Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism: Rewiring Free Will

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" by Shoshana Zuboff. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does Shoshana Zuboff say about the goals of surveillance capitalism? What is persuasive technology?

In her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff builds on the dangers of surveillance capitalism to society, arguing that the goal is to modify your free will. Zuboff’s book explains how big tech companies are already controlling people’s behavior.

Keep reading for an overview of Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism’s dangerous goals.

Zuboff on the Goal of Surveillance Capitalism

According to Shoshana Zuboff, on surveillance capitalism’s list of objectives, there stands one ultimate goal. She argues that the ultimate goal of surveillance capitalism is to create a society in which our free will is replaced by behavioral conditioning that encourages predictable and machine-like patterns of behavior. This would eliminate human mistakes, accidents, and randomness. By guaranteeing specific human behavior, companies like Google can sell certainties instead of predictions and maximize their profits.

(Shortform note: Shoshana Zuboff argues that the focus of surveillance capitalism is on replacing human error with predictable, machine-like behavior. However, according to behavioral economics theory, humans are both irrational (and thus error-prone) and predictable. In his book Predictably Irrational, behavioral economist Dan Ariely argues that humans are systematically irrational, meaning that we tend to repeat the same mistakes in a predictable way without recognizing or correcting them. If this is true, then surveillance capitalism’s aim of behavioral conditioning may be misguided; to make behavior fully predictable, companies simply need to learn the patterns of our mistakes, rather than trying to eradicate mistakes entirely.)

Modifying Your Behavior

Focusing on surveillance capitalism’s threat to society, Shoshana Zuboff says that at present, tech companies use various methods to modify people’s behavior. One strategy they use is to provide subliminal cues that subtly influence people’s choices without them realizing it. For example, Airbnb displays how many other users are browsing for the same dates as you to create subconscious urgency to book a reservation.

Another method tech companies use to control users’ behavior is to reinforce actions that build a predictable routine—a routine that will reliably guarantee the outcomes companies want. For example, UberEats suggests ordering food at meal times, thereby reinforcing a routine of using the app on a regular schedule.

The Birth of Persuasive Technology

Speaking on the methods of surveillance capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff shows that companies have become remarkably good at modifying people’s behavior. How did they come to master this art of manipulation?

According to psychologist Richard Freed, the tech industry developed its powerful methods of persuasion by studying the behavioral research of B.J. Fogg. Fogg discovered that to modify behavior, you need to give your target motivation, ability, and triggers. In his book, Tiny Habits, Fogg describes this model in detail, explaining that motivation is the desire to act, ability is the capacity to act, and triggers are the cues that prompt you to act. So, for example, Airbnb creates motivation to book a reservation by showing how many users are browsing for the same dates. Similarly, UberEats’ meal time notifications act as triggers to keep you using the app on a regular schedule.

Because Fogg taught classes at Stanford University, which is a hub for the tech industry, he was in close contact with many individuals who would go on to develop the technologies of surveillance capitalism, like Instagram. They learned Fogg’s research directly from him and went on to test and perfect it for their industry. The result is the methods of behavioral modification that Zuboff describes.

Creating a Fully Connected Society

Shoshana Zuboff explains that to reach a point of total predictability in surveillance capitalism, companies’ control over our behavior needs to be all-encompassing. To accomplish this, companies want to create a society in which people and devices are connected at all times. 

(Shortform note: We may be closer to the existence of the connected society that Zuboff describes than you may think. Meta (previously Facebook) is currently designing the Metaverse. This is a type of cyberspace that uses technology like virtual and augmented reality to blend the physical with the digital world. Once created, the Metaverse could facilitate the type of connection and control that Zuboff describes.) 

Building on her description of a fully connected society, Shoshana Zuboff gives an example of what surveillance capitalism would look like in the future. She cites a patent application by Microsoft for a device that would monitor human behavior to detect anything abnormal, such as excessive shouting. The device could then report those abnormalities to individuals like family members, doctors, or law enforcement. 

(Shortform note: Since the publication of Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Microsoft has filed for similar patents, such as one for a system of sensors that would monitor employees’ body language, facial expressions, speech patterns, and mobile devices to track a meeting’s overall quality in real time. Although they haven’t stated it as their intention, Microsoft could use such sensitive data to surveil and control employees in the manner that Zuboff describes.)

Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism: Rewiring Free Will

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Age of Surveillance Capitalism summary:

  • The methods big tech companies are using to watch you
  • How surveillance capitalism can thrive despite opposition
  • How to prevent it from destroying our freedom and democracy

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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