Excerpt from “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” by Shoshana Zuboff
One explanation for surveillance capitalism’s many triumphs floats above them all: it is unprecedented. The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented. A classic example is the notion of the “horseless carriage” to which people reverted when confronted with the unprecedented facts of the automobile. A tragic illustration is the encounter between indigenous people and the first Spanish conquerors. When the Taínos of the pre-Columbian Caribbean islands first laid eyes on the sweating, bearded Spanish soldiers trudging across the sand in their brocade and armor, how could they possibly have recognized the meaning and portent of that moment? Unable to imagine their own destruction, they reckoned that those strange creatures were gods and welcomed them with intricate rituals of hospitality. This is how the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past. This contributes to the normalization of the abnormal, which makes fighting the unprecedented even more of an uphill climb.
On a stormy night some years ago, our home was struck by lightning, and I learned a powerful lesson in the comprehension-defying power of the unprecedented. Within moments of the strike, thick black smoke drifted up the staircase from the lower level of the house and toward the living room. As we mobilized and called the fire department, I believed that I had just a minute or two to do something useful before rushing out to join my family. First, I ran upstairs and closed all the bedroom doors to protect them from smoke damage. Next, I tore back downstairs to the living room, where I gathered up as many of our family photo albums as I could carry and set them outside on a covered porch for safety. The smoke was just about to reach me when the fire marshal arrived to grab me by the shoulder and yank me out the door. We stood in the driving rain, where, to our astonishment, we watched the house explode in flames.
I learned many things from the fire, but among the most important was the unrecognizability of the unprecedented. In that early phase of crisis, I could imagine our home scarred by smoke damage, but I could not imagine its disappearance. I grasped what was happening through the lens of past experience, envisioning a distressing but ultimately manageable detour that would lead back to the status quo. Unable to distinguish the unprecedented, all I could do was to close doors to rooms that would no longer exist and seek safety on a porch that was fated to vanish. I was blind to conditions that were unprecedented in my experience.
I began to study the emergence of what I would eventually call surveillance capitalism in 2006, interviewing entrepreneurs and staff in a range of tech companies in the US and the UK. For several years I thought that the unexpected and disturbing practices that I documented were detours from the main road: management oversights or failures of judgment and contextual understanding.
My field data were destroyed in the fire that night, and by the time I picked up the thread again early in 2011, it was clear to me that my old horseless- carriage lenses could not explain or excuse what was taking shape. …
Smartphone users are never asked explicitly if they want to be tracked every moment of each day. But cellular companies, smartphone makers, app developers and social media companies all claim they have users’ permission to conduct near-constant personal surveillance.
Websites and apps make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for most people to say no to aggressive surveillance and data collection practices.
The underlying problem is that most people don’t understand how tracking really works. The technology companies haven’t helped teach their customers about it, either. In fact, they’ve intentionally obscured important details to build a multi-billion-dollar data economy based on an ethically questionable notion of informed consent.
How consumers are made to agree
But people don’t always have a free choice. Instead, it’s a “take-it-or-leave-it” agreement, in which a customer can use the service only if they agree.