Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2594754
Big other: surveillance capitalism and the
prospects of an information civilization
Harvard Business School Emerita, Boston, MA, USA;
Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Cambridge, MA, USA
S Zuboff, Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Cambridge, MA, USA.
This article describes an emergent logic of accumulation in the networked sphere,
‘surveillance capitalism,’ and considers its implications for ‘information civilization.’ The
institutionalizing practices and operational assumptions of Google Inc. are the primary lens
for this analysis as they are rendered in two recent articles authored by Google Chief
Economist Hal Varian. Varian asserts four uses that follow from computer-mediated
transactions: ‘data extraction and analysis,’ ‘new contractual forms due to better monitoring,’ ‘personalization and customization,’ and ‘continuous experiments.’ An examination of
the nature and consequences of these uses sheds light on the implicit logic of surveillance
capitalism and the global architecture of computer mediation upon which it depends. This
architecture produces a distributed and largely uncontested new expression of power that I
christen: ‘Big Other.’ It is constituted by unexpected and often illegible mechanisms of
extraction, commodification, and control that effectively exile persons from their own
behavior while producing new markets of behavioral prediction and modification. Surveillance capitalism challenges democratic norms and departs in key ways from the centurieslong evolution of market capitalism.
Journal of Information Technology (2015) 30, 75–89. doi:10.1057/jit.2015.5
Keywords: surveillance capitalism; big data; Google; information society; privacy; internet of
Arecent White House report on ‘big data’ concludes, ‘The
technological trajectory, however, is clear: more and
more data will be generated about individuals and will
persist under the control of others’ (White House, 2014: 9).
Reading this statement brought to mind a 2009 interview with
Google Chairperson Eric Schmidt when the public first
discovered that Google retained individual search histories
that were also made available to state security and law
enforcement agencies, ‘If you have something that you don’t
want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the
first place, but if you really need that kind of privacy, the
reality is that search engines including Google do retain this
information for some time … It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities’ (Newman,
2009). What these two statements share is the attribution of
agency to ‘technology.’ ‘Big data’ is cast as the inevitable
consequence of a technological juggernaut with a life of its
own entirely outside the social. We are but bystanders.
Most articles on the subject of ‘big data’ commence with
an effort to define ‘it.’ This suggests to me that a reasonable
definition has not yet been achieved. My argument here is
that we have not yet successfully defined ‘big data’ because we
continue to view it as a technological object, effect or
capability. The inadequacy of this view forces us to return
over and again to the same ground. In this article I take a
different approach. ‘Big data,’ I argue, is not a technology or an
inevitable technology effect. It is not an autonomous process,
as Schmidt and others would have us think. It originates in the
social, and it is there that we must find it and know it. In this
article I explore the proposition that ‘big data’ is above all the
foundational component in a deeply intentional and highly
consequential new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. This new form of information capitalism
aims to predict and modify human behavior as a means to
produce revenue and market control. Surveillance capitalism
has gradually constituted itself during the last decade, embodying
Journal of Information Technology (2015) 30, 75–89
© 2015 JIT Palgrave Macmillan All rights reserved 0268-3962/15
Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2594754
a new social relations and politics that have not yet been well
delineated or theorized. While ‘big data’ may be set to other
uses, those do not erase its origins in an extractive project
founded on formal indifference to the populations that
comprise both its data sources and its ultimate targets.
Constantiou and Kallinikos (2014) provide important clues
to this new direction in their article ‘New games, new rules: big
data and the changing context of strategy,’ as they lift the veil on
the black box, that is ‘big data,’ to reveal its epistemic contents
and their indigenous problematics. ‘New games’ is a powerful
and necessary contribution to this opaque intellectual territory.
The article builds on earlier warnings (e.g. boyd and Crawford,
2011; Bhimani and Willcocks, 2014) to sharply delineate the
epistemic features of ‘big data’ – heterogeneous, unstructured,
trans-semiotic, decontextualized, agnostic – and to illuminate
the epistemological discontinuities such data entail for the
methods and mindsets of corporate strategy’s formal, deductive,
inward-focused, and positivistic conventions.
In claiming this black box for the known world,
Constantiou and Kallinikos (2014) also insist on the mysteries that remain unsolved. ‘Big data,’ they warn, heralds
‘a transformation of contemporary economy and society … a
much wider shift that makes everydayness qua data imprints
an intrinsic component of organizational and institutional
life … and also a primary target of commercialization
strategies …’ Such changes, they say, concern ‘the blurring
of long-established social and institutional divisions … the
very nature of firms and organizations and their relations to
individuals qua users, customers or clients, and citizens.’
These challenges also ‘recast management … as a field and
social practice in a new context whose exact outlines still
remain unclear … (10).’
In this brief article, I aim to contribute to a new discussion
on these still untheorized new territories in which the roiling
ephemera of Constantiou’s and Kallinikos’s ‘big data’ are
embedded: the migration of everydayness as a commercialization strategy; the blurring of divisions; the nature of the firm
and its relation to populations. In preparation for the arguments I want to make here, I begin with a very brief review of a
few foundational concepts. I then move on to a close examination of two articles by Google Chief Economist Hal Varian that
disclose the logic and implications of surveillance capitalism as
well as ‘big data’s’ foundational role in this new regime.
Computer mediation meets the logic of accumulation
Nearly 35 years ago I first developed the notion of ‘computer
mediation’ in an MIT Working Paper called ‘The Psychological and Organizational Implications of ComputerMediated Work’ (Zuboff 1981; see also Zuboff, 2013 for a
history of this concept and its meaning). In that paper and
subsequent writing I distinguished ‘computer-mediated’
work from earlier generations of mechanization and automation designed to substitute for or simplify human labor
(e.g. Zuboff, 1988, 1985, 1982). I observed that information
technology is characterized by a fundamental duality that
had not yet been fully appreciated. It can be applied to
automate operations according to a logic that hardly differs
from that of centuries past: replace the human body with
machines that enable more continuity and control. But when
it comes to information technology, automation simultaneously generates information that provides a deeper level of
transparency to activities that had been either partially or
completely opaque. It not only imposes information (in the
form of programmed instructions), but it also produces
information. The action of a machine is entirely invested in
its object, but information technology also reflects back on its
activities and on the system of activities to which it is related.
This produces action linked to a reflexive voice, as computermediation symbolically renders events, objects, and processes that become visible, knowable, and shareable in a new
way. This distinction, to put it simply, marks the difference
between ‘smart’ and ‘dumb.’
The word I coined to describe this unique capacity is
informate. Information technology alone has the capacity to
automate and to informate. As a result of the informating
process, computer-mediated work extends organizational
codification resulting in a comprehensive ‘textualization’ of
the work environment – what I called ‘the electronic text.’
That text created new opportunities for learning and therefore
new contests over who would learn, how, and what. Once a
firm is imbued with computer mediation, this new ‘division of
learning’ becomes more salient than the traditional division of
labor. Even at the early stages of these developments in the
1980s, the text was somewhat heterogeneous. It reflected
production flows and administrative processes along with
customer interfaces, but it also revealed human behavior:
phone calls, keystrokes, bathroom breaks and other signals of
attentional continuity, actions, locations, conversations, networks, specific engagements with people and equipment, and
so forth. I recall writing the words in the summer of 1985 that
appeared in the final chapter of In the Age of the Smart
Machine. They were regarded as outlandish then. ‘Science
fiction,’ some said; ‘subversive,’ others complained: ‘The
informated workplace, which may no longer be a “place” at
all, is an arena through which information circulates, information to which intellective effort is applied. The quality, rather
than the quantity, of effort will be the source from which
added value is derived … learning is the new form of labor’
(Zuboff, 1988: 395).
Today we must strain to imagine when these conditions –
computer mediation, textualization, learning as labor – were
not the case, at least for broad sectors of the labor force. Realtime information-based computer-mediated learning has
become so endogenous to everyday business activities that the
two domains are more or less conflated. This is what most of us
do now as work. These new facts are institutionalized in
thousands, if not millions, of new species of action within firms.
Some of these are more formal: continuous improvement
methodologies, enterprise integration, employee monitoring,
ICT systems that enable the global coordination of distributed
manufacturing operations, professional activities, teams, customers, supply chains, inter-firm projects, mobile and temporary
workforces, and marketing approaches to diverse configurations of consumers. Some are less formal: the unceasing flow of
email, online search, smartphone activities, apps, texts, video
meetings, social media interactions, and so forth.
