Rezension: Überwachungskapitalismus

Rezension: zusammen mit Criminologia-LogoKopie

Shoshana Zuboff: Das Zeitalter des Überwachungskapitalismus. 2018, Campus.

von Ulrike Höppner, Berlin.

It may be somewhat of an unfair expectation to begin with, but when I requested this particular book for review, I was hoping to (finally) find a truly revealing piece of conceptual work on digitalized capitalism. After all, what could be better suited to explain how this new stage in capitalism changes (almost) everything than the book of a renowned economist such as Shoshana Zuboff? To put a long story short, the book cannot quite, I believe, live up to these hopes. But it has undeniable merits, which make this book a worthwhile read.

 [3 other reviews and an interview with SZ can be found in 
Surveillance&Sociey, vol 17,1/2 2019, A.d.Red].

More than 700 hundred pages cover many aspects and the reader may want to focus on some chapters more than others, which is why I will give a short summary of what each of the three parts is about, before engaging in pointing out some of the more critical points.

The introduction preceding the three parts sets the theme for the book, which centers around the place that human experience can find within a digitized world. Zuboff remarks in a personal manner (as is customary in many American books) on the loss of home that is felt by many. Consequently, a sense of loss and a defensive attitude is set as the tone for the book. The losses are real – of a sense of place, of a sense of privacy and certainly of a sense of being able to shape these developments. The author seeks to reinforce our ability to influence contemporary developments by providing a better understanding as well as political prescriptions. This book thereby mirrors many that precede it – for example Evgeny Mozorov‘s „The Net Delusion“ or Jonathan Zittrain‘s „The Future of the Internet“. However, it is Zuboff‘s declared aim, to provide a more theoretically founded understanding. Looking at the following chapters, this promise is only partially fulfilled.

The first part on the basis of surveillance capitalism is a historical treatment of the development of digital business models, so to say. In almost 200 pages Zuboff deals mostly with Google‘s rise and the relationship between its changing business models and what she calls the „behavioral surplus“. The term refers to everything that can be collected, deduced, and predicted from the actions and behaviors of people online. While the chapter deals mostly with Google, some negative mention is also made of Microsoft and Facebook, while Apple receives a strangely friendly treatment. Put in one concise story, the rise of Google is indeed very impressive and Zuboff’s book may well be one of the most remarkable compilations of that story. It surprises, however, that Zuboff makes no mention at all of Alphabet, which as the parent company of Google and with many other holdings relevant digital economy fields may well be considered an decisive player in the newly developing surveillance capitalism. Google, this much is clear, remains the frontrunner and main player of surveillance capitalism in Zuboff’s eyes.

The second part expands on the more historical treatment of the first by describing in detail the ways in which the formerly identified large players of surveillance capitalism develop and run business models based on the behavioral surplus. Given the economics background of the author, this is clearly the strongest part of the book and provides some illuminating insights for those of us (like me) who have no considerable background in economics. It explicates, how money is made from data and what drives the innovation these companies seek – namely the ever new predictions, and insights that can be gained from the behavioral surplus.

The third part promises a treatment of instrumental power for the third modernity. Herein Zuboff identifies the Big Other as the central metaphor of our times. The Big Other controls the distribution of knowledge in society by dispossessing us of the behavioral surplus, i.e. taking from us data and turning it into profitable assets. The author mentions in passing Hannah Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism (not her theory of power) and I am sorry to say no further theorists of power, neither Foucault (which seems implied by her insistence on a strong relationship between knowledge and power) nor anyone less, for lack of a better word, French. Power theory is my area of expertise and I may be overly critical, but presenting “two kinds of power” – the “old” totalitarianism and the “new” instrumentalism – without mentioning even one major power theory seems a disturbing oversight. As this is the part aiming to theoretically ground the critique of surveillance capitalism it leaves a hole in the argument. A strength of this third part of Zuboff’s book are the references to thinkers – such as Alex Pentland – who shape the thinking of those who drive the development of digital capitalism. All too often liberal critiques of the digital economy do not take seriously enough the influencers who help justify and mainstream ideas which support developments we may feel are not desirable for our societies. It is indeed an oversight of much of our political thinking to consider these thinkers below the threshold of serious political theory given their decisive influence

It may seem petty to some, but I found two other things disappointing.

The first seems minor at first: When in the introduction Zuboff talks about the spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs) she claims that three of seven billion people now have access. This number struck me as way too low and indeed, in a book published 2016, these numbers were from 2010. This is problematic because it shows that the author underestimates the mindblowing dynamic behind the spread of ICTs and, more importantly, it explains why she fails to address the significant changes to digital business models in non-Western parts of the world, where internet usage has increased at a much faster rate than in the developed world. One might argue that many new strategies are tried not in the West, but indeed in those new markets.

The second point missing, at least from my perspective, is a treatment of the role medium players fulfill in this new digitalized capitalism. Who would have known the name Cambridge Analytica before the scandal? So what are the names and strategies of the others, reeking a profit from the behavioral surplus and the data collected by much bigger players? It would have been great, to learn more about them.

The final emphatic call to action asks us to reclaim what has been lost and become agents in the process of digitalization. She demands, we recognize surveillance capitalism as the antidemocratic force it is. Through debate and argument, she hopes, we can change public opinion – political will and law will then follow. Zuboff, as many before, remains vague when it comes to saying what is to be done in the concrete. Partly that is, because this will only be found out through debate and is a task for all of us.

Ulrike Höppner, Berlin.

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