Review: Empathy in the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a page-tuner, highly engaging, but also deeply disturbing.

Surveillance capitalism and its two major practitioners, Google [Alphabet] and Facebook, are unprecedented developments. Personally, I have been struggling to get my head CoverAgeOfSurveillanceCapitalismaround trends in social networking. Finally a thoughtful analysis and account that adds up.(1)

The short version? Once you searched Google; now Google searches you. Once Facebook provided free digital services; now you provide the free raw data Facebook needs to keep its machine intelligence and targeted ad automation generating revenues for its owners.

Zuboff “gets it” that what Facebook and Google are enacting is a fundamental distortion – even perversion – of empathy.

The concise definition of “surveillance capitalism” is that the user is not the customer but rather the user is the raw material. The user’s personal experience is rendered (extracted and sur-rendered) into data, which, in turn, is input to large scale machine intelligence in order to perform continuous behavioral experimentation, behavior modification, predictive analytic marketing, yielding a predictable revenue stream for corporate advertisers (the customers) at the expense of personal sanctuary, empathy, and potentially one’s humanity. This requires some unpacking.

Zubuoff clarifies that surveillance capitalism is an unprecedented event. An unprecedented event is one that leaves the participants bewildered and scrambling to find ways to respond. Though one at first tries to fit the unprecedented event into past patterns, what is really required is the creation of new possibilities for setting limits and speaking truth to power.

One of Zuboff’s preferred examples of an unprecedented event is the encounter of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean in 1492 with Columbus and the Spanish military, religion, and biology (e.g., small pox and so on). The original inhabitants thought the Spanish must be some kind of gods, behaved accordingly, and were expropriated, exploited, and enslaved.

Though no one would endorse the divinity of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, we tend to idealize innovators and create a cult of personality around these entrepreneurs that has many of the same consequences. The risk of surveillance capitalism is that the way the worst excesses of industrial capitalism despoiled the air, water, and landscape (environment) of nature will now be extended to human nature itself.  

The force of empathy is strong with Professor Zuboff. She is a PhD in social psychology, during the acquisition of which at Harvard she stood up and debated B.F. Skinner (the behaviorist who polemically disparaged freedom and dignity). Little known but highly relevant background: she is a student of Heidegger’s early phenomenological ontology, and, most importantly, a graduate of the college of the University of Chicago, where she got her bachelor’s degree in philosophy.

In the section late in the work on “Homing to the Herd,” Zuboff writes: “[Facebook’s] operations are designed to exploit the human inclination toward empathy, belonging, and acceptance. The system tunes the pitch of our behavior with the rewards and punishments of social pressure, herding the human heart toward confluence as a means to other’s commercial ends.” I would spit hairs and say “simulated empathy.” However, the basic point is valid. The user ends up “over sharing” personal information in a kind of tranquilized state of semi-hypnotic psychic numbing similar to that induced in gambling casinos by blinking lights and bells.

Corporate surveillance capitalism transforms the Orwellian Big Brother risk of governmental state surveillance (not to be dismissed) into surveillance by Big Other. Key term: Big Other.

The social networking click stream generated by your visits, clicks, and likes gets aggregated by machine intelligence with geographic pings from apps, purchases, and pervasive digital “bread crumbs,” generating a personal profile. This profile, in turn, makes possible “behavior modification,” targeted marketing, and an innovative revenue model for surveillance capitalism based on “click throughs.” This is called “personalization,” which is a deeply cynical deception, since what it really causes is de-personalization, the commodification of your humanity.

Zuboff cites significant literature witnessing that even when surveillance capital seems to make a concession and agree to respect one’s privacy, it doesn’t. The agreements that users are constrained to click on are complex, extensive, and filled with linguistic traps for even the sophisticated user. She calls these so-called privacy agreements “noncontracts.” She emphasizes they are actually “surveillance agreements.” Your personal experience is supposed to be anonymized, but it often is not, since targeted ads could not then be delivered to you personally; or, when it is anonymized, it is easier than one might imagine to de-anonimize and identify the individual.

