Reviewed in this article



Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power
By Shoshana Zuboff
PublicAffairs ~ 2019
691 pp. ~ $38 (cloth)

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Why We Choose Surveillance Capitalism 

Michael M. Rosen

Americans don’t care about privacy as much as they say.

Facebook, Google, Amazon — “they track our every move, they monitor every moment in our lives, and they exploit our data for profit.” Thus stammered Richard Hendricks, the bedraggled, beleaguered founder and CEO of Pied Piper, a fictional Internet company at the heart of the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, in his surprisingly eloquent testimony before a hostile congressional committee investigating the abuses of Big Tech. “These companies are kings, and they rule over kingdoms far larger than any nation in human history. They won, we lost.”

But far from giving up, Hendricks suggested a path toward victory: “The way we win is by creating a new, democratic, decentralized Internet, one where the behavior of companies like this will be impossible forever. One where it is the users, not the kings, who have sovereign control over their data. This I promise to you: I will help you end this journey by building an Internet that is of the people, by the people, and for the people, so help me God,” Hendricks concluded, to the rousing applause of his employees watching on TV.

Only one small problem: viewers later learn that Pied Piper itself was engaging for years in the very practice Hendricks so roundly condemned, as a popular video game operating under its umbrella had been collecting and exploiting customer data. It turns out it’s not as easy as we think to turn off the information spigot, for we have more or less accepted the fundamental bargain of the Internet: In exchange for our personal data, we gain access to an unprecedented cornucopia of digital goods.

Shoshana Zuboff picks up Hendricks’s mantle in examining the fraught relationship between Internet companies, their users, and those users’ data in Surveillance Capitalism, a term she succinctly defines as “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” Fundamentally, she worries that our “rights to privacy, knowledge, and application have been usurped by a bold market venture powered by unilateral claims to others’ experience and the knowledge that flows from it.” While Zuboff provides an impassioned, eloquent, and thought-provoking analysis of the interplay between technology and personal autonomy, her book suffers from deep flaws, largely ignoring the tremendous benefits Big Tech companies have conferred on society, failing to reckon with Americans’ choice to accept this tradeoff, and neglecting to offer any serious or realistic solutions....

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Michael M. Rosen is an attorney and writer in Israel and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael M. Rosen, "Why We Choose Surveillance Capitalism," The New Atlantis, Number 61, Winter 2020, pp. 106-113.