What to Do with Surveillance Capitalism?

To cite this article: Jenny Huberman (2020) What to Do with Surveillance Capitalism?, Anthropology Now, 12:2, 94-100, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2020.1824760
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2020.1824760


Jenny Huberman

Shoshana Zuboff. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. London: Profile Books. 691 pages.

Every now and then a book comes along that forces one to radically question the way the world works. The power of such books stems from their ability to expose the hidden “laws of motion” that animate social life. For me, one of the first books to produce this effect was Karl Marx’s Capital. Reading Capital for the first time as a graduate student, I came away convinced that I needed to rethink everything I thought I knew to be true about the “freedom” and “fairness” of our economic system. I felt as though a major secret had been revealed to me, and indeed, it had: the secret of profit in the age of industrial capitalism.

As I “followed” Marx onto the factory floor and “listened” to him explain the way that relative and absolute surplus value are aggressively pursued through the plundering of labor power, relations of exploitation that had previously been obscured to me appeared in new light. The capital–labor relation was not based on real reciprocity, a point that Marcel Mauss made almost a century ago when he wrote, “Those who have benefited from [the worker’s] services have not discharged their debt to him through the payment of wages.”1 But rather, the capital-labor relation was reflective of “negative reciprocity,”2 that is, an attempt by the capitalist to procure something of value by offering as little as possible in return.

Now, more than 20 years later, I find my- self having a similar revelatory experience reading Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Zuboff’s analysis of surveillance capitalism takes us behind the scenes of the digital infrastructure that makes possible a new form of capital accumulation based on the ceaseless extraction of digital data and “behavioral surplus.” Referring to this infrastructure as “Big Other,” Zuboff sets out to identity “the laws of motion” that animate this new digitally mediated economic order and to warn readers of its potentially devastating consequences (66). Surveillance Capitalism is both an analysis and critique. Zuboff’s main argument is that surveillance capitalism poses an existential threat to democracy and human nature as it subordinates people to ever more pervasive forms of social control and “instrumentarian power.”

Surveillance Capitalism is a book that transcends disciplinary boundaries, and it will be read with great interest by sociologists, psychologists, economists and political scientists alike. Zuboff does an apt job of illuminating a new mode of capital  accumulation, and the efficacy of her presentation in large part derives from clearly indicating the ways in which surveillance capitalism both resembles and diverges from forms of accumulation under industrial capitalism. For instance, Zuboff proposes that if General Motors and Ford were the paradigmatic examples of industrial capitalism and mass production, Google and Facebook are the poster children of surveillance capitalism. In fact, the bulk of her analysis stems from closely examining the business practices of these two corporations.

However, after making my way through the 525 pages that compose the main body of this hefty text, certain questions plague me, What specifically are anthropologists supposed to do with this timely and important book? How can Zuboff’s analysis further anthropological studies of capitalism? And how might anthropogists’ ethnographic studies both complement and complicate some of Zuboff findings? These central questions inform this review.


The Foundations of Surveillance Capitalism and the Discovery of Behavioral Surplus

Part I of Zuboff’s book is devoted to exploring the foundations of surveillance capitalism. Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism emerged in the context of two significant historical developments: the development of a “second modernity” that valued individuality and self-empowerment over the maintenance and fostering of traditional ties of kinship and community, and the spread of a neoliberal habitat. Neoliberalism, she argues, provided a fertile bed for the emergence of surveillance capitalism in two ways. First, a corporate culture that frowned upon government regulation and that replaced the social contract between corporations and their workers was fostered, with a commitment to aggressively pursuing shareholder value. This enabled corporations such as Google and Facebook to make increased profit margins their first priority and to rapidly expand their modes of surveillance capitalism with little oversight from the government. Second, she contends that neoliberal economic reforms exacerbated the economic and social insecurities of “second modernity” citizens, which in turn made them more amenable to the persuasions of “an advocacy-oriented digital capital- ism” (46). By promising information and human connections at one’s fingertips, Google and Facebook thus pitched themselves as a palliative to the instability and insecurity of neoliberal life.

