The Surveillance Capitalist’s Secret Sauce

A how-to explanation in four minutes, including a review of Harvard-sociologist Soshana Zuboff’s latest book

Soshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” has received an enormous amount of praise from prominent voices even before it was published. “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book”, claims author Naomi Klein, herself well-known for her criticism of corporate globalization. Not too many people will follow that advice, probably: Zuboff’s book contains almost 700 pages. (If you are asked to write a review: “From the very first page” sure is an interesting approach, demanding not too much reading.) The book’s size is a problem. The message is buried in too many pages, too many topics and asides. If there’s something like “surveillance capitalism”, and it is really different from the form of capitalism we’ve got used to in the last decades and centuries, it should be worth explaining it somewhat more to the point.

So here’s the recipe for surveillance capitalism, in brief. As always, Google leads the way. From the very start in 1997 Google collected data on users’ search behavior as a byproduct of the query activity. Initially, these data were treated as mere waste. Then the company realized that data related to search activities could be used to improve the search engine. A surveillance capitalist would say: Google re-invested all the data-revenues from search to improve its service. But the more interesting step followed later, when the company discovered that it could market the behavioral data in other areas than search. This was when Google started to build its advertisement business, which relies heavily on the data from search. That’s the trick: Offer a free internet search engine (or whatever) to create a surplus of behavioral data. Then make your money with that data surplus!

It’s misleading to say that people “buy” search and pay for this with giving away their data. Nothing is sold or bought. There are no customers.

The first takeaway from this is: Surveillance capitalists have a hidden agenda. They are notoriously obscuring their real ambitions to their customers and society. Concerning this point, Zuboff is really clear. It’s misleading to say that people “buy” search and pay for this with giving away their data. Nothing is sold or bought. There are no customers. We – the users “are the source of free raw material that feeds a new kind of manufacturing process”, says Zuboff.

What’s in it, economically?
That’s evil. But from the viewpoint of a surveillance capitalist, your question should be: “What’s in it, economically?” Zuboff is eager to point out that the new business model is not only about advertising, but about predicting and, finally, steering people’s behavior. Surveillance capitalists convert the “behavioral surplus” (which is the data created, by but not used by the original service) into “prediction products” which are sold on “markets for future behavior”. Surely you want to know: Where are these markets?

Data have become the new gold or the new oil, some people say. Economists calculate that in the US, the market for data amounts to 130 billion Euro a year. Sounds a lot. But then, Google alone generates 80 Billion dollar a year by revenues just from digital advertising. Is the “new oil” basically just advertisement – annoying things that pop up on our screens? If you read into the details of the story on the “new oil”, you will find that much more of data-related value is realized within companies. That’s fine – but far away from a marketplace for future behavior where you could sell your prediction products.

Here’s an answer: The market which is the surveillance capitalist’s playground is the infrastructure of everything. Cars and roads, for instance. “Google and Amazon are already locked in competition for the dashboard of your car, where their systems will control all communication and applications. (…) Google already offers applications developers a cloud- based ‘scaleable geolocation telemetry system’ using Google Maps”, Zuboff explains. In the near future, Google will not only be able to run our automated our autonomous vehicles and to deliver smart traffic management. It will be in a position to run our cities – much better than city governments who do not possess the relevant data (and who are forced by open data policy-guidelines to give away the data they produce or possess themselves to Google & Co). Insurers, to mention another field, see Google “as a potential rival and threat because of its strong brand and ability to manage customer data”, says Zuboff. Insurance too, has potential to innovate. Just think of an insurance contract which includes not only close observation of your driving behavior, but actual interventions in the driving process, such as an automatic speed-limit which is activated as part of the insurance policy that you opted in? Medicine would be another field: the use of big data improves diagnoses and treatment. Learning analytics. And many other fields. (It’s a pity that Zuboff isn’t interested to work out what the “markets for future behavior” she mentions again and again really could look like and how it is functioning economically.)

The value of data is mostly realized within companies. Big companies. “Surveillance capitalism” will be about Google, Amazon (and maybe a few others) running our cities, our homes, or hospitals – everything.

There really are fantastic options out there. But they are not up to you and me. There is no “market” for prediction products. Again: the value of data is mostly realized within companies. Big companies. “Surveillance capitalism” will be about Google, Amazon (and maybe a few others) running our cities, our homes, or hospitals – everything. That is the real secret sauce. They will do this following their own agenda and interests. Parts of that agenda will overlap with the concerns of customers and citizens. Other parts will follow the surveillance capitalists’ urge to gather more and more data – with the expectation that new products and services (which then can be sold for money) will be invented one day or another.

A further attribute of surveillance capitalism, which is not part of the economic mechanism, is worth mentioning in this context: its’ disentanglement with society. Surveillance capitalism basically works without the kind of social relations that still are part of a great part of the old-fashioned capitalist economy – be it with customers or employees. In the book, there is a whole chapter on this aspect. “Mass production”, Zuboff points out, “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.”

Not too great of an outlook? Maybe Soshana Zuboff will talk about suitable approaches for intervention in her next book. In “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, she doesn’t.