Shoshana Zuboff is a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School, among other academic qualifications. And that informs everything about her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. It’s more academic than narrative nonfiction. And it’s a chunkster, weighing in at about 700 pages. Or 24 hours of audiobook listening, in my case. On the upside, its primary theory relates to everyday digital life now and in the future.

I first heard about this book while watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix earlier this year. Zuboff joins many experts in expressing concern about our online lives. Whether we know it or not, the companies that control our online time invade and ‘steal’ every post and comment. They turn our online actions into behavioral data, which they use to predict, manipulate, and profit from our future online moves. 

But this isn’t a journalistic exposé. It’s a combination of philosophy, history, politics, and business theory. Zuboff covers so much ground that reading or listening once is nowhere near enough to absorb everything she theorizes and then proves. 

The quote I’ll never forget

Zuboff discusses the danger of giving our personal information to surveillance capitalism companies, like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. And there’s one series of questions she references over and over. Here it is in its original context.

“The threats we face are even more fundamental as surveillance capitalists take command of the essential questions that define knowledge, authority, and power in our time: Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides? (pg. 175, Kindle edition)

She focuses on how surveillance capitalism creates division in learning, information, and then in things only achieved with those two elements. If knowledge and facts only exist within capitalist companies, what kind of control will they have over all of us?

My conclusions

I think this is a must read, if you’re interested in digital privacy and limiting the power of all data-driven companies. Zuboff certainly knows her topic and integrates extensive detail within the main questions. 

Since I recently read books about tyranny and authoritarian regimes, I find her term ‘instrumentarian’ especially relevant. Back to that quote: “Who knows? Who decides? Who decides who decides?” We give so much of our life’s information over willingly. And, all the while, we never think about the long-term consequences. 

Zuboff also talks about the impact of an entirely digital life on the younger generations. My 10-year-old granddaughter’s life has always included social media. When she and her BFF signed up for Instagram, they didn’t just reach out to say ‘hi!’ to me. They wanted to be sure I liked their posts. Every time. We are just beginning to understand how this impacts kids’ sense of self, their mental health and well-being. This time last year, I read The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. She also talks about the effect of social media on children’s developing brains, and I couldn’t help but think about it while I read Zuboff’s book.

I absolutely recommend The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It’s a tome on a topic that will affect the rest of our lives, and generations to come. Please invest the time to read and understand, and possibly resist the temptations of social media and digital instrumentarian life.