Charting the Rise of ‘Surveillance Capitalism’

February 25, 2019, 2:11 PM UTC
The reverse of the United States one-dollar bill depicting a Pyramid with 13 steps and the Eye of Providence.
The reverse of the United States one-dollar bill depicting a Pyramid with 13 steps and the Eye of Providence. (Photo by: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)
BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

Capitalism got its start in 16th century Europe through mercantilism, a system in which merchants moved goods and marked up prices between markets. Two centuries later, Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher of “invisible hand” renown, used writings by his own hand to help prop up industrial capitalism, a regime that manifested in factories, mass-produced goods, and machines. Today we’re witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm: “surveillance capitalism.”

The phrase is the title of a new book by Shoshana Zuboff, a retired Harvard Business School professor who helped popularize the term in a 2014 essay for a German magazine. As she wrote at the time, “Under surveillance capitalism, populations are not to be employed and served. Instead, they are to be harvested for behavioral data.” The information economy, “artificial intelligence,” big data—pick your euphemism. In a data-driven world, all roads lead here: Corporations plundering personal information for profit.

It’s a point that many stars of the techie-literati have been making of late. See the public apostasy of Roger McNamee, a Facebook investor and onetime Mark Zuckerberg mentor who has become one of the media giant’s most vociferous critics. As the Zucked author recently put it to Fortune: “The problem today is that…the people are not the customers; the people are the fuel.” To extend the analogy, the erosion of democracy is, one might suppose, equivalent to the existential threat of climate change.

While I have not yet read Zuboff’s book (I’m in the middle of an older hair-prickler, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson), I did catch this excellent interview she gave to Recode’s Kara Swisher. The chat is well-worth a listen; as Zuboff explains, the data-exploitative business models of Silicon Valley’s scions were forged in the fires of the dot-com bust. In the scramble to find revenues, data-fed advertising materialized as the industry’s savior. Since users tended to opt out when asked to fork over information, the tinkerers in tech-land got good at acquiring this precious commodity surreptitiously. And so here we are.

(Bonus: Swisher drops a reference to a Fortune classic, “Chaos by Design,” about Google’s adolescence, a portentous feature penned in 2006 by this newsletter’s regular, weekday author.)

I’m looking forward to devouring Zuboff’s book. And I’m certain, given my search history, that I’ll be seeing more than a few advertisements around the web for it.

A version of this article first appeared in Cyber Saturday, the weekend edition of Fortune’s tech newsletter Data Sheet. Sign up here.

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