The logic of capital online

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Pic: Flickr/pkirtz

Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, explores the world of the giant tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. We all know they collect our data for profitable uses; how deeply does this affect capitalist relations, asks Joseph Choonara.

I was part of the last generation in Britain to experience childhood before the Internet. It still seemed miraculous when, in the mid-1990s, it became possible to browse the Web, using search engines such as Altavista and Lycos — Google being as yet neither a search engine nor a verb.

The Internet had none of the pervasiveness it has today. Mobile phones, for those who had them, were mostly used for phone calls. Beyond my university computer room, going online meant using a dial-up modem with speeds one thousandth of my current connection.

Around that time the journal International Socialism published an article about information technology (IT). It quotes, with some implied scepticism, Microsoft’s Bill Gates on the prospect of a “computer in the pocket”:

“It will display messages and schedules and also let you read and send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games. At a meeting you might take notes, check your appointments, browse information if you’re bored, or choose from among thousands of easy-to-call-up photos of your kids. The tiny computer will also take the place of money and of keys, and give appropriate traffic reports.”


Another striking feature of that article was that it was at pains to point out that IT is imbricated with the logic of capitalism. Back then one could be entranced by the liberatory potential of the Internet in its most anarchic phase. Today, it is impossible to disregard the power of big capital.

Concentraton and centralisation

Recent decades have seen an acceleration of what Karl Marx described as the “concentration and centralisation” of capital in several areas of the economy. One area is finance, but another is in IT. Today the four largest companies in the world by market capitalisation are Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Facebook and Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce firm, also make the top ten.

The emergence of these behemoths marks an important shift in the balance of power among capitalist firms.

It is this world that is explored in Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff’s new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. She argues that the strategy pioneered by Google — harvesting data about individuals in increasingly invasive ways and using it for commercial purposes — must be challenged.

Google built its early reputation as a search engine by feeding data from its searches back into its algorithms, continuously improving them. It was, Zuboff argues, only in the wake of the DotCom crash of the early 2000s that Google realised the advantages of deploying its cache of user data to sell targeted advertising.

According to the inventors of a 2003 Google patent, the main issue with this was that users sometimes refused to provide the necessary information due to “privacy considerations”. Google, soon joined by firms such as Facebook, sought to overcome this limitation. New ways of wresting control of user data were developed.

For instance, we have witnessed an extraordinary growth of “tracking cookies”, data files stored on a user’s computer that share information between companies. A 2015 study found that “anyone who simply visited the 100 most popular websites would collect over 6,000 cookies…83 percent of which were from third parties unrelated to the website that was visited”. Google’s tracking infrastructure featured on 92 percent of these sites.

Google, Zuboff argues, systematically pushed back the boundaries of the acceptable. One example is the Street View project, which links street-level imagery to Google Maps. When some of those whose neighbourhoods were surveilled raised privacy concerns, a Google executive opined that Street View was “good for the economy and good for us as individuals… It is about giving people powerful information so that they can make better choices”.

Harvesting data

It later transpired that the vehicles photographing the streets were covertly harvesting personal data from private Wi-Fi networks. Presumably that too was “good for individuals”. While Google retreated from some of its most invasive tactics, by then the debate had shifted to one of how this process would occur not whether it should.

This is also an instance of the incursion of surveillance capitalism into the “non-virtual” realm. In the same vein, Amazon are now aggressively promoting their Alexa voice assistant, in part to acquire a mass of data, including recorded conversations, from our daily lives. Similarly, the makers of Roomba, the autonomous vacuum cleaner, are developing plans to sell floorplans of customers’ homes derived by their device.

While such devices typically involve customers agreeing a “contract” regarding the use of their data, in practice this is meaningless. Researchers at the University of London found that “were one to enter into the Nest ecosystem of connected devices and apps…the purchase of a single home thermostat entails the need to review nearly a thousand contracts”. Refusal to agree to such contracts limits or nullifies the functionality of the devices.

According to Zuboff, today tech giants increasingly seek not simply to measure but to modify behaviour. Facebook’s experiments with their newsfeed are well known. A more interesting example is the “Pokémon Go” game, in which participants catch, train and fight virtual creatures projected over real world backgrounds using their phone camera and screen.

Business owners could buy “lure modules”, attracting virtual critters into their premises to increase footfall. Deals were rapidly agreed with McDonald’s to draw people to its Japanese outlets, and 12,000 Starbucks stores in the US became official “Pokéstops”.

Not only are the actions of the tech giants venal, but they are also controlled by a tiny number of individuals. Many tech firms have emulated Google’s novel corporate structure, in which the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, retained sufficient “super-class” shares to secure a majority vote on the direction of the company. Facebook’s Zuckerberg enjoys a similar position.

Ideologically, the approach of these tech pioneers tends towards what Zuboff calls “cyberlibertarianism”. In the US context, this follows the recent tendency of the Supreme Court to associate the First Amendment right to “free expression” with the right to private property — in this case user information gathered by the firms.

However, the US state does not simply allow these companies free reign, it also nurtures them, collaborating on projects and awarding lucrative contracts. Google were even hired to develop the CIA’s in-house search engine. There is significant traffic of personnel between government and the tech giants. In 2016, 197 individuals moved from US government position to Google, its affiliates or its lobbyists, and 61 moved in the opposite direction.

There is much to admire in Zuboff’s work, particularly the mass of evidence she assembles. However, her single-minded obsession leads to a common pitfall in literature of this kind. It is one thing to identify a central feature of contemporary capitalism, quite another to announce a new paradigm — the “new economic order” of surveillance capitalism — that shades all other aspects of the system.

