Like many of the best books that traffic in ideas, Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism starts out with a simple question: ‘Can the digital future be our home?’ She quotes, as a point of comparison, a paper mill manager who asked her (as far back as 1981), ‘Are we all going to be working for a smart machine, or will we have smart people around the machine?’
But this is not another (by now unnecessary) book on job automation and the fear of robots sending us all to the dole queue – assuming mass state welfare will still exist in the future, which it probably won’t. Zuboff posits that we are entering a future designed not by Ridley Scott but by Adam Smith – had he had access to our most intimate thoughts. Zuboff understands perhaps the fundamental principle of our age: the digital is always political.
The book starts with a definition of ‘surveillance capitalism’ in the form of eight declarative statements. The first two define it as ‘a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales’ and as ‘a parasitic economic