Digital Overreach: A Book Roundup

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

By Shoshana Zuboff; Published by Public Affairs; January 2019


Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology

By Ellen Ullman; Published by MCD; August 2017


The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business

By Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen; Published by Knopf; April 2013


Who Owns the Future?

By Jaron Lanier; Published by Simon & Schuster; May 2013


Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity

By Douglas Rushkoff; Published by Portfolio; March 2016


It’s interesting to see so many relatively recent books describing different aspects of this cultural moment: the dawn of understanding the attention economy and how it’s lead to new business models that have less to do what customers want than what customers do. Several books help make sense of how all of our daily actions—each small click and like—our endless hours of scrolling and distraction, paired with the very personal content of our lives, of who and what we like, what we say, and how we interact with every piece of content metadata—are being analyzed and mined, exploited in a way where we are the unpaid actors in someone else’s extremely lucrative financial model.


This roundup of five books is about understanding who owns the future in the age of surveillance capitalism; and about understanding that while some seek to define this new digital age, others are busy throwing rocks at the Google bus. 


In terms of cultural relevance, 59% of the world’s population uses the internet, with the highest concentration of users here in North America where 89% of the total population uses the internet, and the lowest concentration in Africa where almost 40% of the population uses it. So, far from being some minor experiment with digital technology, we’re in the midst of sweeping cultural change in terms of how our personal lives and the data generated by what we do online are used.


Given that, it’s refreshing and somewhat unexpected to read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism as I was surprised to hear such adroit cultural criticism from someone who teaches at Harvard Business School. She offers a fresh take on the relatively new practice of surveillance of users as a new economic model that trumps direct selling to customers. Plus, she explains just how big tech giants like Google & Facebook garnered their competitive edge by exercising first-mover status over our personal data (it seems that before many of us understood the implications the process was well underway.) This data or “digital exhaust” amounted to an untapped goldmine in that it is capable of shaping predictive models through which tech behemoths can further benefit handsomely—at a huge cost to our personal privacy and agency. 


What I found fascinating was how Zuboff outlines the strategies tech executives used in building these new empires though bolding declaring their way to the future and in the absence of regulation. Though the book is a dense read, Zuboff has a wry sense of humor, as when she refers to Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg as Typhoid Mary, bringing exploitative business practices from Google to Facebook—where they could be used to exploit hundreds of millions of people’s personal lives in the service of shareholder profits.


In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Zuboff explained how “surveillance capitalism” departs from market capitalism in its ubiquitous take over of our lives by market forces. She starts by defining how capitalism has historically been hungry for raw material to which its operatives can lay claim, “claiming nature for the market and soon we were buying and selling property. And then claiming labor for the market, so our time can be sold and purchased. And now, in the age of surveillance capitalism every private human experience is being claimed for the market.” A practice she calls both “parasitic and self-referential” as it feeds on every aspect of our lives. Think about Facebook knows about you.


Zuboff highlights the impact of wielding a declarative sentence—when capitalists lay out their vision of the world and define reality in the process. That presumptive technique was used by Google when it began scanning books it didn’t hold the copyright to, and by Facebook when it ran experiments on users by altering the emotional content of their feeds. Hey, but there’s no law against it, right?


The ability to redefine acceptable behavior and alter the future with technology is achieved in part by selling us on the inevitability of this future and our inability to do much about it.

— Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism


These company executives are banking on users having little recourse and experiencing learned helplessness, as if their defining of a certain inevitability around technology has now made it a fait accompli. This makes the need for critical thinking and educated consumption around technology ever more dire.


To see just how such overreach is achieved, one need not venture further than Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s 2013 book The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations, and Business for evidence of this strategy. The title alone should give anyone pause: what exactly does reshaping the future of people mean? Well, these Google executives are no strangers to hubris and making predictions about just about anything with chapters titled:


Chapter 1: Our Future Selves

Chapter 2: The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting

Chapter 3: The Future of States

Chapter 4: The Future of Revolution

Chapter 5: The Future of Terrorism

Chapter 6: The Future of Conflict, Combat, and Intervention

Chapter 7: The Future of Reconstruction


Whoa… all this from purveyors of free email? It makes one wonder how we got from a cursory review of the terms and conditions of our gmail accounts to the company’s leadership laying out the future of terrorism, combat, and intervention? We all signed up for free software, not a dystopian future run by A.I. 


The problem for these venture-backed giants is that instead of being content with organic growth they’ve been driven to grow exponentially, which causes them to pursue ideas and policies that are the definition of antisocial behavior. In Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Douglass Rushkoff argues that growth became the enemy of prosperity, because our monetary system, by being an interest-based system, demands unrealistic growth. It is the way the venture capital system works: if you need capital to start a business, you then need to dominate the market in order to pay more back to the lenders. The only way to pay more back to the bank is through growth, so we’re in a vicious cycle that causes the pursuit of capital at all costs and forces leadership to now make decisions that exploit rather than serve their customers and users.


If all of this makes you feel less hopeful about the future, there are some technologists who are focused on solutions to this dilemma. In Who Owns the Future? Jaron Lanier’s 2013 treatise on what to do about tech’s exploitative practices, he proposes the radical idea of having tech companies who profit from data pay users for the use of this data. This, at leasts, allows users some ownership and agency over the data they create and restores some relational power between what users create and those who create tools that mine and use that data. As it stands now, the power dynamic is essentially skewed in favor of those who create the tools and analysis, not those who create the data. It is a creative solution to the problem Zubroff describes of capitalism laying claim to and profiting wildly from all of the data that surrounds human experience.


In Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology developer Ellen Ullman offers interesting essays populated with vignettes about her life working as a technologist that include insights such as how the internet makes it possible for each of us to live in a “museum of me.”  She also implores everyone to learn some basic coding—the English majors, the nannies pushing baby carriages, the marketing teams—so that we all can confront the bias in programmers. She writes:


To my hoped-for new programming army: You are society’s best hope for loosening the stranglehold of the code that surrounds us. Enlist copatriots. Upset assumptions. It will take time and perseverance, but you can do it. Stick a needle into the shiny bubble of the technical world’s received wisdom. Burst it.

Ellen Ullman in Life in Code 

Maybe the most effective solutions will come from the Humane Technology movement, led by ex-Google design ethicist Tristan Harris. The movement highlights the problems of persuasive technology and its harms in terms of digital addiction, polarization, political manipulation and attempts to downgrade humanity. They are building a platform and a movement to counter this and promote saner, ethical principles in product development that will help break this cycle.


The onus is on us to question the concentration of power in the digital age. These books help us consider and understand the consequences of how technology is making new extractive forms of capitalism ubiquitous and potentially dangerous. Better to understand them now before it’s too late.


What books have you read on this topic? If you read any of these based on this review, please post a comment on Twitter and let me know what you think.