Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

by @edent | # # # | 9 comments

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism - Shoshana Zuboff

A boring book cover.
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a deeply-reasoned examination of the threat of unprecedented power free from democratic oversight. As it explores this new capitalism's impact on society, politics, business, and technology, it exposes the struggles that will decide both the next chapter of capitalism and the meaning of information civilization. It shows how we can protect ourselves and our communities and ensure we are the masters of the digital rather than its slaves.

Possibly the worst book I’ve read all year. It would be twice as good if it were half as long. It would be a hundred times better if the author hadn’t confused polysyllabic words with an effective argument.

The worst thing is – I think I probably agree with most of this book. But it is so turgid and (I hate to use this word) hysterical that I don’t think it will produce meaningful change.

The author clearly sets out how surveillance has become the lifeblood for modern internet companies. I fully agree with her analysis. Although it is written in such a convoluted fashion that I doubt most people will make it through the first few chapters.

Next, it moves on to advertising. Again, I agree that targetting advertising is a nuisance. I don’t think it is particularly evil – but I block it all anyway. There’s no argument presented – we just have to take it on faith that targetting is bad.

I found myself skimming large chunks of chapters in an attempt to find a sentence which made sense. Here’s a typical bit of academic-babble:

We may yet see the founding of a new synthesis for a third modernity in which a genuine inversion and its social compact are institutionalized as principles of a new rational digital capitalism aligned with a society of individuals and supported by democratic institutions.

I’ve read that several times and I’m still no closer to deciphering it. The whole book is like that. Purple-prose utterly lacking in simplicity.

Another section deals with population control. We’re told that in the future, our cars will be tied into surveillance systems. If we drive dangerously, or miss a payment, they’ll be disabled.

At which point, I found myself thinking “…good?” I mean… if you’re a bad driver, what’s wrong with putting up your insurance premiums? If you’re lumped in to a high-premium demographic, why should you have to subsidise the prices of your riskier cohort? Perhaps you can explain the problem to me – because the author didn’t.

The book mentions the story of the repossession agent who helped crowdfund car repayments for a delinquent couple. This was presented as a heart-warming tale – but I found it chilling. Rather than the impartial laws of mathematics, people have to be telegenic and sympathetic in order get out of debt. Somehow, that’s presented as the preferable option.

Finally… Well, there is no finally. There’s no list of tips for how users can protect themselves (download Firefox and use an adblocker would be my advice). It’s just a pure emotional howl of rage. Perhaps that’s cathartic for some, but it doesn’t change the world.

This book is important. Far too important to be this badly written.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

  1. I’ve only read the intro so far, and put a pin on it to read lighter things for a bit.

    I’m disappointed the accessibility of the language doesn’t improve 🙁


  2. It's been sitting there saying "I'm important, you are meant to read me" for ages - so now I can send to the charity shop without feeling guilty.... oh good


  3. I got it for xmas and it was next-on-the-list - I’ve heard similar complaints about its turgidity :/ - maybe I’ll skip it!


  4. You write very well. Your blog posts are always well argued. You understand this subject as well as anyone I know.

    So why don't you write the important, well-written book you say should be written?

    1. @edent says:

      I will do - once I've finished fixing the NHS 😉

      1. Lightweight 😉

        I wrote all my books while also holding down day jobs.

  5. Will says:

    Evgeny Morozov, who is certainly not a fan of big tech, wrote a very interesting article about surveillance capitalism https://thebaffler.com/latest/capitalisms-new-clothes-morozov

  6. Laz Long says:

    I started the book 6-7 months ago got thru half of it – my loooong flight was over and I just can’t open it up to finish.

  7. I’m about 120 pages in. Reading it for a book club I just joined, and am starting to wonder if this selection is just a hazing ritual for the new guy while everyone else is reading something slightly less grueling, like Ulysses or the Collected Works of America’s Top “Terms And Conditions” Writers.

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