While these were the historical conditions in which surveillance capitalism emerged,  the conceptual foundations of surveillance capitalism rested upon “the discovery of behavioral surplus” (91). Zuboff proposes that the concept of behavioral surplus was in large part the “brain-child” of Google’s former chief economist Hal Varian and Stanford data-mining expert Amit Patel. Varian and Patel realized that the computers that mediate an ever-increasing proportion of our interactions can also be put to other purposes such as “data extraction and analysis” and “personalization and customization,” and they can be used to establish new contractual forms because of better monitoring” (65). Initially companies such as Google used this insight to improve the services they offered, but in the wake of the dot-com crisis at the dawn of the 20th century, such companies began to “intensify hidden processes aimed at the ex- traction of behavioral data and personal information” and to sell the “digital exhaust” of their internet users to advertisers (88).

Thus, Zuboff argues that if the secret of profit during industrial capitalism hinged on the expropriation of surplus labor, the secret of profit in the age of surveillance capitalism increasingly hinges on the expropriation of behavior. “Within less than four years,” she notes, Google’s discovery of behavioral surplus “had produced a stunning 3,590 percent increase with revenues leaping from $347 million in 2002, to $3.2  billion  in 2004, the year the company went public” (87). This leads Zuboff to conclude that “the discovery of behavioral surplus marks a critical turning point not only in Google’s biography but also in the history of capitalism” (91).

Anthropologists have been remarkably creative in their ethnographic studies of capitalism; however, the “discovery of behavioral surplus” also suggests the need for a “turning point.” When it comes to understanding surveillance capitalism, Zuboff’s analysis indicates that Silicon Valley, as anthropologist Shalini Shankar notes, may be as fertile and necessary a field site as Wall Street.3 The culture, ethos and worldview of this now incredibly powerful techno-elite are as important to explore as the set of visions and assumptions that drove bankers on Wall Street to embrace liquidation as the dominant model of doing business.4 Zuboff does mention the “fast money culture of privilege” that permeates Silicon Valley. But as her study is primarily based on interviews and analyzing documents and texts, the reader does not come away with the feel of the culture or people that have so clearly shaped the emergence of surveillance capitalism. For instance, as recent newspaper articles have chronicled, why are “the high priests” of surveillance capital- ism reportedly the people who are most keen on prohibiting their children from using technology or increasingly sending them to unplugged sleep-away camps? Why are the very people who have purportedly achieved total control over society also buying parcels of land in New Zealand in case “the grid goes down” or disaster strikes? Why are almost all of the surveillance capitalists whom Zuboff features in her account men? What do they do with their time when they are not reaping the fruits of negative reciprocity and selling unsuspecting internet users’ data for profit? What kind of ethos permeates institutions such as Singularity University or the MIT Media Lab, where according to Zuboff “some of surveillance capitalism’s most valuable capabilities and applications, from data mining to wearable technologies, were invented” (206)? To pursue such questions is not just to push the envelope of ethnographic curiosities. It is also to align oneself with a valuable theoretical perspective. For as anthropologists have long demonstrated, the (re)production of power, whether it be elite power or labor power, is very much a matter of culture.5 Even though the machinations of surveillance capitalism seem to suggest a world where people are increasingly subordinated to the workings of algorithms, computer science and big data, at the end of the day, as Zuboff herself emphasizes, what allows surveillance capitalism to achieve such dominance in society is not the technology per se but rather the people who decide toward what ends it should be used.


The Advance of Surveillance Capitalism and Rendition from the Depths

Aside from redirecting the anthropological gaze to new research sites and populations, Zuboff’s book also invites anthropologists to reconsider issues that have long animated the study of capitalism—namely, space and
time. In Marx’s original formulation, both were central to the workings of capital accumulation. Writing in the age of Industrial Capitalism he observed that capitalism is an economic system that draws all nations into its ambit in its ceaseless pursuit for profits and new markets. In the age of surveillance capitalism, the colonizing dynamics of capital accumulation are still in play, but according to Zuboff they take on new forms. Zuboff devotes Part II of her book to exploring how the quest for behavioral surplus leads surveillance capitalism to increasingly colonize more and more parts of our lives and reality. She describes this as an act of “rendition.” “Rendition,” she writes, “describes the concrete operational practices through which … human experience is claimed as raw material for datafication and all that follows, from manufacturing to sales” (233). No longer satisfied with selling digital crumbs or “exhaust” generated from our internet searches, companies such as Google now find ways to get into our neighborhoods, our cars, and even our homes so they can track and mine ever more information to be sold for profit.