The division of learning, however, is no pure form. During
20 years of fieldwork, I encountered the same lesson in
hundreds of variations. The division of learning, like the
division of labor, is always shaped by contests over these
questions: Who participates and how? Who decides who
participates? What happens when authority fails? In the
market sphere, the electronic text and what can be learned
Big other S Zuboff
from it were never – and can never be – ‘things in themselves.’
They are always already constituted by the answers to these
questions. In other words, they are already embedded in the
social, their possibilities circumscribed by authority and
The key point here is that when it comes to the market
sphere, the electronic text is already organized by the logic
of accumulation in which it is embedded and the conflicts
inherent to that logic. The logic of accumulation organizes
perception and shapes the expression of technological affordances at their roots. It is the taken-for-granted context of any
business model. Its assumptions are largely tacit, and its power
to shape the field of possibilities is therefore largely invisible. It
defines objectives, successes, failures, and problems. It determines what is measured, and what is passed over; how
resources and people are allocated and organized; who is
valued in what roles; what activities are undertaken – and to
what purpose. The logic of accumulation produces its own
social relations and with that its conceptions and uses of
authority and power.
In the history of capitalism, each era has run toward a
dominant logic of accumulation – mass production-based
corporate capitalism in the 20th century shaded into financial
capitalism by that century’s end – a form that continues to hold
sway. This helps to explain why there is so little real competitive
differentiation within industries. Airlines, for example, have
immense information flows that are interpreted along more or
less similar lines toward similar aims and metrics, because firms
are all evaluated according to the terms of a single shared logic
of accumulation.1 The same could be said for banks, hospitals,
telecommunications companies, and so forth.
Still, capitalism’s success over the longue durée has
depended upon the emergence of new market forms expressing new logics of accumulation that are more successful at
meeting the ever-evolving needs of populations and their
expression in the changing nature of demand.2 As Piketty
acknowledges in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century,
‘There is no single variety of capitalism or organization of
production … This will continue to be true in the future, no
doubt more than ever: new forms of organization and ownership remain to be invented’ (Piketty, 2014: 483). The philosopher and legal scholar Roberto Unger has also written
persuasively on this point:
The concept of a market economy is institutionally indeterminate … it is capable of being realized in different legal and
institutional directions, each with dramatic consequences for
every aspect of social life, including the class structure of
society and the distribution of wealth and power … Which of
its institutional realizations prevails has immense importance
for the future of humanity … a market economy can adopt
radically divergent institutional forms, including different
regimes of property and contract and different ways of
relating government and private producers. The forms now
established in the leading economies represent the fragment
of a larger and open-ended field of possibilities.
(Unger 2007: 8, 41)
New market forms emerge in distinct times and places. Some
rise to hegemony, others exist in parallel to the dominant
form, and others are revealed in time as evolutionary dead
How can these conceptual building blocks help us make
sense of ‘big data’? Some points are obvious: three of the
world’s seven billion people are now computer-mediated in a
wide range of their daily activities far beyond the traditional
boundaries of the workplace. For them the old dream of
ubiquitous computing (Weiser, 1991) is a barely noticeable
truism. As a result of pervasive computer mediation, nearly
every aspect of the world is rendered in a new symbolic
dimension as events, objects, processes, and people become
visible, knowable, and shareable in a new way. The world is
reborn as data and the electronic text is universal in scale and
scope.3 Just a moment ago, it still seemed reasonable to focus
our concerns on the challenges of an information workplace
or an information society. Now the enduring questions of
authority and power must be addressed to the widest possible
frame that is best defined as ‘civilization’ or more specifically –
information civilization. Who learns from global data flows,
what, and how? Who decides? What happens when authority
fails? What logic of accumulation will shape the answers to
these questions? Recognizing their civilizational scale lends
these questions new force and urgency. Their answers will
shape the character of information civilization in the century
to come, just as the logic of industrial capitalism and its
successors shaped the character of industrial civilization over
the last two centuries.
In the brief space of this work, my ambition is to begin the
task of illuminating an emergent logic of accumulation that vies
for hegemony in today’s networked spaces. My primary lens for
this brief exploration is Google, the world’s most popular
website. Google is widely considered to be the pioneer of ‘big
data’ (e.g. Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, 2013), and on the
strength of those accomplishments it has also pioneered the
wider logic of accumulation I call surveillance capitalism, of
which ‘big data’ is both a condition and an expression. This
emerging logic is not only shared by Facebook and many other
large Internet-based firms, it also appears to have become the
default model for most online startups and applications. Like
Constantiou and Kallinikos (2014), I begin this discussion with
the characteristics of the data in ‘big data’ and how they are
generated. But where those authors trained their sights on the
data’s epistemic features, I want to consider their individual,
social, and political significance.
This discussion here is organized around two extraordinary
documents written by Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian
(Varian, 2014, 2010). His claims and observations offer a
starting point for insights into the systemic logic of accumulation in which ‘big data’ are embedded. I note here that while
Varian is not a Google line executive, his articles invite a close
inspection of Google’s practices as a prime exemplar of this
new logic of accumulation. In both pieces, Varian illustrates
his points with examples from Google. He often uses the first
person plural in these instances, such as, ‘Google has been so
successful with our own experiments that we have made them
available to our advertisers and publishers in two programs.’
Or, ‘Google has seen 30 trillion URLs, crawls over 20 billion of
those a day and answers 100 billion search queries a month …
we have had to develop new types of databases that can store
data in massive tables spread across thousands of machines
and can process queries on more than a trillion records in a
few seconds. We published descriptions of these tools …’
(Varian, 2014: 27, 29). It therefore seems fair to assume that
Varian’s perspectives reflect the substance of Google’s
Big other S Zuboff
business practices, and, to a certain extent, the worldview that
underlies those practices.
In the two articles I examine here, Varian’s theme is the
universality of ‘computer-mediated economic transactions.’
He writes, ‘The computer creates a record of the transaction
… I argue that these computer-mediated transactions have
enabled significant improvements in the way transactions are
carried out and will continue to impact the economy for the
foreseeable future’ (2010: 2). The implications of Varian’s
observation are significant. The informating of the economy,
as he observes, is constituted by a pervasive and continuous
recording of the details of each transaction. In this vision,
computer mediation renders an economy transparent and
knowable in new ways. This is a sharp contrast to the classic
neoliberal ideal of ‘the market’ as intrinsically ineffable and
unknowable. Hayek’s conception of the market was as an
incomprehensible ‘extended order’ to which mere individuals
must subjugate their wills (Hayek, 1988: 14–15). It was
precisely the unknowability of the universe of market transactions that anchored Hayek’s claims for the necessity of radical
freedom from state intervention or regulation. Given Varian’s
new facts of a knowable market, he asserts four new ‘uses’ that
follow from computer-mediated transactions: ‘data extraction
and analysis,’ ‘new contractual forms due to better monitoring,’ ‘personalization and customization,’ and ‘continuous
experiments’ (Varian, 2014). Each one of these provides
insights into an emerging logic of accumulation, the division
of learning that it shapes, and the character of the information
civilization toward which it leads.
Data, extraction, analysis
The first of Varian’s new uses is ‘data extraction and analysis
… what everyone is talking about when they talk about big
data’ (Varian, 2014: 27). I want to examine each word in this
phrase – ‘data,’ ‘extraction,’ and ‘analysis’ – as each conveys
insights into the new logic of accumulation.
The data from computer-mediated economic transactions is a
significant dimension of ‘big data.’ There are other sources too,
including flows that arise from a variety of computer-mediated
institutional and trans-institutional systems. Among these we
can include a second source of computer-mediated flows that is
expected to grow exponentially: data from billions of sensors
embedded in a widening range of objects, bodies, and places. An
often cited Cisco White Paper predicts $14.4 trillion of new
value associated with this ‘Internet of Everything’ (Cisco,
2013a, b). Google’s new investments in machine learning,
drones, wearables, self-driving cars, nano particles that ‘patrol’
the body for signs of disease, and smart devices for the home are
each essential components of this growing network of smart
sensors and Internet-enabled devices intended as a new intelligent infrastructure for objects and bodies (Bradshaw, 2014a, b;
Kovach, 2013; BBC News, 2014; Brewster, 2014; Dwoskin, 2014;
Economist, 2014; Fink, 2014; Kelly, 2014; Lin, 2014; Parnell,
2014; Winkler and Wakabayashi, 2014). A third source of data
flows from corporate and government databases including those
associated with banks, payment-clearing intermediaries, credit
rating agencies, airlines, tax and census records, health care
operations, credit card, insurance, pharmaceutical, and telecom
companies, and more. Many of these data, along with the data
flows of commercial transactions, are purchased, aggregated,
analyzed, packaged, and sold by data brokers who operate, in the
US at least, in secrecy – outside of statutory consumer protections and without consumers’ knowledge, consent, or rights of
privacy and due process (U.S. Committee on Commerce,
Science, and Transportation, 2013).
