Surveillance Capitalism

Sometimes, it can help – when explaining a set of ideas  – to describe their opposite. For UCD, this task has been ably accomplished by Shoshana Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School.

In her 2019 book ‘ The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, and various earlier articles,  Prof Zuboff explains how users of technology have become the raw material of a new paradigm of manufacturing and sales: a surveillance economy.

In brief, and as we all know, individuals use online services provided by internet firms such as Google and Facebook. These services, apparently ‘free’, are – in fact – paid for in kind: the service providers harvest data about the individuals’ actions, use this data to create profiles, and sell these profiles so that merchants can target online advertisements ever more accurately.

In effect, individuals are – for the most part unwittingly – being surveilled by these companies, surrendering their data in return for services. For many, this may appear to be a fair bargain. But some of the consequences are both unexpected and pernicious: the need to surveil influences system design, inevitably  impairing privacy, but also eroding society’s capacity to build infrastructure that serves all, providing the needed high levels of trust and security.

The book is well worth a read.  In his review in the Observer, John Naughton wrote “A chilling exposé of the business model that underpins the digital world … a striking and illuminating book. A fellow reader remarked to me that it reminded him of Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in that it opens one’s eyes to things we ought to have noticed, but hadn’t”

Quite whether 704 pages are needed –  to set out what is a simple thesis –  is moot. But some of the details are fascinating.