Your Experience is Raw Material for the New Global Economy

Harvard Business School’s Professor Emerita Shoshana Zuboff examines life, economy and global future


Titiksha Vashist

3 years ago | 3 min read

Harvard Business School’s Professor Emerita Shoshana Zuboff examines life, economy and global futures in her pathbreaking book.

In her wildly popular book titled ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, Zuboff examines a new form of the global economy that is shaping digital futures. A tour de force, the book brings together work in economics, political theory and anthropology to understand the new digital age and its consequences on human freedom and agency. Her key concept, ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ depends on what Zuboff calls “behavioral surplus” — a kind of digital exhaust that is constantly produced and collected from users. We don’t just contribute user-generated content — profiles, photos, posts, likes — that social networks rely on. We now produce useful data all the time. Tech giants (read Facebook, Amazon and Google) collect this by default, as part of a massive informational dragnet that considers every single bit of information to be potentially useful. These are used to create user profiles that can predict future behaviour.

Finally, these prediction products are traded in a new kind of marketplace called behavioural futures markets. Zuboff considers this a violation of not just privacy and knowledge, but of individual autonomy, and “the right to the future tense” that every human being ought to have. Zuboff says that we are losing control of our own future. It is being shaped for us.

“Surveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.”

Here’s what this means: When you’re taking pictures of your child in the park, or browsing the net, your private experience is extracted by companies as free raw material. The raw material is bought in a new marketplace that is betting on predictions of what you’re going to do next without your knowledge. Prediction makes better products. Products make profits.

This is the new logic of the digital economy that is powerfully shaping our real lives.

But surveillance capitalism, while a useful concept, doesn’t capture the entire picture. Digital feudalism, an idea developed by Italian thinker Tiziana Terranova understands companies as estates that employ people and implications it has on work and human labour. While Zuboff believes that tech giants bypass legal controls and constitutional value- architectures, Julie Cohen explains how law and policy are key to negotiating our future in the digital era. Law, in fact, becomes an important axis of the power exerted by companies as their norms crystallise over time and become institutionally entrenched.

“If the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so”

Zuboff’s book paints a rather scary picture of the world today, that could rapidly become a totalitarian horror tomorrow. But does this mean we have no alternative models for how the digital economy functions? Indeed not. At NYU, Trebor Scholz has introduced the concept of “platform cooperativism” as a way of joining the co-op model with the digital economy. There exist multiple solidarities and ways of doing business across the globe that do not embody the insidiousness that Zuboff lays out. While her solution to the problem is a return to the old-industrial era of “traditional reciprocities” that includes simple economic transactions of money with goods and services, there is the possibility of reshaping the digital economy. As more societies become networked, new cultural codes appear online that use traditional, socially and economically healthy business practices to shape digital futures, outside of this mutant form of capitalism. Can India show the way forward with some of these practices, like the Zoho model so effectively demonstrates?

Listen to the author in conversation with Data and Society as she explains the implications of surveillance capitalism on democracy.

This article was published in the InTech Dispatch: A Bimonthy on Tech, Society, Culture and Us.


Created by

Titiksha Vashist

Titiksha Vashist is a Researcher on Technology, Politics and Society. She is also Editor, The InTech Dispatch.







Related Articles