Book Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff
About the Author & the Book
Shoshana Zuboff is no stranger to technology and the way it impacts our modern life. With a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard (where she's tenured, by the way, in the Business School), she's written on such topics as the future of work in the digital age (In the Age of the Smart Machine) and somewhat predicted the current state of capitalism in her book The Support Economy (assuming I read the Wikipedia synopsis correctly, truthfully I haven't read any of her other works myself).
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is arguably Zuboff's best-known book, and has certainly become one of the foundation “must-reads” in the world of privacy. It outlines a brief history of “how we got here” in terms of surveillance, notes the ways that Big Tech and the government often work together, explains how Big Tech encroaches on our privacy, and explains how all of this fits into a larger concept of our individual freedom of choice and a sort of “class struggle” between us as individuals and Big Tech companies as they seek to undermine our freedoms in exchange for profits.
Normally when I write these reviews, I start with the good and end on the bad, but this time I want to reverse that order. That's because, truthfully, I think this book is worth reading, but honestly my criticisms of this book are fairly passionate, so I think that if I ended on my criticisms it might scare readers away. With that in mind, I have one main criticism of this book: this is one of the most pretentiously written books I have ever read, and I've read Ayn Rand.
Look, I don't claim to be “the smartest guy in the room” by any metric. There are better musicians, more tech-savvy people, and better writers. That said, I'm not stupid either. I've always read far above my grade level, and I have an excellent command of the English language (when I feel like it). But this book was nearly impossible to follow at times because it was just too wordy. I grew up reading Jules Verne, HG Wells, and more recently Poe and Lovecraft, so I'm pretty used to a certain amount of wordiness and formal language. But this book is just obnoxious with it. It's like Professor Zuboff has spent so long in her ivory towers that she's forgotten how to speak the parlance of the common peasant. Seriously, just read this quote (if you can):
Instrumentarianism's radical indifference is operationalized in Big Other's dehumanized methods of evaluation that produce equivalence without equality. These methods reduce individuals to the lowest common denominator of sameness – an organism among organisms – despite all the vital ways in which we are not the same. From Big Other's point of view we are strictly Other-Ones: organisms that behave. Big Other encodes the viewpoint of Other-One as a global presence. There is no brother here of any kind, big or little, evil or good; there are no family ties, however grim. There is no relationship between Big Other and its otherized objects, just there was no relationship between B. F. Skinner's “scientists and subjects.” There is no domination of the soul that displaces all intimacy and attachment with terror – far better to let a multitude of relationships bloom. Big Other does not care what we think, feel, or do as long as its millions, billions, and trillions of sensate, actuating, computational eyes and ears can observe, render, datafy, and instrumentalize the vast reservoirs of behavioral surplus that are generated in the galactic uproar of connection and communication.
This is not an unusual passage. I didn’t have to hunt for a good paragraph to use to prove my point. I could open the book to any given page and probably at least 75% of it would be exactly like this. Now, to be fair and give some context, this is a paragraph from Chapter 13, so some of the terms here have already been defined previously, like “Big Other” and “Instrumentarianism.” But there were probably some other parts that threw you off. Maybe it was the word “sensate.” Perhaps it was the reference to BF Skinner’s work. Don’t worry, this is also common. Zuboff makes a lot of assumptions about the baseline knowledge of her audience. Early in the book, she frequently references some sort of economic recession in the 1980s. I had never heard of this prior to reading this book. She also frequently talks about “neoliberalism” and it’s effects, again with a tone of “we all know what I’m talking about so let’s just move on from there.” Honestly she does this so much that the cynical, frustrated part of me wonders why she even bothered writing a book instead of just assuming that we all already knew all about Surveillance Capitalism. When she does mention BF Skinner for the first time, she offers literally no explanation of who he was or details on the experiment she references. She just assumes you know who he is. You can argue that many of her references are important events or people and maybe I should know it about. Maybe. I would counter by daring you to read this book and tell me that you actually understood every single reference she made with perfect clarity. I can nearly universally promise there'll be at least one thing that you'd wish she'd include at least a couple sentences explaining. That’s what I mean when I say that the book is written “pretentiously.” Obviously it’s a bit unrealistic to ask her to explain every single reference and historical context in detail, but a quick explanation (ex, “Neoliberalism, the political system that favors small government and unregulated business,”) for the younger, less-educated readers – like myself – would really go a long way toward making the book more accessible (honestly just looking up that definition made large swaths of the book easier to read). Sure, you can eventually pick it up via context clues, but that really takes away from focusing on her point, which is made even harder by the fact that she’s just unnecessarily wordy – to take a page from her book, I would call her superfluous and repetitious with her efforts to arrive at and convey a conclusion. Of course I don’t expect her to write at a first-grade level: “see Google. See Google grow. Grow, Google, grow!” But for a book about helping people “find their bearings” and reclaim our freedom, she’s sure doing a great job of shutting out a significant portion of the population right off the bat. This is the primary reason that it took me literal years to read this book: I’m busy, I frequently have to read in small bits and pieces where I have time, but this book is impossible to just pick up for a few minutes at a time. You really have to focus and clear out all other distractions. I can’t read a few pages during my lunch break or before bed. You need mental energy to focus on what she’s saying.
