Surveillance capitalism: Ok Google, how much money did I bring you?

We are becoming used to stories about Facebook who allows their corporate clients to access to users’ private messages or the software in Google’s Street View decoding and using unencrypted info from people’s homes lately. But do we actually understand this dispensation?

Shoshana Zuboff, professor at Harvard Business School, recently published new book The age of Surveillance Capitalism. In 1988 she already wrote The Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. That book transformed that way the readers thought about computerisation and its impact on the way the organisations were working.

Zuboff’s main idea today is that we are going through an overwhelming shift in methods that corporations use and that very few people have actually grasped the scale of this phenomenon.

Derek Powazek, co-founder of Fertile Medium, says in his blog from 18 December 2012 : “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” It may sound very cynical but it makes sense in some way. Think about it: our lives are constantly improving thanks to magical devices that can take us from point A to point B, indicate how much time it will take and propose different routes. We can reach almost anybody in the world, call them, text them at any point no matter where they are. These things have become part of our daily lives and we almost never even reflect on who is making sure all these services exist. We are all using Google or Facebook. Are we paying for their services? (I am talking about individuals, not corporate services.) No. Imagine, you would have a subscription of 10$ for Facebook and you would pay it like you’re paying for your Netflix who, for now, insures that you don’t get disturbed by the ads. I could argue with Powazek saying that the philosophy of “You are the product” can also be applied even for the products and services for which we pay, but this is another subject.

Coming back to Facebook and Google, some experts share the opinion that the reason these companies allow themselves to play with consumer’s data is because they offer all those services to millions of people for free. So in exchange of giving these giants your money you’re giving them your information and they are free to use it (almost) however they like to.

Zuboff writes in her book: “Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. […] some of these data are fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later.” These techniques allow Google, for example, to capitalize on the fact that it can predict the future needs and desires of the targeted users. Zuboff describes in her book that the model that Google uses appeared almost accidentally. The company was keeping the data that was emerging from every single search enquiry (like clicks and their patterns, location) even in the early days. And in 2000 the dot-com bubble made it pretty clear that Google needed to find a way to profit from the services that it was offering for free for ordinary users.

This search for being profitable resulted in selling advertising, not just advertising, but “targeted” and “relevant”. This is where the prediction capacities come in handy as the collected data allows to define behavioral patterns. If I am not mistaken, in Zuboff’s opinion the reason of the development and spread of this model is the fact that it “fulfills real needs”. I would personally argue with this opinion. What are we talking about when we are talking about “real needs”? Do I really “need” to see 10 models of shoes that I have just checked out online? Or tons of offers from airline companies just after I bought a flight for a weekend getaway? Dear Google, I only go to Barcelona once, and I don’t need to be drowning in all the offers from multiple airlines…

In my opinion, the risk when talking about this subject as about “surveillance capitalism” may lie in concentrating a bit too much on surveillance and advertising. What about taking a step back and including the elements like the concentration levels and monopolistic behavior of the big giants? Even though we are mainly talking about Google and Facebook surveilling the ordinary users like you and me, we, however, can’t deny the fact that some pricing mechanisms that Google applies to businesses rise a lot of questions which, for the most part, aren’t even discussed by the anti-trust authorities. In any case, “Surveillance capitalism” is an interesting analysis of a topic that preoccupies the society at the moment.

Barbara Shabynina

Sources :

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, 2019

The New York Times, Jennifer Szalai, O.K., Google: How Much Money Have I Made for You Today? 16.01.2019

The Times, Hugo Rifkind, Review: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff — Das Kapital for the digital generation, 18.01.2019

Derek Powaek,, I’m Not The Product, But I Play One On The Internet 18.12.2012

Comments are closed here.