Such an approach involves minimising criticisms of earlier phases of capitalism and downplaying the extent to which the tech giants are simply outgrowths of capitalist logic.

This is combined with a habit of repurposing terms from political economy in a manner that obscures the working of the system. For instance, the fruits of surveillance become “behavioural surplus”, in place of what Marx would call “surplus value”. Instead of Adam Smith’s “division of labour” we have the “division of knowledge”, and so on.

Behavioural modification

The contrast between “good” and “bad” capitalism especially weakens the final third of Zuboff’s book. Here she doubles down on the idea of behavioural modification as a key facet of surveillance capitalism. Digressions into theory, often of a rather superficial nature, become longer and more frequent — while the concrete examples become thinner and less numerous.

The guiding concept in this section of the book is the emergence of an “instrumentarian power”. This involves rendering humans and their behaviour as instruments to serve the market aims of others, indifferent to the social meanings of motives of those human behaviours.

Yet this instrumentalist approach is hardly limited to contemporary capitalism. The complex amalgam of social activities that underlie production, for instance, are, under all forms of capitalism, quantified and compared through market exchange. Humans are rendered as units of production or of consumption, their wants, needs and capacities subjected to the ruthless imperatives of profit-making.

Surveillance capitalism might accelerate and add new dimensions to this process but it is not such a radical break with the past.

Rather than inventing a new terminology to describe this logic, there are existing categories developed by Marxism to study capitalist firms, which can be applied in a creative way to study recent developments. Here it is worth focusing, as Zuboff often doesn, on Google. The source of its wealth is often rendered obscure by her discussion of an “extractive” engine feeding on “behavioural surplus”. She seems sceptical of trendy “prosumer” theories, in which clicking on a link or posting on Facebook magically created values, but it is unclear what she wants to put in their place.

In conventional Marxist terms, Google exploits its employees in the creation of a commodity (primarily advertising) that it sells, mainly to other capitalists. Google’s revenue is significantly higher than might be expected for a firm with its particular combination of labour and technology. This reflects the fact that it has secured a near monopoly in most Western countries.

It has done so partly through the effectiveness of its search algorithm along, partly through the clever use of its Chrome browser and its Android operating system. Once established, the sheer ubiquity and the scale of its data harvesting machine make it hard to overturn Google’s market position.

However, in the long run Google’s continued dominance relies on three things, each with implications for how we think about surveillance capitalism.

First, it requires compliant governments willing to tolerate its near monopoly. Over the past two years the EU has fined Google €8.2 billion for various breaches of anti-trust and similar regulations. The fines themselves are peanuts for Google but reflect growing tensions in the relationship between the firm and some states. The EU also introduced the general data protection regulations (GDPR), leading to an inquiry into Google’s activities in Ireland.

Zuboff discusses the GDPR, suggesting it may signal a change in how the tech giants are viewed, although she rightly argues that “popular movements” rather than the “wording of the regulations” will be decisive. However, more could be said about the extent to which inter-state rivalries can disrupt the smooth functioning of surveillance capitalism.

The fact that the GDPR emerged in the EU is telling — few of the new tech giants are European, and EU states are clearly worried about being caught between US and, increasingly, Chinese firms. The current spat pitching Donald Trump and Google against the Chinese government and Huawei shows how this competition is now enmeshed with inter-imperialist rivalries.

The second thing required for Google to maintain its power is that it must continue to see off challenges from competitors. In April the firm suffered one of its biggest falls in share prices as revenue growth slowed amid fears that advertisers were shifting towards rivals such as Facebook and Amazon. These rivals now have their own colossal cache of personalised data, their own vast productive apparatuses of hardware and human labour.

This is the working out of the logic of capitalism. Google is big enough to distort the laws of value, but it is not able to evade them entirely. Marx long ago pointed out that market competition may mutate into its apparent opposite — monopoly — but monopolies do not stand outside of capitalism, nor have entrenched monopolies in the past proved eternal.

Third, Google depends on the willingness of its employees to sustain its practices. Veena Dubal, a law professor in California, has researched labour activism inside Google. She points out that recent protests within the company have “explicitly connected Google’s workplace practices to the broader public interest”.

The clearest sign was mass employee walkouts in late 2018 over sexual harassment, pay inequality and forced arbitration of disputes. As Dubal points out, some workers connected this struggle to an attempt to rein in “the dystopian impacts of widespread, unregulated automation”. This is another potential vulnerability of the tech giants, especially as the forms of labour they employ become more abundant and routinised.

Capitalist imperatives

Placing the tech giants in this capitalist context has implications for socialists seeking an alternative to Google and its ilk. Assuming our goal is not to return to a pre-Internet era, we must consider how best to determine the boundaries between privacy and the free sharing of data in a way that is shorn altogether of capitalist imperatives.

There is a tendency for Zuboff instead to view the tech giants as alien encroachments on a basically benign capitalist society. Surveillance capitalism, for her, “presents startling challenges to market democracy”, which, she says, helped “lift much of humankind from millennia of ignorance, poverty and pain”.

Yet there is nothing democratic about markets. They represents unequal fields of capitalist power, surrounding capitalism firms that have never been internally democratic or run in accordance with human needs.

In this sense, the rise of the Internet over the past quarter of a century highlights a central problem with capitalism. Here we have the opportunity for the exchange, on a global scale, of the major scientific and cultural achievements of human history, for communication with a speed and scope never before seen, and for individuals to freely determine their privacy and openness to others.

Yet capitalism constantly undercuts this potential. Surveillance capitalism is a symptom, but capitalism itself is the disease.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff is published by Profile Books, £25. It is available from Bookmarks bookshop