Thus, if the factory floor was where Marx witnessed and chronicled the expropriation of surplus labor, in the age of surveillance capitalism all of these spaces—neighbor- hoods, cars, homes, and even selves—be- come ripe for anthropologists to study the extractive practices of surveillance capitalism. Indeed, an anthropology of surveillance capitalism should not just be focused on studying elites. Also needed is careful and sustained ethnographic inquiry into the way that everyday people live with these new extractive technologies, relate to them, become habituated to them and, yes, even resist them.

According to Zuboff, surveillance capital- ism also radically reconfigures our relation- ship to time. Time has long been central to the study of capitalism. For Marx, it was at the heart of his theory of surplus value. “Moments,” he famously wrote, “are the elements of profit” (366). Indeed, in Marx’s analysis the secret of profit hinged on the capitalists stealing time from the laborer.

In surveillance capitalism, by  contrast, profit is accrued by influencing the future behaviors of “the army” of behavioral surplus. As Zuboff argues, the technologies of surveillance capitalism are intended not just to track our behavior; their ultimate purpose is to shape it. Surveillance capitalism, Zuboff contends, is animated by the “prediction imperative.” “Its aim is to produce behavior that reliably, definitively, and certainly leads to desired commercial results,” and it relies upon a host of “herding” and “nudging” practices to do so (201). Zuboff explains the more damning con- sequence of this: In its capacity to increasingly shape our behavior, surveillance capitalism ultimately automates us. Zuboff writes,

I suggest that we now face the moment in history when the elemental right to the future tense is endangered by a panvasive digital architecture of behavior modification owned and operated by surveillance capital, necessitated by its economic imperatives, and driven by its laws of motion, all for the sake of its guaranteed outcomes. (331)

Zuboff’s observation is interesting in part because recently a number of anthropologists have been chronicling the ways that a right to the future, or even the capacity to imagine one, has become increasingly imperiled for economically marginalized people enduring the dislocations and violence of global capitalism.6 This work has shown how the collapse of a future is linked to practices of exclusion, which literally and figuratively push people off the social and digital grid and preclude them from connected spaces. Whereas Zuboff views the collapse of the future as a product of human beings becoming increasingly “automated” by Big Other, anthropologists remind us that the age, or rather domain, of surveillance capitalism does not include all. Some cannot even access the “panvasive digital architecture” and thereby afford “the chains” of their own domination. In a work so passionately concerned with the issue of dispossession, Zuboff’s omission of this reality is a bit surprising, and it raises the question, Where do the truly “dispossessed” fit into Zuboff’s model of surveillance capitalism? How does surveillance capitalism feed off of or articulate with other forms of capitalist extraction? For as anthropologist Mary Gray and computer scientist Siddarth Suri remind us in their equally important book Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, “the human labor powering” the digital infrastructure of Big Other, “can be hard to see—in fact, it’s often intentionally hidden.”7 Moreover, if, as Zuboff predicts, the world will be increasingly organized and automated through the workings of Big Other, then what will that mean for those who fall outside its reach?


Instrumentarian Power for a Third Modernity

Perhaps this omission is related to the fact that Zuboff would like nothing more than to see a future where spaces beyond Big Other exist. Autonomy, freedom, privacy, willpower, self-direction—these are the values being sacrificed upon the alter of surveillance capitalism, and Zuboff devotes  the  final section of her book to exploring what this will mean for our human future. Indeed, the final section poses some of the most interesting questions about the way surveillance capitalism stands to create a radically new kind of human subject.

