by dispossession does," he writes, 
"is to release a set of very low (and in some instances zero)
cost. Overaccumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and
immediately turn them to profitable use...It can also reflect attempts by
determined 'join the system' and seek the benefits of
capital accumulation."

### Breakthrough into "the system"

The process by which behavioral surplus led to the discovery of
surveillance capitalism exemplifies this pattern. It is the foundational
act of dispossession for a new logic of capitalism built on profits from
surveillance that paved the way for Google to become a capitalist
enterprise. Indeed, in 2002, Google's first profitable year, founder
Sergey Brin relished his breakthrough into "the system", as he told

Honestly, when we were still in the dot-com boom days, I felt like a
schmuck. I had an Internet start-      up — so did everybody else. It
was unprofitable, like everybody else's, and how hard is that? But when
we became profitable, I felt like we had built a real business."

Brin was a capitalist all right, but it was a mutation of capitalism
unlike anything the world had seen.

Once we understand this equation, it becomes clear 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. It's like asking a giraffe to shorten its
neck or a cow to give up chewing.  Such demands are existential threats
that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity's survival. How can we
expect companies whose economic existence depends upon behavioral
surplus to cease capturing behavioral data voluntarily?   It's like
asking for suicide.

### More behavioral surplus for Google

The imperatives of  surveillance capitalism mean that there must always
be more behavioral surplus for Google and others to turn into
surveillance assets, master as prediction, sell into exclusive markets
for future behavior, and transform into capital. At Google and its new
holding company called Alphabet, for example, every operation and
investment aims to increasing the harvest of behavioral surplus from
people, bodies, things, processes, and places in both the virtual and
the real world.   This is how a sixty-seven hour day dawns and darkens
in an emerald sky. Nothing short of a social revolt that revokes
collective agreement to the practices associated with the dispossession
of behavior will alter surveillance capitalism's claim to manifest data

What is the new vaccine? We need to reimagine how to intervene in the
specific mechanisms that produce surveillance profits and in so doing
reassert the primacy of the liberal order in the twenty-first century
capitalist project. In undertaking this challenge we must be mindful
that contesting Google, or any other surveillance capitalist, on the
grounds of monopoly is a 20th century solution to a 20th century problem
that, while still vitally important, does not necessarily disrupt
surveillance capitalism's commercial equation.  We need new
interventions that interrupt, outlaw, or regulate 1) the initial capture
of behavioral surplus, 2) the use of behavioral surplus as free raw
material, 3) excessive and exclusive concentrations of the new means of
production, 4) the manufacture of prediction products, 5) the sale of
prediction products, 6) the use of prediction products for third-order
operations of modification, influence, and control, and 5) the
monetization of the results of these operations. This is necessary for
society, for people, for the future, and it is also necessary to restore
the healthy evolution of capitalism itself.

### A coup from above

In the conventional narrative of the privacy threat, institutional
secrecy has grown, and individual privacy rights have been eroded. But
that framing is misleading, because privacy and secrecy are not
opposites but rather moments in a sequence. Secrecy is an effect;
privacy is the cause. Exercising one's right to privacy produces choice,
and one can choose to keep something secret or to share it. Privacy
rights thus confer decision rights, but these decision rights are merely
the lid on the Pandora's Box of the liberal order. Inside the box,
political and economic sovereignty meet and mingle with even deeper and
subtler causes: the idea of the individual, the emergence of the self,
the felt experience of free will.

Surveillance capitalism does not erode these decision rights — along
with their causes and their effects — but rather it redistributes them.
Instead of many people having some rights, these rights have been
concentrated within the surveillance regime, opening up an entirely new
dimension of social inequality. The full implications of this
development have preoccupied me for many years now, and with each day my
sense of danger intensifies. The space of this essay does not allow me
to follow these facts to their conclusions, but I offer this thought in

Surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional
terrain of the private firm. It accumulates not only surveillance assets
and capital, but also rights. This unilateral redistribution of rights
sustains a privately administered compliance regime of rewards and
punishments that is largely free from detection or sanction. It operates
without meaningful mechanisms of consent either in the traditional form
of "exit, voice, or loyalty" associated with markets or in the form of
democratic oversight expressed in law and regulation.

### Profoundly anti-democratic power

In result, surveillance capitalism conjures a profoundly anti-democratic
power that qualifies as a coup from above: not a coup d'état, but rather
a coup des gens, an overthrow of the people's sovereignty.  It
challenges principles and practices of self-determination ––in psychic
life and social relations, politics and governance — for which humanity
has suffered long and sacrificed much. For this reason alone, such
principles should not be forfeit to the unilateral pursuit of a
disfigured capitalism. Worse still would be their forfeit to our own
ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience,
habituation, or drift.  This, I believe, is the ground on which our
contests for the future will be fought.

Hannah Arendt once observed that indignation is the natural human
response to that which degrades human dignity. Referring to her work on
the origins of totalitarianism she wrote,  "If I describe these
conditions without permitting my indignation to interfere, then I have
lifted this particular phenomenon out of its context in human society
and have thereby robbed it of part of its nature, deprived it of one of
its important inherent qualities."

So it is for me and perhaps for you:  The bare facts of surveillance
capitalism necessarily arouse my indignation because they demean human
dignity. The future of this narrative will depend upon the indignant
scholars and journalists drawn to this frontier project, indignant
elected officials and policy makers who understand that their authority
originates in the foundational values of democratic communities, and
indignant citizens who act in the knowledge that effectiveness without
autonomy is not effective, dependency-induced compliance is no social
contract, and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.

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