A fourth source of ‘big data,’ one that speaks to its
heterogeneous and trans-semiotic character, flows from private and public surveillance cameras, including everything
from smartphones to satellites, Street View to Google Earth.
Google has been at the forefront of this contentious data
domain. For example, Google Street View was launched in
2007 and encountered opposition around the world. German
authorities discovered that some Street View cars were
equipped with scanners to scrape data from private Wi-Fi
networks (O’Brien and Miller, 2013). According to the
Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (EPIC) summary of
a lawsuit filed by 38 states’ Attorneys General and the District
of Columbia, the court concluded that ‘the company engaged
in unauthorized collection of data from wireless networks,
including private WiFi networks of residential Internet users.’
The EPIC report summarizes a redacted version of an FCC
report revealing that ‘Google intentionally intercepted payload
data for business purposes and that many supervisors and
engineers within the company reviewed the code and the
design documents associated with the project’ (EPIC, 2014b).
According to the New York Times account of Google’s
eventual seven million dollar settlement of the case, ‘the search
company for the first time is required to aggressively police its
own employees on privacy issues …’ (Streitfeld, 2013). Street
View was restricted in many countries and continues to face
litigation over what claimants have characterized as ‘secret,’
‘illicit,’ and ‘illegal’ data gathering tactics in the US, Europe,
and elsewhere (Office of the Privacy Commission of Canada,
2010; O’Brien, 2012; Jammet, 2014).
In Street View, Google developed a declarative method
that it has repeated in other data ventures. This modus
operandi is that of incursion into undefended private territory until resistance is encountered. As one consumer watchdog summarized it for the New York Times, ‘Google puts
innovation ahead of everything and resists asking permission’ (Streitfeld, 2013; see also Burdon and McKillop, 2013).
The firm does not ask if it can photograph homes for its
databases. It simply takes what it wants. Google then
exhausts its adversaries in court or eventually agrees to pay
fines that represent a negligible investment for a significant
return.4 It is a process that Siva Vaihyanathan has called
‘infrastructure imperialism’ (Vaidhyanathan, 2011). EPIC
maintains a comprehensive online record of the hundreds of
cases launched against Google by countries, states, groups,
and individuals, and there are many more cases that never
become public (EPIC, 2014a, b).
These institutionally produced data flows represent the
‘supply’ side of the computer-mediated interface. With these
data alone it is possible to construct detailed individual
profiles. But the universality of computer-mediation has
occurred through a complex process of causation that includes
subjective activities too – the demand side of computermediation. Individual needs drove the accelerated penetration
curves of the Internet. In less than two decades after the
Mosaic web browser was released to the public, enabling easy
access to the World Wide Web, a 2010 BBC poll found that
Big other S Zuboff
79% of people in 26 countries considered Internet access to be
a fundamental human right (BBC, 2010).
Outside the market-based hierarchical spaces of the workplace, Internet access, indexing, and search meant that individuals were finally free to pursue the resources they needed for
effective life unimpeded by the monitoring, metrics, insecurity,
role requirements, and secrecy imposed by the firm and its logic
of accumulation. Individual needs for self-expression, voice,
influence, information, learning, empowerment, and connection
summoned all sorts of new capabilities into existence in just a
few years: Google’s searches, iPod’s music, Facebook’s pages,
YouTube’s videos, blogs, networks, communities of friends,
strangers, and colleagues, all reaching out beyond the old
institutional and geographical boundaries in a kind of exultation
of hunting and gathering and sharing information for every
purpose or none at all. It was mine, and I could do with it what I
5 These subjectivities of self-determination found expression in a new networked individual sphere characterized by what
Benkler (2006) aptly summarized as non-market forms of ‘social
These non-market activities are a fifth principal source of
‘big data’ and the origin of what Constantiou and Kallinikos
(2014) refer to as its ‘everydayness.’ ‘Big data’ are constituted by
capturing small data from individuals’ computer-mediated
actions and utterances in their pursuit of effective life. Nothing
is too trivial or ephemeral for this harvesting: Facebook ‘likes,’
Google searches, emails, texts, photos, songs, and videos, location, communication patterns, networks, purchases, movements,
every click, misspelled word, page view, and more. Such data are
acquired, datafied, abstracted, aggregated, analyzed, packaged,
sold, further analyzed and sold again. These data flows have been
labeled by technologists as ‘data exhaust.’ Presumably, once the
data are redefined as waste material, their extraction and eventual
monetization are less likely to be contested.
Google became the largest and most successful ‘big data’
company, because it is the most visited website and therefore has
the largest data exhaust. Like many other born-digital firms,
Google rushed to meet the waves of pent-up demand that
flooded the networked individual sphere in the first years of the
World Wide Web. It was a heroic exemplar of individual
empowerment in the quest for effective life. But as pressures
for profit mounted, Google’s leaders were concerned about the
effect that fees-for-service might have on user growth. They
opted instead for an advertising model. The new approach
depended upon the acquisition of user data as the raw material
for proprietary analyses and algorithm production that could
sell and target advertising through a unique auction model with
ever more precision and success. As Google’s revenues rapidly
grew, they motivated ever more comprehensive data collection.6
The new science of big data analytics exploded, driven largely by
Google’s spectacular success.
Eventually it became clear that Google’s business is the
auction business, and its customers are advertisers (see useful
discussions of this turning point in Auletta, 2009;
Vaidhyanathan, 2011; and Lanier, 2013). AdWords, Google’s
algorithmic auction method for selling online advertising,
analyzes massive amounts of data to determine which advertisers get which one of 11 sponsored links on each results page.
In a 2009 Wired article on ‘Googlenomics,’ Google’s Varian
commented, ‘Why does Google give away products … ?
Anything that increases Internet use ultimately enriches
Google …’ The article continues, ‘… more eyeballs on the
Web lead inexorably to more ad sales for Google … And since
prediction and analysis are so crucial to AdWords, every bit of
data, no matter how seemingly trivial, has potential value’
(Levy, 2009). The theme is reiterated in Mayer-Schönberger
and Cukier’s Big Data: ‘Many companies design their systems
so that they can harvest data exhaust … Google is the
undisputed leader … every action a user performs is considered a signal to be analyzed and fed back into the system’
(2013: 113). This helps explain why Google outbid all
competitors for the privilege of providing free Wi-Fi to
Starbuck’s 3 billion yearly customers (Schmarzo, 2014). More
users produce more exhaust that improves the predictive value
of analyses and results in more lucrative auctions. What
matters is quantity not quality. Another way of saying this is
that Google is ‘formally indifferent’ to what its users say or do,
as long as they say it and do it in ways that Google can capture
and convert into data.
This ‘formal indifference’ is a prominent, perhaps decisive,
characteristic of the emerging logic of accumulation under
examination here. The second term in Varian’s phrase,
‘extraction,’ also sheds light on the social relations implied by
formal indifference. First, and most obvious, extraction is a
one-way process, not a relationship. Extraction connotes a
‘taking from’ rather than either a ‘giving to,’ or a reciprocity of
‘give and take.’ The extractive processes that make big data
possible typically occur in the absence of dialogue or consent,
despite the fact that they signal both facts and subjectivities of
individual lives. These subjectivities travel a hidden path to
aggregation and decontextualization, despite the fact that they
are produced as intimate and immediate, tied to individual
projects and contexts (Nissembaum, 2011). Indeed, it is the
status of such data as signals of subjectivities that makes them
most valuable for advertisers. For Google and other ‘big data’
aggregators, however, the data are merely bits. Subjectivities
are converted into objects that repurpose the subjective for
commodification. Individual users’ meanings are of no interest to Google or other firms in this chain. In this way, the
methods of production of ‘big data’ from small data and the
ways in which ‘big data’ are valued reflect the formal
indifference that characterizes the firm’s relationship to its
populations of ‘users.’ Populations are the sources from which
data extraction proceeds and the ultimate targets of the
utilities such data produce.