As bad as that may be, it gets worse. The damage to one’s humanity is already done when one’s personal experience is treated as raw material for the surveillance capital’s revenue model. Facebook and Google users are not customers. We are the raw material. The customers are the advertisers, corporations with services and goods, whose vending requires a guaranteed outcome. Machine intelligence operating on big data at hyper-scale has within view behavioral modification the results of which B. F. Skinner, wizard of operant conditioning, can only have dreamed.

While fake news is perhaps as old as the Trojan horse in Homer’s Iliad and the warning about Greeks bearing gifts, social networking takes the risks and damage to a new level. Fake news aligns in detail with surveillance capitalism, because fake news maximizes social conflict, controversy, and most importantly – clicks.

Big Other is itself a Trojan horse appearing to be free search and free digital services. However, it is more like the first settlers handing out blankets that were used to swaddle small pox patients to the indigenous peoples.

Just as the science of physics and engineering enabled industrial capitalism to master nature, a vision of social physics (Alex Pentland’s book of the same name features prominently) is being implemented in big data and machine intelligence to implement behavior modification. Thus Zuboff: “Social media is designed to engage and hold people of all ages, but it is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence and emerging adulthood, when one is naturally oriented toward the ‘others,’ especially toward the rewards of group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion.”

Big Other can mimic intimacy, all the while capturing and aggregating the responses such that the predictive modeling can suggest targeted advertisements. As noted, social media provide the appearance of connectedness and intimacy – a simulated empathy – while actually perpetrating the equivalent of gossip, social climbing, narcissistic self promotion, and out-and-out deception. Ultimately the idea is to get you to engage in a transaction to buy, use, and consume Big Other’s product or service.

Different as they may be, industrial capitalism and surveillance capitalism are united by conspicuous consumption. Only now human nature itself gets consumed. Facebook has used its big data and machine intelligence to conduct experiments in behavioral contagion, disclosing “mastery of the ability to manipulate human empathy and attachment with tuning techniques such as priming and suggestion” (p. 436). Zuboff writes: “The Wall Street Journal reported that the Facebook data science group had run more than 1,000 experiments since its inception in 2007 and operated with ‘few limits’ and no internal review board” (p. 303).

Peer-reviewed, evidence-based articles in scientific, academic journals resulted from Facbook’s experiments. One author told The Atlantic(which published a separate article on the experiments) that “as a private company, Facebook did not have to adhere to the legal standards for experimentation required of academic and government researchers” (p. 303). Hmmm.

Taking on and restraining Big Other will not be easy and, precisely because of human freedom and agency, the result by no means determined in advance. The important thing to remember is that social physics, predictive marketing, and the appropriating of personal experience as data can be transformed into possibilities of human flourishing, social justice for the disadvantaged, educating the uneducated, healthcare for the marginalized. That we do not currently see the details of how to connect the dots does not mean it cannot be done. It means the challenges are substantial.

Still, no easy answers here. It is still far from clear what is the narcissistic Achilles heel of Big Other? As noted, Big Other’s cynical bet is that people operate in a kind of tranquilized obviousness reminiscent of the mild hypnotic state induced by walking into a gambling casino is Las Vegas, with its blinking lights and tinkling coins. People are themselves narcissistic, posting selfies and the decorative desserts they are about to make a part of themselves by eating them.  For the time being, it seems to be working.

Zuboff elegantly and passionately denounces the attempt to create an air of inevitability about Big Other’s incursions and appropriations that are being perpetrated against personal experience, sanctuary, and intimacy (not merely privacy). She calls out this anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian juggernaut as a market-coup from above. Once again, what to do about it?

I speculate that after the wide spread distribution of color television (circa 1966) but before the world wide web (circa 1999), an inflexion point existed at which most sufficiently savvy adults discounted, neglected, or skeptically dismissed much of television advertising and even news. It is true that people of limited education continued to be cheated by misleading offers in goods and services. The comedy group the Firesign Theatre produced albums in the 1970s that consisted almost completely in channel surfing traditional media, quoting ads and actual news items literally but in random order with the satirical and logical effect of a reduction to absurdity.

