Surveillance capitalism

Surveillance capitalism has a number of meanings around the commodification of personal information. Since 2014, social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff has used and popularized the term.[1][2]


Economic pressures of capitalism are driving the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action.[3] Relevantly, Turow writes that “centrality of corporate power is a direct reality at the very heart of the digital age”.[3][4]:17 Capitalism has become focused on expanding the proportion of social life that is open to data collection and data processing.[3] This may come with significant implications for vulnerability and control of society as well as for privacy. However, increased data collection may also have various advantages for individuals and society such as self-optimization (Quantified Self),[3] societal optimizations (such as by smart cities) and new or optimized services (including various web applications). Still, collecting and processing data in the context of capitalism’s core profit-making motive might present an inherent danger.

Zuboff contrasts mass production of industrial capitalism with surveillance capitalism with the former being interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees and the latter preying on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and largely ignorant of its procedures.[5]

She notes that surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm and accumulates not only surveillance assets and capital, but also rights and operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent.[5] Surveillance has been changing power structures in the information economy.[6] This might present a further power shift beyond the nation-state and towards a form of corporatocracy.[citation needed]

Oliver Stone, creator of the film Snowden pointed to the location-based game Pokémon Go as the “latest sign of the emerging phenomenon of surveillance capitalism”.[7][8][9]

In 2014 Vincent Mosco referred to the marketing of information about customers and subscribers to advertisers as surveillance capitalism and makes note of the surveillance state alongside it.[10] Christian Fuchs found that the surveillance state fuses with surveillance capitalism.[11] Similarly Zuboff informs that the issue is further complicated by highly invisible collaborative arrangements with state security apparatuses.[12] According to Trebor Scholz, companies recruit people as informants for this type of capitalism.[13]


Shoshana Zuboff

In Zuboff’s theory, surveillance capitalism is a novel market form and a specific logic of capitalist accumulation. In her 2014 essay A Digital Declaration: Big Data as Surveillance Capitalism, she characterized it as a “radically disembedded and extractive variant of information capitalism” based on the commodification of “reality” and its transformation into behavioral data for analysis and sales.[14][15][16][17]

In a subsequent 2015 article, Zuboff analyzed the societal implications of this mutation of capitalism. She differentiated “surveillance assets”, “surveillance capital”, and “surveillance capitalism” and their dependence on a global architecture of computer mediation that she calls “Big Other”, a distributed and largely uncontested new expression of power which constitutes hidden mechanisms of extraction, commodification, and control that threatens core values such as freedom, democracy, and privacy.[18][3]

According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.[5]

In her Oxford University lecture published in 2016, Zuboff identified surveillance capitalism’s mechanisms and practices, including the manufacture of “prediction products” for sale in new “behavioral futures markets”. She introduced the concept “dispossession by surveillance” and argued that it challenges the psychological and political bases of self-determination as it concentrates rights in the surveillance regime. This is described as a “coup from above”.[19]

Key features

Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism was published on January 15, 2019. It is a detailed examination of the unprecedented power of surveillance capitalism and the quest by powerful corporations to predict and control our behavior.[20] Zuboff identifies four key features in the logic of surveillance capitalism and explicitly follows the four key features identified by Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian:[21]

  1. The drive toward more and more data extraction and analysis.
  2. The development of new contractual forms using computer-monitoring and automation.
  3. The desire to personalize and customize the services offered to users of digital platforms.
  4. The use of the technological infrastructure to carry out continual experiments on its users and consumers.


Zuboff compares demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet to asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand and states that such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity’s survival.[5]

Zuboff warns that principles of self-determination might be forfeited due to “ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience, habituation, or drift” and states that “we tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes”, referring to the twentieth century’s totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic predations of Gilded Age capitalism, with countermeasures that have been developed to fight those earlier threats not being sufficient or even appropriate to meet the novel challenges.[5]

She also poses the question: “will we be the masters of information, or will we be its slaves?” and states that “if the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so”.[22]

In her book, Zuboff discusses the differences between industrial capitalism and surveillance capitalism. Zuboff writes industrial capitalism exploited the nature, surveillance capitalism exploits human nature.[23]

Foster and McChesney

The term “surveillance capitalism” has also been used by political economists John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, though with a different meaning. In an article published in Monthly Review in 2014, they apply it to describe the manifestation of the “insatiable need for data” of financialization, which they explain is “the long-term growth speculation on financial assets relative to GDP” introduced in the United States by industry and government in the 1980s that evolved out of the military-industrial complex and the advertising industry.[1]


Numerous organizations have been struggling for free speech and privacy rights in the new surveillance capitalism[24] and various national governments have enacted privacy laws. It is also conceivable that new capabilities and uses for mass-surveillance require structural changes towards a new system to prevent misuse.[citation needed]

Bruce Sterling’s 2014 lecture at Strelka Institute “The epic struggle of the internet of things”[25] explained how consumer products could become surveillance objects that track people’s everyday life. In his talk, Sterling highlights the alliances between multinational corporations who develop Internet of Things based surveillance systems which feeds surveillance capitalism.[25][26][27]

