Surveillance capitalism is a concept coined by Shoshana Zuboff (2019). She uses it to describe a new economic order and logic that claims human experience and behavior as free raw material for commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.
What is Surveillance Capitalism?
Zuboff argues that Google – just like Henry Ford in the 20thcentury – introduces a new type or form of capitalism: surveillance capitalism. According to her, surveillance capitalism claims human experience as raw material for translation into behavioral data.
That data is partially used to improve the digital products or services, but most importantly it is declared ‘proprietary behavioral surplus’ and is fed into ‘machine intelligence’ manufacturing processes producing ‘predictions products’.
These ‘behavioral prediction products ’are sold in a new type of market: ‘behavioral futures market’ (Zuboff, 2019: 8).
The extraction imperative
In the surge for market domination and profit maximalization, surveillance capitalists are on an endless quest to acquire ever-more predictive sources of behavioral surplus. This is, according to Zuboff, the first economic imperative of Surveillance capitalism: “the extraction imperative”. This imperative means that ‘raw material supplies must be produced at an ever-expanding scale’ (Zuboff, 2019: 87).
Surveillance capitalism is not just a technological achievement. ‘Sustainable dispossession requires a highly orchestrated and carefully phased amalgam of political, communicative, administrative, legal and material strategies that audaciously assert and tirelessly defends claims to new ground.' (Zuboff, 2019: 130). Companies constantly have to produce their extraction methods, and their access to raw material.
The prediction imperative
On the basis of these data, surveillance capitalists fabricate ‘predictional models’. The need to be able to predict human behavior defines the second imperative of surveillance capitalism: the so-called prediction imperative. It is this imperative that pushes surveillance capitalists to supplement the economy of scale with the economies of scope and of action (Zuboff, 2019: 195).
The economies of scope is based on the axioma that behavioral surplus must not only be vast, it should also be varied and in depth. Extraction operations should thus not be limited to the ‘online’, it should be able to extend in ‘offline life’: from your commute over you sporting to the breakfast conversation. They should be able to extract it all. The economies of scope is born out of the idea that ‘highly predictive, and therefore highly lucrative, behavioral surplus would be plumbed from the intimate patterns of the self’ (Zuboff, 2019: 201).
The economies of scope and scale are both necessary but insufficient to sustain a competitive edge in the highly competitive surveillance capitalist market. Therefor economies of action are also necessary. In order to achieve these machine processes are configured to ‘nudge, tune, herd, manipulate, and modify behavior in specific directions’.
Zuboff, S. (2019). The age of surveillance capitalism. The fight for the future at the new frontier of power. Profile Books.