Perhaps this skepticism now migrates to Facebook, which becomes the equivalent of a distorting fun-house mirror. Light dawns gradually over the whole. The ultimate narcissism of Big Other is that one can fool all the people all the time. One can’t.

Yet as long as surveillance capital can accurately scan your postings, communications, and geographic pings, Big Other can compellingly generate click through revenues by offering interested prospective buyers a bargain couch, auto, carpet, vacation, power tool, insurance, and so on.

It may be that connectivity and relatedness are an intrinsic human right such as air or water – and a natural monopoly – and therefore in need of regulations as regards content and scope – in the way that “universal dial tone” was one in the glory days of Ma Bell Telephone. (This is my speculation, not necessarily Zuboff’s.)

One thing is definite. Neither Facebook nor Google have any intrinsic right to “render” one’s experience as data. Even if one thinks one is agreeing to a multi-page, single-spaced, user agreement, there are certain things to which one cannot agree even if one clicks. For example, one cannot agree to sell oneself into slavery. Such a contract gives up the right to make a contract and that is a contradiction and invalid.

Likewise with supposedly exchanging personal data for “free digital services.” Even if Big Other claims ownership of personal experience by rendering it – and tricking one into sur-rendering it as data – one’s personal experience is on a par with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – one cannot give it away – alienate it – even if one wants to do so.

Once connectivity is acknowledged as a basic human right in the information age, not only do users recover their experience, they reclaim the data. It turns out that surveillance capitalists have a whole lot of silent owners [shareholders] entitled to consideration, transparency, and maybe even compensation. Just maybe all these “privacy agreements” (which, as noted, are actually “surveillance contacts”) are just a gigantic misunderstanding – and invalid. They are noncontracts.

The genie is out of the bottle, to be sure. Yet Zuboff emphasizes that we must remember that does not mean the demonstrated power of Big Other [Google and Facebook] is unstoppable like a force of nature such a hurricane or glacier. As noted, she compellingly debunks the fallacy of inevitability conveniently promoted by Big Other to weaken resistance. On the contrary, we must not forget that Aladdin got the Genie back into the bottle! However, he had to be extremely clever and even innovative to do so, appealing to the Genie’s narcissism.

By all means, be open to a miracle such as a billion people deleting their Facebook accounts, an open source version of Facebook and Google (and the budget to buy the hardware), or the founders of social networking authentically returning to Brin and Larry’s original slogan and commitment, “Don’t be evil, man!,” renouncing advertising,

Google Founders, Larry and Brin, from the back back cover of Forrester Magazine, 2005: Don't be evil, man! The front cover shows them wearing saint halos.

Google Founders, Larry and Brin, from the back back cover of Forrester Magazine, 2005: Don’t be evil, man! The front cover shows them wearing saint halos.

and committing to a social justice agenda. A billion people simultaneously all demand their deep profile from the “second text” (not otherwise discussed in this review) and the federal judiciary agrees that Big Other has to accommodate. The Howls that then occur will be able to be heard by Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) – on the moon. However, absent such highly improbable events, a legislative solution may be inevitable.

A rigorous privacy regime such as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would be a step in the right direction. But even if it were implemented in the USA (an improbable prospect), it would not address the underlying issue and “original sin,” namely, the rendering of personal experience as data. Make no mistake: “Today’s selfies is tomorrow’s biometric profile and facial recognition match.”

In the section “What is Surveillance Capitalism,” Zuboff offers possibilities for taking back the future: “Although […] laws have been imperfect, the institutions of labor law, environmental law, and banking law are regularly frameworks intended to defend society (and nature, life, and exchange) from the worst excesses of first capitalism’s destructive power.” “Surveillance capitalism’s expropriation of human experience has faced no such impediments.” Until now?


(1) Shoshana Zuboff, 2019, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For the Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs (Hachette). 704 pp. $34.20.

© Lou Agosta, PhD, and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: business and empathy, empathy capitalist tool, empathy training, Google searches you, surveillance capitalism

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1 reply

  1. Great review. I’ve been screaming about the same issues for years.

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