Formal indifference is evident in the aggressiveness with
which Google pursues its interests in extracting signals of
individual subjectivities. In these extractive activities it follows
the Street View model: incursions into legally and socially
undefended territory until resistance is encountered. Its
practices appear designed to be undetectable or at least
obscure, and had it not been for NSA whistleblower Edward
Snowden aspects of its operations, especially as they overlap
state security interests, would still be hidden. Most of what was
known about Google’s practices erupted from the conflicts it
produced (Angwin, 2014). For example, Google has faced legal
opposition and social protest in relation to claims of (1) the
scanning of email, including those of non-Gmail users and those
of students using its educational apps (Herold, 2014; Plummer,
2014), (2) the capture of voice communications (Menn
et al., 2010), (3) bypassing privacy settings (Angwin, 2012;
Big other S Zuboff
Owen, 2014), (4) unilateral practices of data bundling across
its online services (CNIL, 2014; Doyle, 2013), (5) its extensive
retention of search data (Anderson, 2010; O’Brien and
Crampton, 2007), (6) its tracking of smartphone location data
(Mick, 2011; Snelling, 2014), and (7) its wearable technologies
and facial recognition capabilities (EPIC, 2014a, https://epic.
org/privacy/google/glass/). These contested data gathering
moves face substantial opposition in the EU as well as the US
(Barker and Fontanella-Khan, 2014; Gabriel, 2014; Garside,
2014; Kopczynski, 2014; Mance et al., 2014; Steingart, 2014;
‘Extraction’ summarizes the absence of structural reciprocities between the firm and its populations. This fact alone lifts
Google, and other participants in its logic of accumulation, out
of the historical narrative of Western market democracies. For
example, the 20th-century corporation canonized by scholars
like Berle and Means (1991) and Chandler Jr (1977) originated
in and was sustained by deep interdependencies with its
populations. The form and its bosses had many failings and
produced many violent facts that have been well documented,
but I focus here on a different point. That market form
intrinsically valued its populations of newly modernizing
individuals as its source of employees and customers; it
depended upon its populations in ways that led over time to
institutionalized reciprocities. In return for its rigors, the form
offered a quid pro quo that was consistent with the selfunderstanding and demand characteristics of its populations.
On the inside were durable employment systems, career
ladders, and steady increases in wages and benefits for more
workers (Sklar, 1988). On the outside were the dramas of
access to affordable goods and services for more consumers
The ‘five dollar day’ was emblematic of this systemic logic,
recognizing as it did that the whole enterprise rested upon a
consuming population. The firm, Ford realized, had to value
the worker-consumer as a fundamental unity and the essential
component of a new mass production capitalism. This social
contract hearkened back to Adam Smith’s original insights
into the productive reciprocities of capitalism, in which price
increases were balanced with wage increases, ‘so that the
labourer may still be able to purchase that quantity of those
necessary articles which the state of the demand for labour …
requires that he should have’ (Smith, 1994: 939–940). It was
these reciprocities that helped constitute a broad middle class
with steady income growth and a rising standard of living.
Indeed, considered from the vantage point of the last 30-plus
years during which this market form was systematically
deconstructed, its embeddedness in the social order through
these structural reciprocities appears to have been one of its
most salient features (Davis, 2011, 2013).
Google and the ‘big data’ project represent a break with this
past. Its populations are no longer necessary as the source of
customers or employees. Advertisers are its customers along
with other intermediaries who purchase its data analyses.
Google employs only about 48,000 people as of this writing,
and is known to have thousands of applicants for every job
opening. (As contrast: at the height of its power in 1953,
General Motors was the world’s largest private employer.)
Google, therefore, has little interest in its users as employees.
This pattern is true of hyperscale high tech companies
that achieve growth mainly by leveraging automation. For
example, the top three Silicon Valley companies in 2014 had
revenues of $247 billion, only 137,000 employees, and a
combined market capitalization of $1.09 trillion. In contrast,
even as late as 1990, the three top Detroit automakers
produced revenues of $250 billion with 1.2 million employees
and a combined market capitalization of $36 billion (Manyika
and Chui, 2014).
This structural independence of the firm from its populations is a matter of exceptional importance in light of the
historical relationship between market capitalism and democracy. For example, Acemoglu and Robinson elaborate the
mutual structuring of (1) early industrial capitalism’s dependency on the masses, (2) prosperity, and (3) the rise of
democracy in 19th-century Britain. Examining that era’s
successful new market forms and the accompanying shift
toward democratic institutions they observe, ‘Clamping down
on popular demands and undertaking a coup against inclusive
political institutions would … destroy … gains, and the elites
opposing greater democratization and greater inclusiveness
might find themselves among those losing their fortunes from
this destruction’ (2012: 313–314). Google bears no such risks.
On the contrary, despite its role as the ‘chief utility for the
World Wide Web’ (Vaidhyanathan, 2011: 17) and its substantial investments in technologies with explosive social
consequences such as artificial intelligence, robotics, facial
recognition, wearables, nanotechnology, smart devices, and
drones, Google has not been subject to any meaningful public
oversight (see e.g. the discussion in Vaidhyanathan, 2011: 44–
50; see also Finamore and Dutta, 2014; Gibbs, 2014; Trotman,
2014; Waters, 2014). In an open letter to Europe, Google
Chairperson Eric Schmidt recently expressed his frustration
with the prospect of public oversight, characterizing it as
‘heavy-handed regulation’ and threatening that it would create
‘serious economic dangers’ for Europe (Schmidt, 2014).
Google’s formal indifference toward and functional distance
from populations is further institutionalized in the necessities
of ‘analysis’ that Varian emphasizes. Google is the pioneer of
hyperscale. Like other hyperscale businesses – Facebook,
Twitter, Alibaba, and a growing list of high volume information businesses such as telecoms and global payments firms –
data centers require millions of ‘virtual servers’ that exponentially increase computing capabilities without requiring substantial expansion of physical space, cooling, or electrical
power demands.7 Hyperscale businesses exploit digital marginal cost economics to achieve scale quickly at costs that
approach zero.8 In addition to these material capabilities,
Varian notes that analysis requires data scientists who have
mastered the new methods associated with predictive analytics, reality mining, patterns-of-life analysis, and so forth.
These highly specialized material and knowledge requirements further separate subjective meaning from objective
result. In doing so, they eliminate the need for, or possibility
of, feedback loops between the firm and its populations. The
data travel through many phases of production, only to return
to their source in a second phase of extraction in which the
objective is no longer data but revenue. The cycle then begins
again in the form of new computer-mediated transactions.
This examination of Varian’s combination of data, extraction, and analysis begins to suggest some key features of the
new logic of accumulation associated with big data and
Big other S Zuboff
spearheaded by Google. First, revenues depend upon data
assets appropriated through ubiquitous automated operations.
These constitute a new asset class: surveillance assets. Critics of
surveillance capitalism might characterize such assets as
‘stolen goods’ or ‘contraband’ as they were taken, not given,
and do not produce, as I shall argue below, appropriate
reciprocities. The cherished culture of social production in
the networked individual sphere relies on the very tools that
are now the primary vehicles for the surveillance-based
appropriation of the most lucrative data exhaust. These
surveillance assets attract significant investment that can be
called surveillance capital. Google has, so far, triumphed in the
networked world through the pioneering construction of this
new market form that is a radically disembedded and extractive variant of information capitalism, one that can be
identified as surveillance capitalism. This new market form
has quickly developed into the default business model for
most online companies and startups, where valuations routinely depend upon ‘eyeballs’ rather than revenue as a predictor
of remunerative surveillance assets.
Monitoring and contracts
Varian says, ‘Because transactions are now computer
mediated, we can observe behavior that was previously
unobservable and write contracts on it. This enables transactions that were simply not feasible before … Computermediated transactions have enabled new business models …’
(2014: 30). Varian offers examples: If someone stops making
monthly car payments, the lender can ‘instruct the vehicular
monitoring system not to allow the car to be started and to
signal the location where it can be picked up.’ Insurance
companies, he suggests, can rely on similar monitoring
systems to check if customers are driving safely and thus
determine whether or not to maintain their insurance or pay
claims. He also suggests that one can hire an agent in a remote
location to perform tasks and use data from their smartphones
– geolocation, time stamping, photos – to ‘prove’ that they
actually performed according to the contract.
