Surveillance Capitalism's Threat to Democracy

Shoshana Zuboff

Did you know that 2016's Pokémon Go phenomenon was a Google-incubated experiment in herding, tuning, and steering populations toward guaranteed commercial outcomes? If not, buckle in.

This is no conspiracy theory; it's what Harvard Business School professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, "an unprecedented approach to making money ... [that] unilaterally claims private human experience" – camera and location data, in the case of Pokémon Go – "as its own commodity that can be translated into behavioral data which can be then sold and purchased in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in predictions of our future behavior, what we will do now, soon and later."

It's the business model of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and countless smaller companies whose overarching goal is not to provide customers with goods and services but to gather useful data for behavior modification. This invisible process is currently aimed at commercial outcomes, but at the moment "anybody with enough money, any ambitious plutocrat, can buy the skills and the data to use these same methodologies to influence political outcomes." Hence, surveillance capitalism is uniquely poised to undermine democracy.

To learn more, listen to this lucid and accessible interview with Shoshana Zuboff at Tech Tonic or read Noah Kulwin's interview at The Intelligencer. For the brave among us, check out Zuboff's new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (or this review by Nicholas Carr).

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