You may know Shoshana Zuboff from her book In the Age of the Smart Machine: the Future of Work and Power. In this prescient work, she placed information technology in a line of disruptions that have transformed society.
IT automates labor and informates it, translating it into data. (Think of the drone flying over a pasture, outmoding the farmhand while creating a stream of data for livestock control).
Informating can empower everyone associated with the act of creating profit, or it can be used for mass control by actors interested in ideals other than democracy and liberty.
We talked with Zuboff about her seminal work and the future of society in a digital age.
In The Age of the Smart Machine has been received as a prophetic view of our civilization. What have you learned since the book was published?
The issues I wrote about are no longer confined to the workplace, or even an information society.
Information capital now bears down on every human being and its implications are really civilizational in scale and scope.
When I began the work on In the Age of the Smart Machine, I thought the issues could be addressed with managerial choices and how managers understood the new possibilities.
By the time I completed that work ten years later I understood that without reckoning with capitalism we could not have the right discussion.
Your concept of the Information Panopticon 30 years on: Did you understate those concerns?
The scope of what we’re talking about now means that we’ve blown by the Panopticon.
The forces that began as workplace monitoring have broken through any institutional boundary. They permeate our lives in every respect, and are intensifying literally daily.
Without reckoning with capitalism we [can] not have the right discussion.
The idea of the Panopticon is that it’s a problem for the subject when you’re inside it, but at least there is an outside. You can leave the workplace and you’re no longer in the Panopticon. You can leave the prison and you’re no longer in the Panopticon.
Today, surveillance capitalism is creating an environment of 'no escape.'
Examples of the new commercial surveillance and our inability to escape them?
It gets really hard to think of something that’s not in this basket.
There are so many products and services that are being created to extend the surveillance function beyond the online out into the world. This begins with your phone and is quickly developing through apps, wearables, smart home devices, retail stores, and cars.
At the moment there is no limit to the commercial ambitions to embed surveillance in every body and milieu.
Data are used to create a prediction about not only where you’re going but how you’re feeling, what you’re likely to do when you get there, and when might be the optimum moment to send a push message on your phone suggesting that you buy a new dress or a bike helmet or drug prescription.
There are new service applications that scrape social media profiles and analyze your personality. They can sell recommendations to landlords, for example, as to whether or not you’ll be a good tenant, or to employers as to whether or not your personality will be a good fit in that particular workplace, or whether or not your voice will produce congenial feelings in the people who hear it.
Some services specialize in facial recognition systems that analyze your emotions to predict your behavior and then sell those predictions to whomever might be interested.
There are services loading themselves into your automobile where they introduce a whole cosmos of market actors driving along with you — knowing where you’re going, knowing why you think you’re going there, suggesting restaurants, services, and products along the way.
Surveillance capitalism is creating an environment of no escape.
And that’s without even getting to the so-called ‘personal assistants.’ Everyone is beleaguered and everyone is busy. We’re very vulnerable people, and so these personal assistants come along and offer ‘we’ll do this for you, we’ll do that for you, we’ll take care of your calendar, we’ll take care of your friendships, we’ll take care of your purchases,’ and everything that those systems are doing is to amass more detailed information about you.
The point is, there is really no zone of life that is not being infiltrated and colonized by the very enthusiastic and sophisticated innovations of surveillance capitalism.