[EconTalk] Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism

29/07/2019 by EconTalk: Russ Roberts

Web player: http://podplayer.net/?id=77106241
Episode: http://files.libertyfund.org/econtalk/y2019/Zuboffsurveillance.mp3

Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard University talks about her book Surveillance Capitalism with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Zuboff argues that the monetization of search engines and social networks by Google, Facebook, and other large tech firms threatens privacy and democracy.

Listen Date: 2019-10-10


  • I’d been aware of this book since my last few days checking Twitter, so for about a year, but this episode firmed up my intention to read it.
  • If I had a problem with this episode, it was that Prof Zuboff’s language was a little dense and on the side of jargon, and I had to struggle to keep up with the discussion – which is partly why I now want to read the book, in the hope that I’ll be able to read it at an improved pace and not have to make guesses at what exactly her terms mean or are referring to.
  • I think the personality styles of Profs Zuboff and Roberts were different enough that at times this episode seemed a little bit like Arnab Goswami hectoring a panelist who would then peevishly demand to be allowed to complete their point.
  • “So these are business customers who have an interest in our future behavior. And, they constitute a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures: prediction products.” Thinking aloud: so is insurance and actuarial science. Is the difference one of how targetted and / or how accurate the predictions are nowadays? Again, I hope the book addresses this.
  • I am really impressed that Shoshana Zuboff reacts to her subject with optimism on the grounds that we haven’t even started pushing back yet, so who knows what we’ll accomplish.
  • The more philosophical point of how surveillance capitalism pushes us down default modes of behaviour without leaving us to see the whole range of options, even if that’s its greatest sin, still means an erosion of human agency. Which brings back the earlier EconTalk episode with Amy Webb. I feel this episode built on that point a little bit better on that. Both episodes did raise alarming possible end-states, but didn’t lay out a path of getting from here to there – but that may be a problem with the podcast medium and not with the argument. Let’s see.
  • It’s an interesting narrative that the dotcom meltdown pushed Google down the path of monetisation through advertising and surveillance.
  • Looking at myself, even ten or five years ago, the tradeoff between free products and being surveilled upon would have taken me towards surveillance. It’s at today’s higher income where I can look out for non-surveillance products and services. It’s a separate matter that in terms of user-friendliness those products and services are terrible in comparison. To that extent, I’m sympathetic with Russ Roberts’s point that most consumers would continue with the surveillance product. But also a little hopeful that we aren’t too far from a point where there are enough privacy oriented consumers to demand a non-surveillance product that doesn’t suck.
  • (I include Apple’s services in the list of non-surveillance products that are awful or overpriced. The phone is overpriced, and icloud is awful.)
  • I hadn’t known that Niantic was originally a lab inside Google. Or that Pokemon Go was shepherding people towards advertisers’ locations. Wow.
  • “And the AI’s capacity to now produce 6 million predictions of behavior, per second. Six million predictions per second.” – okay, but what is the scale and scope of those predictions, and how accurate are they?
  • I’m sympathetic to both ‘If I am generating data or behaviour, that belongs to me’ and ‘If somebody is generating data and not doing anything with it and just leaving it around, why shouldn’t I as a capitalist make use of it?’
  • “you may know that a couple of years ago there was a multi-stake holder process that was hosted by the Commerce Department. You had the NGOs [Non-Governmental Agencies], you had the companies, you had the government, kind of agree on facial recognition. And the talks were bound, because the companies insist that they should be allowed to have cameras and sensors on the streets that can take what they want, translate it into their facial recognition software, and have our faces. They insist that they have that right. And the government did not fight them on that.” – I could be cynical here and think “Why on earth would governments give up the opportunity to have their police forces access that sweet sweet facial recognition algorithm?”
  • “At the back end, we can say, that we outlaw markets that trade exclusively in human futures. Why not? Because everything that I have described to you arises from a competitive dynamics of these markets. So, when we say we do not allow markets to trade in slavery, we say we outlaw markets that trade in human organs. Why not say, we outlaw trade in human futures?” – Where do we draw a line between the Google / Amazon style prediction of human futures vs life insurance? I’m not trying to shitpost or gotcha here, I’m curious about whether that line is distinct or blurry or nonexistent, and the implications of that.



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