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Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’

Lecturer: Elise Addlem

Originally Taught: Summer School 2021

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019), Shoshana Zuboff theorises the issue of online privacy and data surveillance in a manner that speaks to both the complexity of the urgent moral and ethical issue at stake. Zuboff argues that we are currently living in a new capitalist age, wherein a ‘Big Other’, called surveillance capitalism, has given birth to a qualitatively different kind of power. Zuboff argues that Google, Facebook and other big tech companies extract endless data from human experience - the new kind of surplus value - thus robbing human beings of the right to our own experiences, turning these experiences into a resource that can be accumulated, while at once shaping our futures. In this course, we will explore the nature and implications of surveillance capitalism for privacy, autonomy, freedom and political action.

1. The historical conditions for surveillance capitalism

We will consider how Zuboff frames her concept of surveillance capitalism. With Google as its pioneer, Zuboff argues that the ‘laws of motion’ of surveillance capitalism, which began roughly 20 years ago, can be understood in a systematic fashion.

Key reading: Zuboff, S., (2019), The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (SC), Chapter 2 and 3

Extra reading: SC Chapter 1

2. Democracy, privacy and the conquest of everyday life

Zuboff describes a process whereby Google, followed by Facebook, begins to corner human beings, changing the socio-political landscape through an incursion of undefended territory. We will look at how these companies move from understanding to predicting human behaviour. Moreover, we will consider the vast range of ‘smart’ technologies that proliferate daily life that Zuboff argues are closing the gap between experience and data by understanding the human body and mind.

Key reading: SC Chapter 5 and 8

Extra reading: chapter 6 and 7

3. Shaping personality, emotion and political opinion

We will consider the effects on autonomy of using data accumulation to predict and shape and manipulate human emotions, views and beliefs, looking at Cambridge Analytica’s effect on Brexit and the 2016 US election to understand Zuboff’s argument about the relationship between data and political opinion.

Key reading: SC Chapter 9 and 10

Extra reading: Chapter 11

4. Instrumentarian power and the Big Other

Zuboff terms the new kind of power exerted under surveillance capitalism ‘instrumentarian power’. Seeing how Zuboff contrasts this with totalitarianism, we will explore how it works, its implications for human freedom, and the right of human beings to have a will to decide our own futures. Central will be the freedom to will the future.

Key: SC chapter 12 and 13

Extra reading: SC chapter 14

5. Surveillance capitalism in the pandemic world

Zuboff argues that the coronavirus pandemic has helped the expansion of big tech companies' invasion into every aspect of our world, as we have come to rely more heavily on online tools. We will also consider what Zuboff calls the human right to sanctuary from surveillance capitalism, and how human beings may fight in this new power struggle.

Key: SC chapter 16 and 17

Extra reading: SC chapter 15 and 18, Surveillance capitalism in the age of Covid-19, 2020,
https://www.computerweekly.com/feature/Surveillance-capitalism-in-the-age-of-Covid-19