In 2015, Tega Brain and Surya Mattu’s artwork Unfit Bits encourage users to subvert fitness data collected by Fitbits. They suggested by attaching the device, for example to a metronome or on a bicycle wheel.[28][29] In 2018, Brain created a project with Sam Lavigne called New Organs which collect people’s stories of being monitored online and offline.[30][31]

The 2019 documentary film The Great Hack tells the story of how a company named Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Extensive profiling of users and news feeds that are ordered by black box algorithms were presented as the main source of the problem, which is also mentioned in Zuboff’s book.[32]


  1. ^ Jump up to:ab “Surveillance Capitalism | John Bellamy Foster | Monthly Review”. Monthly Review. 2014-07-01. Retrieved 2018-02-12.
  2. ^Cohen, Julie E. (2018). “The Biopolitical Public Domain: The Legal Construction of the Surveillance Economy”. Philosophy & Technology. 31 (2): 213–233. doi:10.1007/s13347-017-0258-2.
  3. ^ Jump up to:ab c d e Couldry, Nick (23 September 2016). “The price of connection: ‘surveillance capitalism'”. The Conversation.
  4. ^Turow, Joseph (10 January 2012). The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. Yale University Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0300165012. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  5. ^ Jump up to:ab c d e Zuboff, Shoshana (5 March 2016). “Google as a Fortune Teller: The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  6. ^Galič, Maša; Timan, Tjerk; Koops, Bert-Jaap (13 May 2016). “Bentham, Deleuze and Beyond: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation”. Philosophy & Technology. 30: 9–37. doi:10.1007/s13347-016-0219-1.
  7. ^“Comic-Con 2016: Marvel turns focus away from the Avengers, ‘Game of Thrones’ cosplay proposals, and more”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  8. ^“Oliver Stone Calls Pokémon Go “Totalitarian””. Fortune. 23 July 2016.
  9. ^“‘Surveillance capitalism, robot totalitarianism’: Oliver Stone lashes out at Pokemon Go”. RT International. 22 July 2016.
  10. ^Mosco, Vincent (2015-11-17). To the Cloud: Big Data in a Turbulent World. Routledge. ISBN 9781317250388. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  11. ^Fuchs, Christian (2017-02-20). Social Media: A Critical Introduction. SAGE. ISBN 9781473987494. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  12. ^Shoshana Zuboff / Keynote: Reality is the Next Big Thing – Elevate Festival 2014. YouTube. 2 May 2016. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  13. ^Scholz, Trebor (2016-12-27). Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781509508181. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  14. ^Zuboff, Shoshana (15 September 2014). “A Digital Declaration: Big Data as Surveillance Capitalism”. FAZ.NET (in German). ISSN 0174-4909. Retrieved 2018-08-28.
  15. ^Powles, Julia (2 May 2016). “Google and Microsoft have made a pact to protect surveillance capitalism”. The Guardian. Retrieved 9 February 2017.
  16. ^Sterling, Bruce (March 2016). “Shoshanna Zuboff condemning Google “surveillance capitalism””. WIRED.
  17. ^“The Unlikely Activists Who Took On Silicon Valley — and Won”. New York Times. 14 August 2018. Retrieved 2018-08-28.
  18. ^Zuboff, Shoshana (4 April 2015). “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization”. Journal of Information Technology. 30(1): 75–89. doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5. ISSN 0268-3962. SSRN 2594754.
  19. ^Zuboff, Shoshana (5 March 2016). “Google as a Fortune Teller: The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism”. FAZ.NET (in German). ISSN 0174-4909. Retrieved 2018-08-28.
  20. ^Zuboff 2019
  21. ^Varian, Hal (May 2010). “Computer Mediated Transactions”. American Economic Review: Papers and Proceedings. 100 (2): 1–10. doi:10.1257/aer.100.2.1.
  22. ^Zuboff, Shoshana (15 September 2014). “Shoshana Zuboff: A Digital Declaration”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Retrieved 9 February2017.
  23. ^“Shoshana Zuboff On surveillance capitalism”. Contagious. Retrieved 2020-02-06.
  24. ^Foster, John Bellamy; McChesney, Robert W. (1 July 2014). “Surveillance Capitalism by John Bellamy Foster”. Monthly Review. Retrieved 9 February2017.
  25. ^ Jump up to:ab Bruce Sterling. (2018-10-29). Lecture “The epic struggle of the internet of things”. Strelka Institute/Институт Стрелка. Retrieved 2019-03-13. (on Youtube)
  26. ^“Bruce Sterling’s “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things””. Boing Boing. 2014-09-14. Retrieved 2019-03-19.
  27. ^Paul-Choudhury, Sumit (2019-03-18). “How the apocalypse could be a good thing”. BBC.
  28. ^Mattu, Tega Brain and Surya. “Unfit Bits”. Retrieved 2019-03-13.
  29. ^Werner, Joel (2016-04-09). “Unfit Bits: How to hack your fitness data”. ABC News.
  30. ^Schwartz, Oscar (2018-07-13). “Digital ads are starting to feel psychic”. The Outline.
  31. ^“Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst”. The Drum. 2018-07-23.
  32. ^Cadwalladr, Carole (2019-07-20). “The Great Hack: the film that goes behind the scenes of the Facebook data scandal”. The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 2020-02-06.

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