3 months, 9 days ago

Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

Link: http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/DemandingChange/~3/TyBgiE3cZM0/shoshana-zuboff-on-surveillance.html

@shoshanazuboff’s latest book was published at the end of January. 700 pages of detailed research and analysis, and I’ve been trying to read as much as possible before everyone else. Meanwhile I have seen display copies everywhere – not just at the ICA bookshop which always has more interesting books than I shall ever have time to read, but also in my (excellent) local bookshop. (Fiona tells me she has already sold several copies.)

Although Zuboff spent much of her life at Harvard Business School, and has previously expressed optimism about technology (Distributed Capitalism, the Support Economy), she has form in criticizing the unacceptable face of capitalism (e.g. her 2009 critique of Wall Street). She now regards surveillance capitalism as “a profoundly undemocratic social force” (p 513), and in the passionate conclusion to her book I can hear echoes of Robert Burn’s poem “Parcel of Rogues in a Nation”.

“Our lives are scraped and sold to fund their freedom and our subjugation, their knowledge and our ignorance about what they know.” (p 498)

One of the key words in the book is “power”, especially what she calls instrumentarian power. She describes the emergence of this kind of power as a bloodless coup, and makes a point that will be extremely familiar to readers of Foucault.

“Instead of violence directed at our bodies, the instrumentarian third modernity operates more like a taming. Its solution to the increasingly clamorous demands for effective life pivots on the gradual elimination of chaos, uncertainty, conflict, abnormality, and discord in favor of predictability, automatic regularity, transparency, confluence, persuasion and pacification.” (p 515)

In Foucauldian language, this would be described as a shift from sovereign power to disciplinary power, which he describes in terms of the Panopticon. Although Zuboff discusses Foucault and the Information Panopticon at some length in her book on the Smart Machine, I couldn’t find a reference to Foucault in her latest book, merely a very brief mention of the panopticon (pp 470-1). So for a fuller explanation of this concept, I turned to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“Bentham’s Panopticon is, for Foucault, a paradigmatic architectural model of modern disciplinary power. It is a design for a prison, built so that each inmate is separated from and invisible to all the others (in separate “cells”) and each inmate is always visible to a monitor situated in a central tower. Monitors do not in fact always see each inmate; the point is that they could at any time. Since inmates never know whether they are being observed, they must behave as if they are always seen and observed. As a result, control is achieved more by the possibility of internal monitoring of those controlled than by actual supervision or heavy physical constraints.” (SEP: Michel Foucault)

I didn’t read the Smart Machine when it first came out, so the first time I saw the term “panopticon” applied to information technology was in Mark Poster’s brilliant book The Mode of Information, which came out a couple of years later. Introducing the term Superpanopticon to describe the databases of his time, his analysis seems uncannily accurate as a description of the present day.

“Foucault taught us to read a new form of power by deciphering discourse/practice formations instead of intentions of a subject or instrumental actions. Such a discourse analysis when applied to the mode of information yields the uncomfortable discovery that the population participates in its own self-constitution as subjects of the normalizing gaze of the Superpanopticon. We see databases not as an invasion of privacy, as a threat to a centred individual, but as the multiplication of the individual, the constitution of an additional self, one that may be acted upon to the detriment of the ‘real’ self without that ‘real’ self ever being aware of what is happening.” (pp 97-8)

But the problem with invoking Foucault is that it appears to take agency away from the “parcel of rogues” – Zuckerberg, Bosworth, Nadella and the rest – who are the apparent villains of Zuboff’s book. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the panopticon holds both the watcher and watched alike in its disciplinary power.

In his long and detailed review, Evgeny Morozov thinks the book owes more to Alfred Chandler, advocate of managerial capitalism, than to Foucault. (Even though Zuboff seems no longer to believe in the possibility of return to traditional managerial capitalism, and the book ends by taking sides with George Orwell in his strong critique of James Burnham, an earlier advocate of managerial capitalism.)

Meanwhile, there is another French thinker who may be haunting Zuboff’s book, thanks to her adoption of the term Big Other, usually associated with Jacques Lacan. Jörg Metelmann suggests that Zoboff’s use of the term “Big Other” corresponds (to a great extent, he says) to Lacan and Slavoj Žižek’s psychoanalysis, but I’m not convinced. I suspect she may have selected the term “Big Other” (associated with Disciplinary Power) not as a conscious reference to Lacanian theory but because it rhymed with the more familiar “Big Brother” (associated, at least in Orwell’s novel, with Sovereign Power). 