Varian does not appear to realize that what he is celebrating
here is not new contract forms but rather the ‘un-contract.’
His version of a computer-mediated world transcends the
contract form by stripping away governance and the rule of
law. Varian appears to be aiming for what Oliver Williamson
calls ‘a condition of contract utopia’ (1985: 67). In Williamson’s transaction economics, contracts exist to mitigate the
inevitability of uncertainty. They operate to economize on
‘bounded rationality’ and safeguard against ‘opportunism’ –
both intractable conditions of contracts in the real world of
human endeavor. He observes that certainty requires
‘unbounded rationality’ derived from ‘unrestricted cognitive
competence,’ which in turn derives from ‘fully described’
adaptations to ‘publicly observable’ contingent events.
Williamson notes that such conditions inhere to ‘a world of
planning’ rather than to ‘the world of governance’ in which
‘other things being equal … relations that feature personal
trust will survive greater stress and will display greater
adaptability’ (31–32, 63).
Varian’s vision of the uses of computer-mediated transactions empties the contract of uncertainty. It eliminates the
need for – and therefore the possibility to develop – trust.
Another way of saying this is that contracts are lifted from the
social and reimagined as machine processes. Consensual
participation in the values from which legitimate authority is
derived, along with free will and reciprocal rights and obligations, are traded in for the universal equivalent of the prisoner’s electronic ankle bracelet. Authority, which I have
elsewhere described as ‘the spiritual dimension of power,’
relies on social construction animated by shared foundational
values. In Varian’s economy, authority is supplanted by
technique, what I have called ‘the material dimension of
power,’ in which impersonal systems of discipline and control
produce certain knowledge of human behavior independent of
consent (Zuboff, 1988). This subject deserves a more detailed
exploration than is possible here, so I limit myself to a few key
In describing this ‘new use,’ Varian lays claim to vital
political territory for the regime of surveillance capitalism. From
Locke to Durkheim, the contract and the rule of law that
supports it have been understood as derived from the social
and the trust and organic solidarity of which the social is an
effect (Durkheim, 1964: 215; Locke, 2010: 112–115, 339). For
Weber, ‘the most essential feature of modern substantive law,
especially private law is the greatly increased significance of legal
transactions, particularly contracts, as a source of claims guaranteed by legal coercion … one can … designate the contemporary type of society … as a “contractual” one’ (1978: 669).
As Hannah Arendt suggests, ‘the great variety of contract
theories since the Romans attests to the fact that the power of
making promises has occupied the center of political thought
over the centuries.’ Most vivid is the operation of the contract
as it enhances the mastery of individuals and the resilience of
society. These goods derive precisely from the unpredictability
‘which the act of making promises at least partially dispels …’
For Arendt, human fallibility in the execution of contracts is
the price of freedom. The impossibility of perfect control
within a community of equals is the consequence of ‘plurality
and reality … the joy of inhabiting together with others a
world whose reality is guaranteed for each by the presence of
all.’ Arendt insists that ‘the force of mutual promise or
contract’ is the only alternative ‘to a mastery which relies on
domination of one’s self and rule over others; it corresponds
exactly to the existence of freedom which was given under the
condition of non-sovereignty’ (1998: 244).
In contrast to Arendt, Varian’s vision of a computermediated world strikes me as an arid wasteland – not a
community of equals bound through laws in the inevitable
and ultimately fruitful human struggle with uncertainty. In
this futurescape, the human community has already failed. It
is a place adapted to the normalization of chaos and terror
where the last vestiges of trust have long since withered and
died. Human replenishment from the failures and triumphs of
asserting predictability and exercising over will in the face of
natural uncertainty gives way to the blankness of perpetual
compliance. Rather than enabling new contractual forms,
these arrangements describe the rise of a new universal
architecture existing somewhere between nature and God that
I christen Big Other. It is a ubiquitous networked institutional
regime that records, modifies, and commodifies everyday
experience from toasters to bodies, communication to
thought, all with a view to establishing new pathways to
monetization and profit. Big Other is the sovereign power of
a near future that annihilates the freedom achieved by the rule
of law. It is a new regime of independent and independently
Big other S Zuboff
controlled facts that supplants the need for contracts, governance, and the dynamism of a market democracy. Big Other is
the 21st-century incarnation of the electronic text that aspires
to encompass and reveal the comprehensive immanent facts of
market, social, physical, and biological behaviors. The institutional processes that constitute the architecture of Big Other
can be imagined as the material instantiation of Hayek’s
‘extended order’ come to life in the explicated transparency
These processes reconfigure the structure of power, conformity, and resistance inherited from mass society and
symbolized for over half a century as Big Brother. Power can
no longer be summarized by that totalitarian symbol of
centralized command and control. Even the panopticon of
Bentham’s design, which I used as a central metaphor in my
earlier work (Zuboff, 1988, Ch. 9,10), is prosaic compared to
this new architecture. The panopticon was a physical design
that privileged a single point of observation. The anticipatory
conformity it induced required the cunning production of
specific behaviors while one was inside the panopticon, but
that behavior could be set aside once one exited that physical
place. In the 1980s it was an apt metaphor for the hierarchical
spaces of the workplace. In the world implied by Varian’s
assumptions, habitats inside and outside the human body are
saturated with data and produce radically distributed opportunities for observation, interpretation, communication, influence, prediction, and ultimately modification of the totality of
action. Unlike the centralized power of mass society, there is
no escape from Big Other. There is no place to be where the
Other is not.
In this world of no escape, the chilling effects of anticipatory
conformity9 give way as the mental agency and self-possession
of anticipation is gradually submerged into a new kind of
automaticity. Anticipatory conformity assumes a point of
origin in consciousness from which a choice is made to
conform for the purposes of evasion of sanctions and social
camouflage. It also implies a difference, or at least the
possibility of a difference, between the behavior one would
have performed and the behavior one chooses to perform as
an instrumental solution to invasive power. In a world of Big
Other, without avenues of escape, the agency implied in the
work of anticipation is gradually submerged into a new kind of
automaticity – a lived experience of pure stimulus-response.
Conformity is no longer a 20th century-style act of submission
to the mass or group, no loss of self to the collective produced
by fear or compulsion, no psychological craving for acceptance and belonging. Conformity now disappears into the
mechanical order of things and bodies, not as action but as
result, not cause but effect. Each one of us may follow a
distinct path, but that path is already shaped by the financial
and, or, ideological interests that imbue Big Other and invade
every aspect of ‘one’s own’ life. False consciousness is no
longer produced by the hidden facts of class and their relation
to production, but rather by the hidden facts of commoditized
behavior modification. If power was once identified with the
ownership of the means of production, it is now identified
with ownership of the means of behavioral modification.
Indeed, there is little difference between the ineffable
‘extended order’ of the neoliberal ideal and the ‘vortex of
stimuli’ responsible for all action in the vision of the classical
theorists of behavioral psychology. In both worldviews,
human autonomy is irrelevant and the lived experience of
psychological self-determination is a cruel illusion. Varian
adds a new dimension to both hegemonic ideals in that now
this ‘God view’ can be fully explicated, specified, and known,
eliminating all uncertainty. The result is that human persons
are reduced to a mere animal condition, bent to serve the new
laws of capital imposed on all behavior through an implacable
feed of ubiquitous fact-based real-time records of all things
and creatures. Hannah Arendt treated these themes decades
ago with remarkable insight as she lamented the devolution of
our conception of ‘thought’ to something that is accomplished
by a ‘brain’ and is therefore transferable to ‘electronic
The last stage of the laboring society, the society of jobholders,
demands of its members a sheer automatic functioning, as
though individual life had actually been submerged in the
over-all life process of the species and the only active decision
still required of the individual were to let go, so to speak, to
abandon his individuality, the still individually sensed pain
and trouble of living, and acquiesce in a dazed, ‘tranquilized,’
functional type of behavior. The trouble with modern theories
of behaviorism is not that they are wrong but that they could
become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society. It is
quite conceivable that the modern age – which began with
such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human
activity – may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity
history has ever known.
(Arendt, 1998: 322)
Surveillance capitalism establishes a new form of power in
which contract and the rule of law are supplanted by the
rewards and punishments of a new kind of invisible hand.
