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But as you tell it, Google was the prime mover. Shoshana Zuboff: Surveillance capitalism is a human creation. It lives in history, not in technological inevitability. It was pioneered and elaborated through trial and error at Google in much the same way that the Ford Motor Company discovered the new economics of mass production or General Motors discovered the logic of managerial capitalism. Surveillance capitalism was invented around as the solution to financial emergency in the teeth of the dotcom bust when the fledgling company faced the loss of investor confidence.

Operationally this meant that Google would both repurpose its growing cache of behavioural data, now put to work as a behavioural data surplus, and develop methods to aggressively seek new sources of this surplus. The company developed new methods of secret surplus capture that could uncover data that users intentionally opted to keep private, as well as to infer extensive personal information that users did not or would not provide.

And this surplus would then be analysed for hidden meanings that could predict click-through behaviour.


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The surplus data became the basis for new predictions markets called targeted advertising. Here was the origin of surveillance capitalism in an unprecedented and lucrative brew: behavioural surplus, data science, material infrastructure, computational power, algorithmic systems, and automated platforms.

As click-through rates skyrocketed, advertising quickly became as important as search.

Eventually it became the cornerstone of a new kind of commerce that depended upon online surveillance at scale. The success of these new mechanisms only became visible when Google went public in JN: So surveillance capitalism started with advertising, but then became more general? SZ: Surveillance capitalism is no more limited to advertising than mass production was limited to the fabrication of the Ford Model T. It quickly became the default model for capital accumulation in Silicon Valley, embraced by nearly every startup and app.

It has spread across a wide range of products, services, and economic sectors, including insurance, retail, healthcare, finance, entertainment, education, transportation, and more, birthing whole new ecosystems of suppliers, producers, customers, market-makers, and market players. I am fascinated by the structure of colonial conquest, especially the first Spaniards who stumbled into the Caribbean islands.

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Back then Columbus simply declared the islands as the territory of the Spanish monarchy and the pope. The sailors could not have imagined that they were writing the first draft of a pattern that would echo across space and time to a digital 21st century. The first surveillance capitalists also conquered by declaration. They simply declared our private experience to be theirs for the taking, for translation into data for their private ownership and their proprietary knowledge.

They relied on misdirection and rhetorical camouflage, with secret declarations that we could neither understand nor contest. Google began by unilaterally declaring that the world wide web was its to take for its search engine. Surveillance capitalism originated in a second declaration that claimed our private experience for its revenues that flow from telling and selling our fortunes to other businesses. In both cases, it took without asking. Page [Larry, Google co-founder] foresaw that surplus operations would move beyond the online milieu to the real world, where data on human experience would be free for the taking.

As it turns out his vision perfectly reflected the history of capitalism, marked by taking things that live outside the market sphere and declaring their new life as market commodities. We were caught off guard by surveillance capitalism because there was no way that we could have imagined its action, any more than the early peoples of the Caribbean could have foreseen the rivers of blood that would flow from their hospitality toward the sailors who appeared out of thin air waving the banner of the Spanish monarchs.

London Calling A Susanna and the Spy Novel Volume 2

Like the Caribbean people, we faced something truly unprecedented. Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free. This duality set information technology apart from earlier generations of technology: information technology produces new knowledge territories by virtue of its informating capability, always turning the world into information.

The result is that these new knowledge territories become the subject of political conflict. Now the same dilemmas of knowledge, authority and power have surged over the walls of our offices, shops and factories to flood each one of us… and our societies. Surveillance capitalists were the first movers in this new world. They declared their right to know, to decide who knows, and to decide who decides.

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JN: So the big story is not really the technology per se but the fact that it has spawned a new variant of capitalism that is enabled by the technology? We have no formal control over these processes because we are not essential to the new market action.


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  5. Instead we are exiles from our own behaviour, denied access to or control over knowledge derived from its dispossession by others for others. We are the native peoples now whose claims to self-determination have vanished from the maps of our own experience. While it is impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, it is easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism. The point cannot be emphasised enough: surveillance capitalism is not technology. Digital technologies can take many forms and have many effects, depending upon the social and economic logics that bring them to life.

    Surveillance capitalism relies on algorithms and sensors, machine intelligence and platforms, but it is not the same as any of those. SZ: Surveillance capitalism moves from a focus on individual users to a focus on populations, like cities, and eventually on society as a whole. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets in which population predictions evolve to approximate certainty.

    This has been a learning curve for surveillance capitalists, driven by competition over prediction products. First they learned that the more surplus the better the prediction, which led to economies of scale in supply efforts. Then they learned that the more varied the surplus the higher its predictive value.


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    This new drive toward economies of scope sent them from the desktop to mobile, out into the world: your drive, run, shopping, search for a parking space, your blood and face, and always… location, location, location. The evolution did not stop there. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us.

    These processes are meticulously designed to produce ignorance by circumventing individual awareness and thus eliminate any possibility of self-determination.

    'The goal is to automate us': welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism

    It has no foundation in democratic or moral legitimacy, as it usurps decision rights and erodes the processes of individual autonomy that are essential to the function of a democratic society. The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs. SZ: During the past two decades surveillance capitalists have had a pretty free run, with hardly any interference from laws and regulations. Democracy has slept while surveillance capitalists amassed unprecedented concentrations of knowledge and power.

    We enter the 21st century marked by this stark inequality in the division of learning: they know more about us than we know about ourselves or than we know about them.

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    These new forms of social inequality are inherently antidemocratic. First, surveillance capitalists no longer rely on people as consumers. Instead, supply and demand orients the surveillance capitalist firm to businesses intent on anticipating the behaviour of populations, groups and individuals. Second, by historical standards the large surveillance capitalists employ relatively few people compared with their unprecedented computational resources.

    General Motors employed more people during the height of the Great Depression than either Google or Facebook employs at their heights of market capitalisation. Finally, surveillance capitalism depends upon undermining individual self-determination, autonomy and decision rights for the sake of an unobstructed flow of behavioural data to feed markets that are about us but not for us.

    Look for book two in the Reckoners series, Firefight, available now. But she wants to remember. However, if she does, will the truth shatter her? Five hundred years ago, the Maison Realm was shattered, divided into warring kingdoms of elemental Wielders with fate and truth shadowed and uncertain. Now, factions of both the light and dark venture into the human realm in search of the prophesied Spirit Priestess who is said to Wield the Elements of Five to bring the two fractured kingdoms together.

    When fate and circumstances are pulled from her hands after an accident, she finds out that nothing is as it seems.