Big Other is Watching You: The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism Book Review

Ours is a society built on manipulation, addiction, and inescapable, undetectable tyranny. All of us feel it, vaguely, but very few people can actually describe the Lovecraftian beast that has slipped its tentacles into our homes, into our minds. To allow us to get our bearings in this brave new world, Shoshana Zuboff has created […]

Jon Deery
15th February 2021
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Ours is a society built on manipulation, addiction, and inescapable, undetectable tyranny. All of us feel it, vaguely, but very few people can actually describe the Lovecraftian beast that has slipped its tentacles into our homes, into our minds. To allow us to get our bearings in this brave new world, Shoshana Zuboff has created a monster of her own - a 525 page book detailing the terror of surveillance capitalism.

For the opening paragraph of a book review, that might’ve seemed a bit intense. But let’s take a look at what her book explains to us:

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook know far more about us than we could hope to know about ourselves. Every millisecond of every day, multiple unaccountable companies are analysing “your laptop, your phone, a web page, the street where you live, an e-mail to your friend, your walk in the park… your interests and tastes, your digestion, your tears, your attention, your feelings, your face.”

They have sensors on your body; these pretend to be fitness assistants, but really they’re “extraction tools”. Information about your heart rate, your location, and millions of other irretrievable data points are streamed continually from your “wearables” to a server to be stored and dissected.

They have microphones throughout your house. Through smart speakers, televisions, thermostats, and even children’s toys, they’re eavesdropping on every conversation you have, and analysing every word.

Big tech companies profit from what Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”. She describes this in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as an economic system that “claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.” 

In simpler terms, we are not the customers of Facebook and Google. Big tech companies (or “Big Other” as Zuboff labels them) see us as vulnerable mountainsides, open to be mined and quarried for the most valuable resource on Earth: human behavioural data.

Once extracted, your data is “fed into advanced manufacturing processes known as “machine intelligence” and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace,” which Zuboff calls “behavioural futures markets.”

Mountainous riches are to be made from these operations, because in every industry, companies “are eager to lay bets on our future behaviour.”

But even with all that data, how can tech companies predict the future?

“The most predictive source of all is behaviour that has already been modified to orient toward guaranteed outcomes,” Zuboff explains; the best way to predict the future is to make it happen.

This leads her to talk about Pokemon Go - a seemingly innocuous mobile game that was actually masterminded by John Hanke, the boss of the Google Street View project, as a way to see if “herding” could really work on large numbers of people without their knowledge. 

Players walked on real streets, collecting Pokemon on their phones in a virtual reality experience. Businesses paid to have the game guide people into their stores, and immediately saw huge increases in profit. The mind-control worked, and users were none the wiser.

What Zuboff fears is essentially a society-wide game of Pokemon Go, with big tech companies directing our careers, social lives, political views, and entire futures in service of their own economic interests, all without our awareness. This would be a world where one tiny group of people in Silicon Valley hold the power to “herd” entire populations wherever they want them. That world is closer than you think.

If a Pokemon Go society sounds ridiculous, read the book. 

It’ll change your life - I can almost guarantee it.

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