A more complete theorization of this new power, while a
central concern of my new work, exceeds the scope of this
article. I do want to highlight, however, a few key themes that
can help us appreciate the unique character of surveillance
According to Varian, people agree to the ‘invasion of
privacy’ represented by Big Other if they ‘get something they
want in return … a mortgage, medical advice, legal advice – or
advice from your personal digital assistant’ (2014: 30). He is
quoted in a similar vein by a PEW Research report, ‘Digital
Life in 2025:’ ‘There is no putting the genie back in the bottle
… Everyone will expect to be tracked and monitored, since the
advantages, in terms of convenience, safety, and services, will
be so great … continuous monitoring will be the norm (PEW
Research, 2014). How to establish the validity of this assertion?
To what extent are these supposed reciprocities the product of
genuine consent? This question opens the way to another
radical, perhaps even revolutionary, aspect of the politics of
surveillance capitalism. This concerns the distribution of
privacy rights and with it the knowledge of and choice to
accede to Big Other.
Covert data capture is often regarded as a violation,
invasion, or erosion of privacy rights, as Varian’s language
suggests. In the conventional narrative of the privacy threat,
institutional secrecy has grown, and individual privacy rights
have been eroded. But that framing is misleading, because
privacy and secrecy are not opposites but rather moments in a
sequence. Secrecy is an effect of privacy, which is its cause.
Exercising one’s right to privacy produces choice, and one can
Big other S Zuboff
choose to keep something secret or to share it. Privacy rights
thus confer decision rights; privacy enables a decision as to
where one wants to be on the spectrum between secrecy and
transparency in each situation. US Supreme Court Justice
Douglas articulated this view of privacy in 1967: ‘Privacy
involves the choice of the individual to disclose or to reveal
what he believes, what he thinks, what he possesses …’
(Warden v. Hayden, 387 US 294,323, 1967, Douglas, J.,
dissenting, quoted in Farahany, 2012: 1271).
The work of surveillance, it appears, is not to erode privacy
rights but rather to redistribute them. Instead of many people
having some privacy rights, these rights have been concentrated within the surveillance regime. Surveillance capitalists
have extensive privacy rights and therefore many opportunities for secrets. These are increasingly used to deprive
populations of choice in the matter of what about their lives
remains secret. This concentration of rights is accomplished in
two ways. In the case of Google, Facebook, and other
exemplars of surveillance capitalism, many of their rights
appear to come from taking others’ without asking – in
conformance with the Street View model. Surveillance capitalists have skillfully exploited a lag in social evolution as the
rapid development of their abilities to surveil for profit outrun
public understanding and the eventual development of law
and regulation that it produces. In result, privacy rights, once
accumulated and asserted, can then be invoked as legitimation
for maintaining the obscurity of surveillance operations.10
The mechanisms of this growing concentration of privacy
rights and its implications received significant scrutiny from
legal scholars in the US and Europe, even before Edward
Snowden accelerated the discussion. This is a rich and growing
literature that raises many substantial concerns associated
with the anti-democratic implications of the concentration of
privacy rights among private and public surveillance actors
(Schwartz, 1989; Solove, 2007; Michaels, 2008; Palfrey, 2008;
Semitsu, 2011; Richards, 2013; Calo, 2014; Reidenberg, 2014;
Richards and King, 2014). The global reach and implications
of this extraction of rights – as well as data – present many
challenges for conceptualization, including how to overcome
the very secrecy that makes them problematic in the first
place. Further, the dynamics I describe occur in what was until
quite recently a blank area – one that is not easily captured by
our existing social, economic, and political categories. The
new business operations frequently elude existing mental
models and defy conventional expectations.
These arguments suggest that the logic of accumulation that
undergirds surveillance capitalism is not wholly captured by the
conventional institutional terrain of the private firm. What is
accumulated here is not only surveillance assets and capital, but
also rights. This occurs through a unique assemblage of business
processes that operate outside the auspices of legitimate democratic mechanisms or the traditional market pressures of consumer reciprocity and choice. It is accomplished through a form
of unilateral declaration that most closely resembles the social
relations of a pre-modern absolutist authority. In the context of
this new market form that I call surveillance capitalism, hyperscale becomes a profoundly anti-democratic threat.
Surveillance capitalism thus qualifies as a new logic of
accumulation with a new politics and social relations that
replaces contracts, the rule of law, and social trust with the
sovereignty of Big Other. It imposes a privately administered
compliance regime of rewards and punishments that is
sustained by a unilateral redistribution of rights. Big Other
exists in the absence of legitimate authority and is largely free
from detection or sanction. In this sense Big Other may be
described as an automated coup from above: not a coup d’état,
but rather a coup des gens.
Personalization and communication
Varian claims that ‘nowadays, people have come to expect
personalized search results and ads.’ He says that Google
wants to do even more. Instead of having to ask Google
questions, it should ‘know what you want and tell you before
you ask the question.’ ‘That vision,’ he asserts, ‘has now been
realized by Google Now …’ Varian concedes that ‘Google
Now has to know a lot about you and your environment to
provide these services. This worries some people’ (2014: 28).
However, Varian reasons that people share such knowledge
with doctors, lawyers, and accountants whom they trust. He
then continues, ‘Why am I willing to share all this private
information? Because I get something in return …’ (2014: 28).
In fact, surveillance capitalism is the precise opposite of the
trust-based relationships to which Varian refers. Doctors,
attorneys, and other trusted professionals are held to account
by mutual dependencies and reciprocities overlain by the force
of professional sanction and public law. Google, as we have seen,
does not bear such burdens. Its formal indifference and distance
from ‘users,’ combined with its current freedom from meaningful regulation, sanction, or law, buffer it and other surveillance capitalists from the consequences of mistrust. Instead of
Varian’s implied reciprocities, the coup des gens introduces
substantial new asymmetries of knowledge and power.
For example, Google knows far more about its populations
than they know about themselves. Indeed, there are no means
by which populations can cross this divide, given the material,
intellectual, and proprietary hurdles required for data analysis
and the absence of feedback loops. Another asymmetry is
reflected in the fact that the typical user has little or no
knowledge of Google’s business operations, the full range of
personal data that they contribute to Google’s servers, the
retention of those data, or how those data are instrumentalized
and monetized. It is by now well known that users have few
meaningful options for privacy self-management (for a recent
review of the ‘consent dilemma,’ see Solove, 2013). Surveillance capitalism thrives on the public’s ignorance.
These asymmetries in knowledge are sustained by asymmetries of power. Big Other is institutionalized in the automatic
undetectable functions of a global infrastructure that is also
regarded by most people as essential for basic social participation. The tools on offer by Google and other surveillance
capitalist firms respond to the needs of beleaguered second
modernity individuals – like the apple in the garden, once
tasted they are impossible to live without. When Facebook
crashed in some US cities for a few hours during the summer
of 2014, many Americans called their local emergency services
at 911 (LA Times, 2014). Google’s tools are not the objects of a
value exchange. They do not establish constructive producerconsumer reciprocities. Instead they are the ‘hooks’ that lure
users into extractive operations and turn ordinary life into the
daily renewal of a 21st-century Faustian pact. This social
dependency is at the heart of the surveillance project. Powerful
felt needs for effective life vie against the inclination to resist
the surveillance project. This conflict produces a kind of
Big other S Zuboff
psychic numbing that inures people to the realities of being
tracked, parsed, mined, and modified – or disposes them to
rationalize the situation in resigned cynicism (Hoofnagle et al.,
2010). The key point here is that this Faustian deal is
fundamentally illegitimate; it is a choice that –21st-century
individuals should not have to make. In the world of
surveillance capitalism, the Faustian pact required to ‘get
something in return’ eliminates the older entanglements of
reciprocity and trust in favor of a wary resentment, frustration, active defense, and, or, desensitization.
Varian’s confidence in Google Now appears to be buoyed
by the facts of inequality. He counsels that the way to predict
the future is to observe what rich people have, because that is
what the middle class and the poor will want too. ‘What do
rich people have now?’ he asks. ‘Personal assistants’ is his
answer. The solution? ‘That’s Google Now (2014: 29),’ he says.
Varian’s bet is that Google Now will be so vital a resource in
the struggle for effective life that ordinary people will accede to
the ‘invasions of privacy’ that are its quid pro quo.
