eventFebruary 13 2019

Surveillance Capitalism and Democracy

Shoshana Zuboff, Madeleine Clare Elish

Databite No. 118

This talk by Shoshana Zuboff is based on her latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.



Surveillance capitalism arrived on the scene with democracy already on the ropes, its early life sheltered and nourished by neoliberalism’s claims to freedom that set it at a distance from the lives of people. Surveillance capitalists quickly learned to exploit the gathering momentum aimed at hollowing out democracy’s meaning and muscle. Despite the democratic promise of its rhetoric and capabilities, it contributed to a new Gilded Age of extreme wealth inequality, as well as to once-unimaginable new forms of economic exclusivity and new sources of social inequality that separate “the tuners” from “the tuned.”

Among the many insults to democracy and democratic institutions imposed by this coup des gens, Zuboff counts the unauthorized expropriation of private human experience; the hijack of the division of learning in society; the structural independence from people; the top-down imposition of the hive collective; the rise of instrumentarian power and radical indifference that together sustain its extractive logic; the construction, ownership, and operation of the means of behavior modification that is Big Other; the abrogation of the natural right to the future tense and the natural right to sanctuary; the degradation of the self-determining individual as the crucible of democratic life; and the insistence on psychic numbing as the answer to its illegitimate quid pro quo.

Shoshana Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor emerita at Harvard Business School, where she joined the faculty in 1981 and became one of its first tenured women. From 2014- 2015 she was also a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Her career has been devoted to the study of the rise of the digital, its relationship to the history and future of capitalism, and the consequences for individuals and society. She earned her Ph.D. in social psychology from Harvard University and her B.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. She is the author of In the Age of the Smart Machine, which was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, and The Support Economy, which was selected by strategy+business magazine as one of the top ten business books of 2003 and as the “number one idea” in Businessweek’s special issue on “Twenty Five Ideas for a Changing World.” She is a frequent contributor to the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung and has been a featured columnist for Businessweek.com and Fast Company. Her scholarly article, “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization,” won the International Conference on Information Systems Senior Scholars’ 2016 Best Paper Award. In 2006, strategy+business magazine described Shoshana in a profile as “a maverick management guru…one of the sharpest most unorthodox thinkers today” and in a later issue named her among the eleven most original business thinkers in the world. She has appeared on NBC-TV’s “The Today Show”, NPR’s “Morning Edition”, Marketplace, and the BBC.

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Data & Society’s “Databites” speaker series presents timely conversations about the purpose and power of technology, bridging our interdisciplinary research with broader public conversations about the societal implications of data and automation.