Talking of “otherness”, Peter Benson explains how the Amazon Alexa starts to be perceived, not as a mere object but as an Other.

“(We) know perfectly well that she is an electronic device without consciousness, intentions, or needs of her own. But behaving towards Alexa as a person becomes inevitable, because she is programmed to respond as a person might, and our brains have evolved to categorize such a being as an Other, so we respond to her as a person. We can resist this categorization, but, as with an optical illusion, our perception remains unchanged even after it has been explained. The stick in water still looks bent, even though we know it isn’t. Alexa’s personhood is exactly such a psychological illusion.”

But much as we may desire to possess this mysterious black tube, regarding Alexa as an equal partner in dialogue, almost a mirror of ourselves, the reality is that this black tube is just one of many endpoints in an Internet of Things consisting of millions of similar black tubes and other devices, part of an all-pervasive Big Other. Zuboff sees the Big Other as an apparatus, an instrument of power, “the sensate computational, connected puppet that renders, monitors, computes and modifies human behavior” (p 376).

The Big Other possesses what Zuboff calls radical indifference – it monitors and controls human behaviour while remaining steadfastly indifferent to the meaning of that experience (pp 376-7). She quotes an internal Facebook memo by Andrew “Boz” Bosworth advocating moral neutrality (pp 505-6). (For what it’s worth, radical indifference is also celebrated by Baudrillard.)

She also refers to this as observation without witness. This can be linked to Henry Giroux’s notion of disimagination, the internalization of surveillance.

“I argue that the politics of disimagination refers to images, and I would argue institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation, that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance. The ‘disimagination machine’ is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to the new sites of screen culture, and a public pedagogy that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world.”

(Just over a year ago, I managed to catch a rare performance of A Machine They’re Secretly Building, which explores some of these ideas in a really interesting way. Strongly recommended. Check the proto_type website for UK tour dates.)

Zuboff’s book concentrates on the corporate side of surveillance, although she does mention the common interest (elective affinity p 115) between the surveillance capitalists and the public security forces around the war on terrorism. She also mentions the increased ability of political actors to use the corporate instruments for political ends. So a more comprehensive genealogy of surveillance would have to trace the shifting power relations between corporate power, government power, media power and algorithmic power.

A good example of this kind of exploration took place at the PowerSwitch conference in March 2017, where I heard Ariel Ezrachi (author of a recent book on the Algorithm-Driven Economy) talking about “the end of competition as we know it” (see links below to video and liveblog).

But obviously there is much more on this topic than can be covered in one book. Although some reviewers (@bhaggart as well as @evgenymorozov) have noted a lack of intellectual depth and rigour, Shoshana Zuboff has nonetheless made a valuable contribution – both in terms of the weight of evidence she has assembled and also in terms of bringing these issues to a wider audience.


Peter Benson, The Concept of the Other from Kant to Lacan (Philosophy Now 127, August/September 2018)

Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, Virtual Competition: The Promise and Perils of the Algorithm-Driven Economy (Harvard University Press, 2016) – more links via publisher’s page 

Henry A. Giroux, The Politics of Disimagination and the Pathologies of Power (Truth Out, 27 February 2013)

Blayne Haggart, Evaluating scholarship, or why I won’t be teaching Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (15 February 2019)

Jörg Metelmann, Screening Surveillance Capitalism, in Daniel Cuonz, Scott Loren, Jörg Metelmann (eds) Screening Economies: Money Matters and the Ethics of Representation (transcript Verlag, 2018)

Evgeny Morozov, Capitalism’s New Clothes (The Baffler, 4 February 2019)

Mark Poster, The Mode of Information (Polity Press, 1990). See also notes in Donko Jeliazkov and Roger Blumberg, Virtualities (PDF, undated)

Shoshana Zuboff, In The Age of the Smart Machine (1988)

Shoshana Zuboff, Wall Street’s Economic Crimes Against Humanity (Bloomberg, 20 March 2019)

Shoshana Zuboff, A Digital Declaration (Frankfurter Algemeiner Zeitung, 15 September 2014)

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (UK Edition: Profile Books, 2019)

Wikipedia: Panopticism

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault

CRASSH PowerSwitch Conference (Cambridge, 31 March 2017) Panel 4: Algorithmic Power (via YouTube). See also liveblog by Laura James Power Switch – Conference Report.

Related posts: Power Switch (March 2017), The Price of Everything (May 2017), Witnessing Machines Built in Secret (November 2017), Pax Technica (November 2017), Big Data and Organizational Intelligence (November 2018), Insurance and the Veil of Ignorance (February 2019)