In this formulation Varian exploits a longstanding insight
of capitalism but bends it to the objectives of the surveillance
project. Adam Smith wrote insightfully on the evolution of
luxuries into necessities. Goods in use among the upper class
and deemed to be luxuries can in time be recast as ‘necessaries,’ he noted. The process occurs as ‘the established rules of
decency’ change to reflect new customs and patterns introduced by elites. These changing rules both reflect and trigger
new lower cost production methods that transform former
luxuries into affordable necessities (Smith, 1994: 938–939).
Scholars of early modern consumption describe the ‘consumer
boom’ that ignited the first industrial revolution in late 18thcentury Britain as new middle-class families began to buy the
sorts of goods – china, furniture, textiles – that only the rich
had enjoyed. Historian Neil McKendrick describes this new
‘propensity to consume … unprecedented in the depth to
which it penetrated the lower reaches of society …’
(McKendrick, 1982: 11) as luxuries were reinterpreted as
‘decencies’ and those were reinterpreted as ‘necessities’
(Weatherill, 1993). In 1767, the political economist Nathaniel
Forster worried that ‘fashionable luxury’ was spreading ‘like a
contagion,’ as he complained of the ‘perpetual restless ambition in each of the inferior ranks to raise themselves to the
level of those immediately above them’ (Forster, 1767: 41).
Historically, this powerful evolutionary characteristic of
demand led to the expansion of production, jobs, higher
wages, and lower cost goods. Varian has no such reciprocities
in mind. Instead, he regards this mechanism of demand
growth as the inevitable force that will push ordinary people
into Google Now’s Faustian pact of ‘necessaries’ in return for
Varian is confident that psychic numbing will ease the way
for this unsavory drama. He writes, ‘Of course there will be
challenges. But these digital assistants will be so useful that
everyone will want one, and the statements you read today
about them will just seem quaint and old fashioned’ (2014:
29). But perhaps not. There is a growing body of evidence to
suggest that people in many countries may resist the coup des
gens as trust in the surveillance capitalists is hollowed out by
fresh outbreaks of evidence that suggest the remorseless
prospect of Varian’s future society. These issues are now a
matter of serious political debate within Germany and the EU
where proposals to ‘break up’ Google are already being
discussed (Mance et al., 2014; see also Barker and FontanellaKhan, 2014; Döpfner, 2014; Gabriel, 2014; Vasagar, 2014).
A recent survey by the Financial Times indicates that both
Europeans and Americans are substantially altering their
online behavior as they seek more privacy (Kwong, 2014).
One group of scholars behind a major study of youth online
behavior concludes that a ‘lack of knowledge’ rather than a
‘cavalier attitude toward privacy,’ as tech leaders have alleged,
is an important reason why large numbers of youth ‘engage
with the digital world in a seemingly unconcerned manner’
(Hoofnagle et al., 2010). New legal scholarship reveals the
consumer harm in lost privacy associated with Google and
surveillance capitalism (Newman, 2014). WikiLeaks founder,
Julian Assange, has published a sobering account of Google’s
leadership, politics, and global ambitions (Assange, 2014).
The PEW Research Center’s latest report on public perceptions of privacy in the post-Snowden Era indicates that 91% of
US adults agree or strongly agree that consumers have lost
control over their personal data, while only 55% agree or
strongly agree that they are willing to ‘share some information
about myself with companies in order to use online services
for free’ (Madden, 2014).
Because ‘big data’ analysis yields only correlational patterns,
Varian advises the need for continuous experiments that can
tease out issues of causality. Such experiments ‘are easy to do
on the web,’ assigning treatment and control groups based
on traffic, cookies, usernames, geographic areas, and so on
(2014: 29). Google has been so successful at experimentation
that they have shared their techniques with advertisers and
publishers. Facebook has consistently made inroads here too,
as it conducts experiments in modifying users’ behavior with
a view to eventually monetizing its knowledge, predictive
capability, and control. Whenever these experiments have
been revealed, however, they have ignited fierce public debate
(Bond et al., 2012; Flynn, 2014; Gapper, 2014; Goel, 2014;
Kramer et al., 2014; Lanier, 2014; Zittrain, 2014).
Varian’s enthusiasm for experimentation speaks to a larger
point, however. The business opportunities associated with
the new data flows entail a shift from the a posteriori analysis
to which Constantiou and Kallinikos (2014) refer, to the realtime observation, communication, analysis, prediction, and
modification of actual behavior now and soon (Foroohar,
2014; Gibbs, 2014; Lin, 2014; Trotman, 2014; Waters, 2014).
This entails another shift in the source of surveillance assets
from virtual behavior to actual behavior, while monetization
opportunities are refocused to blend virtual and actual behavior. This is a new business frontier comprised of knowledge
about real-time behavior that creates opportunities to intervene in and modify behavior for profit. The two entities at the
vanguard of this new wave of ‘reality mining,’ ‘patterns of life
analysis,’ and ‘predictive analytics’ are Google and the NSA.
As the White House report puts it, ‘there is a growing
potential for big data analytics to have an immediate effect
on a person’s surrounding environment or decisions being
made about his or her life’ (2014: 5). This is what I call the
reality business, and it reflects an evolution in the frontier of
data science from data mining to reality mining in which,
according to MIT’s Sandy Pentland, ‘sensors, mobile phones,
and other data capture devices’ provide the ‘eyes and ears’ of a
Big other S Zuboff
‘world-spanning living organism’ from ‘a God’s eye view’
(Pentland, 2009: 76, 80). This is yet another rendering of the
‘extended order,’ fully explicated by computer-mediation. The
electronic text of the informated workplace has morphed into a
world-spanning living organism – an inter-operational, behavior-modifying, market-making, and proprietary God view.
Nearly 70 years ago historian Karl Polanyi observed that the
market economies of the 19th and 20th centuries depended
upon three astonishing mental inventions that he called
‘fictions.’ The first was that human life can be subordinated
to market dynamics and be reborn as ‘labor.’ Second, nature
can be subordinated and reborn as ‘real estate.’ Third, that
exchange can be reborn as ‘money.’ The very possibility of
industrial capitalism depended upon the creation of these
three critical ‘fictional commodities.’ Life, nature, and
exchange were transformed into things, that they might be
profitably bought and sold. ‘[T]he commodity fiction,’ he
wrote, ‘disregarded the fact that leaving the fate of soil and
people to the market would be tantamount to annihilating
With the new logic of accumulation that is surveillance
capitalism, a fourth fictional commodity emerges as a dominant characteristic of market dynamics in the 21st century.
Reality itself is undergoing the same kind of fictional metamorphosis as did persons, nature, and exchange. Now ‘reality’
is subjugated to commodification and monetization and
reborn as ‘behavior.’ Data about the behaviors of bodies,
minds, and things take their place in a universal real-time
dynamic index of smart objects within an infinite global
domain of wired things. This new phenomenon produces the
possibility of modifying the behaviors of persons and things
for profit and control. In the logic of surveillance capitalism
there are no individuals, only the world-spanning organism
and all the tiniest elements within it.
Technologies are constituted by unique affordances, but the
development and expression of those affordances are shaped by
the institutional logics in which technologies are designed,
implemented, and used. This is, after all, the origin of the hack.
Hacking intends to liberate affordances from the institutional
logics in which they are frozen and redistribute them in
alternative configurations for new purposes. In the market
sphere, these circumscribing logics are logics of accumulation.
With this view in mind, my aim has been to begin to identify and
theorize the currently institutionalizing logic of accumulation
that produces hyperscale assemblages of objective and subjective
data about individuals and their habitats for the purposes of
knowing, controlling, and modifying behavior to produce new
varieties of commodification, monetization, and control.
The development of the Internet and methods to access the
World Wide Web spread computer mediation from bounded
sites of work and specialized action to global ubiquity both at
the institutional interface and in the intimate spheres of
everyday experience. High tech firms, led by Google, perceived
new profit opportunities in these facts. Google understood
that were it to capture more of these data, store them, and
analyze them, they could substantially affect the value of
advertising. As Google’s capabilities in this arena developed
and attracted historic levels of profit, it produced successively
ambitious practices that expand the data lens from past virtual
behavior to current and future actual behavior. New monetization opportunities are thus associated with a new global
architecture of data capture and analysis that produces
rewards and punishments aimed at modifying and commoditizing behavior for profit.