And lest you think I’m just being bitter at realizing how dumb I am: this is not at all a unique criticism. Literally every time this book has come up – either me talking to someone else who’s read it, me seeing someone else talk about it online, or other people telling me what they’ve heard about it – I see the exact same thing: “it’s too long. It could’ve been way shorter. She’s too wordy.” Check the reviews on Amazon if you don’t believe me: “It is verbose to the extreme and could easily be 50% shorter.” “The writer is clearly in love with the process of writing…. The result is a mess, looping back and repeating herself in very unhelpful ways, dallying in purple passages and twisted metaphors, making up clever-sounding 'concepts' (like 'division of knowledge') and actually failing to pick out the key aspects of the issue.” “A 200 page compressed version concentrating on the detailed information would perhaps be more useful.” Those reviews were 2 and 4 stars. Goodreads (to be fair, also Amazon) is the same: “I wish this book wasn’t nearly so long – I would recommend it wholeheartedly then.” “The book's arguments are weakened by its purple prose.” (For the record, I just learned that phrase in the process of pulling these reviews, and it is 100% spot on.) “I usually don’t complain about writing being too dense/academic/pretentious, but….It is a generally grating read, and it doesn’t help that the book is twice as long as it needs to be.”
Professor Zuboff, if you read this: please change your writing style. Your information is priceless, but god your delivery has to go. Sorry to be so harsh, but someone had to tell you.
Okay, so now that I just spent half the review utterly tearing into this book and calling it painful to read, I still urge you to read it. The pain is worth it.
As I said at the top, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism lays out – in detail – how we got here. And the story is probably a lot more complex than you would imagine. Even if you’re a veteran who remembers the days of phone phreaking and 2600 magazine (which I am not, for the record), chances are there are stories in here that you haven’t heard before. This book goes all the way from the political climate in the wake of the early 1980s recession (maybe read that article first before you read the book, it’ll come up a lot) through September 11 (which many of us are already aware changed everything but may not fully grasp how much so, it seems to be one of those things that gets worse and more extensive the more you learn) and right up to the present day (well, 2018 present day, since that’s when the book was published) with Pokemon Go and many of the smart devices that surround us every day. So much has happened, if nothing else you’ll walk away from this book with a dozen more stories to share about why Big Tech is evil and can’t be trusted. That alone is worth the effort to help convince your friends and family why they need to take their privacy seriously. But you’ll also probably walk away with an expanded understanding of the Big Tech Playbook. It’s one of those things that once you get it, you’ll see it everywhere. I sure do, in all the stories we cover on Surveillance Report.
Ironically what finally helped me finish it was the audiobook version. I typically ingest my content (podcasts, videos, audiobooks) at 2x speed, and somehow blowing through it so fast enabled me to brush past all the unnecessary, extra words and string a coherent thought together between all the showing off of her extensive vocabulary. I share that thought because maybe it’ll help you. If you find yourself struggling with the written book, maybe try the audiobook.
Whatever you do, seriously, don’t be put off by my criticisms. If you’re passionate about privacy – like “I want to understand everything about privacy, including how it works, how we got here, and where we’re headed,” this is a foundational book you need to read. It’s daunting, it’s not at all an easy read, but it’s worth it. Having said that, if you’re more the kind of person who says “I’m just here to find out if ProtonMail is still safe to use,” then this book may not be for you. It will be a big time commitment, and other than a history lesson and an overly-wordy “your privacy matters,” you probably won’t get much out of it. But again, for those who are really passionate about privacy and want to understand it at all levels, you need to make yourself read this book. The expanded, high-level knowledge you’ll get from it is priceless. There’s a reason it’s a classic, and there’s a reason that the phrase Zuboff has coined – “Surveillance Capitalism” – has stuck: it’s just so damn true.
You can learn more about The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff here.