Zuboff’s analysis is animated by a long- standing sociological appreciation for the way that particular forms of capitalism require particular kinds of subjects. If the Fordist mode of production gave rise to David Riesman’s “other-directed” man, and the regime of flexible accumulation led Richard Sennett to speculate on “the corrosion of character,” for Zuboff, surveillance capitalism is giving  rise to a generation of “outside-looking-in” selves (447). Reared in the world of social media, Zuboff proposes that these “digital natives” come to experience the self and their value from the outside perspective of others. “How will this look on Instagram?” “What can I do to get more likes on my Facebook page?” “If I lose my cell phone or social media access, do I still exist?” These questions haunt the young subjects of surveillance capitalism, and Zuboff argues that the effects are crippling, creating a generation of people who no longer have the capacity to “establish a self that is separate from but still connected to others” (453).

Here again, Zuboff’s analysis is insightful, but her findings call out for further ethnographic research. How might anthropologists study the way surveillance capitalism is producing new subjectivities? How do we ethnographically capture the making of a new kind of human? For  ultimately that is what   is at stake here. And yet, while Zuboff understands this as a sociological insight (i.e., that human nature is socially constructed), she also laments it as a social critic. From the very first page of her book, right through to the end, Zuboff warns that surveillance capitalism is “as significant a threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world in the nineteenth and twentieth” (1).

I appreciate and share Zuboff’s concern about what is to become of our species, and to be honest I am equally terrified by the potential implications and consequences of surveillance capitalism. However, it seems more anthropologically sensible to suggest that surveillance capitalism, like all of the forms of capitalism that have come before it, will not destroy our human nature, but rather it will transform it. Human beings, as Marx himself pointed out long ago, are the kind of species who produce their own nature, and as their modes of production change, so too do their needs and their understandings of the “meaning of human requirements” (93). Attending to these transformations ethno- graphically is yet another way that anthropologists can further contribute to the study of surveillance capitalism.


Breaking the Cycle of Negative Reciprocity

Zuboff does a masterful job laying bare the hidden laws of motion that structure the workings of surveillance capitalism. She has opened our eyes to what many of us perhaps already intuited but didn’t have a technical language to describe. In the age of surveillance capitalism, we, the users of Big Other, provide the behavioral fodder or surplus for companies that sell/steal our data and our lives so that they, in turn, can reap unprecedented profits. Although corporations such as Google try to persuade us that the relationship is based on mutual interest and goodwill, the truth is that yet again, capitalism—this time, surveillance capitalism—is predicated upon a sustained negative reciprocity: the attempt to get something of great value by giving as little as possible in return.

It is time to break the cycle of negative reciprocity. Indeed, in their book Surviving the Machine Age, Kevin Le Grandeur and James Hughes propose that one way to accomplish this could come from charging companies such as Google for the use of our data. But anthropologists can also help. Zuboff has laid bare the “hidden laws of motion” that animate the world of surveillance capitalism; she has provided a map to navigate this new world of capital accumulation and extraction. Now it  is time for anthropologists to reciprocate the generosity of her gift by producing detailed ethnographic accounts of the way that surveillance capitalism is lived, felt, experienced and, we hope, even resisted by those it seeks to dominate.



  1. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Rea- son for Exchange (London: W.W. Norton, 1925).
  2. Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine, 1972).
  3. Shalini Shankar, Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
  4. Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).
  5. 5.   Paul Willis, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).
  6. Jason De Leon, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019); Craig Jeffrey, Time Pass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Bruce O’Neill, The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); and Noelle Stout, Dispossessed: How Predatory Bureaucracy Foreclosed on the American Middle Class (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
  7. Mary Gray and Suri Siddharth, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), ix.


Suggestions for Further Reading

Le Grandeur, Kevin and James Hughes. Surviving the Machine Age: Intelligent Technology and the Future of Human Work. New York: Palgrave Mac- millan, 2017.

Marx, Karl. The Marx-Engels Reader: Second Edi- tion, edited by Robert Tucker. New York: Norton & Company, 1978.

Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950. Sennett, Richard. The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism. New York: Norton, 1998.


Jenny Huberman is a cultural anthropologist at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. She is the author of Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India (Rutgers University Press, 2012) and Transhumanism: From Ancestors to Avatars (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming). She is currently working on a new book entitled The Spirit of Digital Capitalism. The book explores how digital technologies are making possible new forms of capital accumulation, extraction and domination, and it examines the ideologies that are used to justify the machinations of digital capitalism.

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