Many of the practices associated with capitalizing on these
newly perceived opportunities challenged social norms associated with privacy and are contested as violations of rights
and laws. In result, Google and other actors learned to obscure
their operations, choosing to invade undefended individual
and social territory until opposition is encountered, at which
point they can use their substantial resources to defend at low
cost what had already been taken. In this way, surveillance
assets are accumulated and attract significant surveillance
capital while producing their own surprising new politics and
These new institutional facts have been allowed to stand for
a variety of reasons: they were constructed at high velocity and
designed to be undetectable. Outside a narrow realm of
experts, few people understood their meaning. Structural
asymmetries of knowledge and rights made it impossible for
people to learn about these practices. Leading tech companies
were respected and treated as emissaries of the future. Nothing
in past experience prepared people for these new practices,
and so there were few defensive barriers for protection.
Individuals quickly came to depend upon the new information
and communication tools as necessary resources in the
increasingly stressful, competitive, and stratified struggle for
effective life. The new tools, networks, apps, platforms, and
media thus became requirements for social participation.
Finally, the rapid buildup of institutionalized facts – data
brokerage, data analytics, data mining, professional specializations, unimaginable cash flows, powerful network effects, state
collaboration, hyperscale material assets, and unprecedented
concentrations of information power – produced an overwhelming sense of inevitability.
These developments became the basis for a fully institutionalized new logic of accumulation that I have called surveillance capitalism. In this new regime, a global architecture of
computer mediation turns the electronic text of the bounded
organization into an intelligent world-spanning organism that
I call Big Other. New possibilities of subjugation are produced
as this innovative institutional logic thrives on unexpected and
illegible mechanisms of extraction and control that exile
persons from their own behavior.
Under these conditions, the division of learning and its
contests are civilizational in scope. To the question ‘who
participates?’ the answer is – those with the material, knowledge, and financial resources to access Big Other. To the
question ‘who decides?’ the answer is, access to Big Other is
decided by new markets in the commodification of behavior:
markets in behavioral control. These are composed of those
who sell opportunities to influence behavior for profit and
those who purchase such opportunities. Thus Google, for
example, may sell access to an insurance company, and this
company purchases the right to intervene in an information
loop in your car or your kitchen in order to increase its
revenues or reduce its costs. It may shut off your car, because
you are driving too fast. It may lock your fridge when you put
yourself at risk of heart disease or diabetes by eating too much
ice cream. You might then face the prospect of either higher
premiums or loss of coverage. Google’s Chief Economist Hal
Big other S Zuboff
Varian celebrates such possibilities as new forms of contract,
when in fact they represent the end of contracts. Google’s
rendering of information civilization replaces the rule of law
and the necessity of social trust as the basis for human
communities with a new life-world of rewards and punishments, stimulus and response. Surveillance capitalism offers a
new regime of comprehensive facts and compliance with facts.
It is, I have suggested, a coup from above – the installation of a
new kind of sovereign power.
The automated ubiquitous architecture of Big Other, its
derivation in surveillance assets, and its function as pervasive
surveillance, highlights other surprising new features of this
logic of accumulation. It undermines the historical relationship
between markets and democracies, as it structures the firm as
formally indifferent to and radically distant from its populations.
Surveillance capitalism is immune to the traditional reciprocities
in which populations and capitalists needed one another for
employment and consumption. In this new model, populations
are targets of data extraction. This radical disembedding from
the social is another aspect of surveillance capitalism’s antidemocratic character. Under surveillance capitalism, democracy
no longer functions as a means to prosperity; democracy
threatens surveillance revenues.
Will surveillance capitalism be the hegemonic logic of
accumulation in our time, or will it be an evolutionary deadend that cedes to other emerging information-based market
forms? What alternative trajectories to the future might be
associated with these competing forms? I suggest that the
prospects of information civilization rest on the answers to
these questions. There are many dimensions of surveillance
capitalism that require careful analysis and theorization if
we are to reckon with these prospects. One obvious dimension is the imbrication of public and private authority in the
surveillance project. Since Edward Snowden, we have
learned of the blurring of public and private boundaries in
surveillance activities including collaborations and constructive interdependencies between state security authorities and high tech firms. Another key set of issues involves
the relationship of surveillance capitalism – and its potential
competitors – to overarching global concerns such as
equality and climate disruptions that effect all our future
prospects. A third issue concerns the velocity of social
evolution compared to that at which the surveillance project
is institutionalized. It seems clear that the waves of lawsuits
breaking on the shores of the new surveillance fortress are
unlikely to alter the behavior of surveillance capitalists.
Were surveillance capitalists to abandon their contested
practices according to the demands of aggrieved parties, the
very logic of accumulation responsible for their rapid rise to
immense wealth and historic concentrations of power
would be undermined. The value of the steady flow of legal
actions is rather to establish new precedents and ultimately
new laws. The question is whether the lag in social evolution
can be remedied before the full consequences of the
surveillance project take hold.
Finally, and most important for all scholars and citizens, is
the fact that we are at the very beginning of the narrative that
will carry us toward new answers. The trajectory of this
narrative depends in no small measure on the scholars drawn
to this frontier project and the citizens who act in the knowledge that deception-induced ignorance is no social contract,
and freedom from uncertainty is no freedom.
1 For a recent example of this, see ‘JetBlue to Add Bag Fees, Cut
Legroom’ (Nicas, 2014).
2 See Braudel’s discussion on this point (1984: 620).
3 Consider that in 1986 there were 2.5 optimally compressed
exabytes, only 1% of which were digitized (Hilbert, 2013: 4). In
2000, only a quarter of the world’s stored information was digital
(Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, 2013: 9). By 2007, there were
around 300 optimally compressed exabytes with 94% digitized
(Hilbert, 2013: 4). Digitization and datafication (the application of
software that allows computers and algorithms to process and
analyze raw data) combined with new and cheaper storage
technologies produced 1200 exabytes of data stored worldwide
in 2013 with 98% digital content (Mayer-Schönberger and
Cukier, 2013: 9).
4 The EU Court’s 2014 ruling on the ‘right to be forgotten’ arguably
represents the first time that Google has been forced to
substantially alter its practices as an adaptation to regulatory
demands – the first chapter of what is sure to be an evolving story.
5 For an extended discussion of this theme, see Zuboff and Maxmin
(2002, especially chapters 4, 6, and 10).
6 With the competitive advantage of Google’s exponentially
expanding data capture, Google’s ad revenues jumped from $21
billion in 2008 to over $50 billion in 2013. By February 2014, 15
years after its founding, Google’s $400 billion dollar market value
edged out Exxon for the #2 spot in market capitalization, making
it the second richest company after Apple (Farzad, 2014).
7 Consider these facts in relation to Google and Facebook, the most
hyper of the hyperscale firms. Google processes four billion
searches a day. A 2009 presentation by Google engineer Jeff
Dean indicated that it was planning the capacity for ten million
servers and an exabyte of information. His technical article
published in 2008 described new analytics that allowed Google
to process 20 petabytes of data per day (1000 petabytes= 1
exabyte), or about 7 exabytes a year (Dean and Ghemawat, 2008;
Dean, 2009). One analyst observed that these numbers have likely
been substantially exceeded by now, ‘particularly given the
volume of data being uploaded to YouTube, which alone has 72h
worth of video uploaded every minute’ (Wallbank, 2012). As for
Facebook, it has more than a billion users. At the time of its float
on the US stock market in 2012, it claimed to have more than
seven billion photos uploaded each month and more than 100
petabytes of photos and videos stored in its servers (Ziegler,
8 Smaller firms without hyperscale revenues can leverage some of
these capabilities with cloud computing services (Manyika and
Chui, 2014; Münstermann et al., 2014).
9 See my discussion of anticipatory conformity in Zuboff (1988:
346–356). For an update, see recent research on Internet search
behavior in Marthews and Tucker (2014).
10 This process is apparantly exemplified in the US federal lawsuit
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About the author
Shoshana Zuboff is the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of
Business Administration (Emerita) and a Faculty Associate
at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard
Law School. She is currently completing a new book, Master
or Slave? The Fight for the Soul of Our Information Civilization (forthcoming, Public Affairs and Eichborn 2016). She is
also the author of In the Age of the Smart Machine: The
future of work and power and The Support Economy: Why
corporations are failing individuals and the next episode of
Big other S Zuboff