Big Other

How to begin? Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is an extremely important book, one that critics have already compared to Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. It is the first book to truly tackle the full aspects of what is actually happening in the whirlwind digitization of our society, along with the pervasive and deeply sinister threats this transformation poses to our freedom and to our very selves. It is essential reading—“easily the most important book to be published this century,” according to the acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. Indeed, the Guardian has already named The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as one of the 100 best books of the 21st Century.

Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.
Essential reading. Photo: publicaffairsbooks.com.

Shoshana Zuboff is Professor Emerita of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she was awarded the 2019 Axel Springer Award “for her courage and forthright stance in analyzing the problematic sides of the digital economy as well as her tireless efforts to remind us of our responsibility to be conscious of the personal and societal impacts of a data-driven economy on the public.”

In the award’s citation, Germany’s Axel Springer SE, Europe’s largest publishing house, noted that Zuboff has largely “shelved her lectureship,” as she does not agree with Harvard’s economic relationship to the digital economy. The citation further noted that Zuboff “sharply criticizes the collection of personal data, in particular by global internet corporations like Google and Facebook, and describes their business models as ‘surveillance capitalism’ which, in her view, ‘destroys the inner nature of man.’”

Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.
Shoshana Zuboff. Photo: http://axel-springer-award.com.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is very much concerned with the inner nature of man, and with the absolute human right to self-determination which has been and is being stealthily undermined by the predations of “Big Other,” of which big data is but a part. The ultimate goal of companies like Facebook and Google (the book’s two primary villains) is nothing less than the “the colonisation  …  of our minds, our behaviour, our free will, our very selves” (Zadie Smith) in the service of predictable behavior and outcomes harvested for private gain.

This concept is so startling that it is difficult to grasp and confront—in James Bridle’s Guardian review of the book, he makes the point that “there’s something about its [surveillance capitalism’s] opacity, its insidiousness, that makes it hard to think about, just as it’s hard to think about climate change….”

Some critics exhibit this difficulty in the very course of their reviews. Jennifer Szalai, writing in the New York Times, uses a jokey title for her review (“O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today?”) and says that Zuboff “can get overheated with her metaphors” and that some portions of the book are “frankly ridiculous.” But Szalai is also astute enough to recognize the source of her resistance: “…maybe my reflexive discomfort only indicates that I’ve become acclimated — or ‘habituated,’as Zuboff likes to say — to the world that surveillance capitalists have created,” she notes.

This insight would seem to apply to the Times at large, as The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not appear on the paper’s list of the year’s 10 best books released yesterday, a glaring and irresponsible oversight. (I’m hoping it will show up on the traditional Times “100 notable books” list, which should appear within the next week or so.)

I don’t deny that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism can make for difficult reading. It is long, extensively researched and footnoted, and presents several slippery new concepts that no one else has really identified to date. Concepts that, like climate change, can be hard to fully grasp and absorb.

But if you’re open to new ideas and are concerned about our perilous future, this book will immediately grip you. Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything and No Logo, sums it up best: “From the very first page I was consumed with an overwhelming imperative: everyone needs to read this book as an act of digital self-defense.”

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