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The new data capitalism

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Around the world, companies big and small are feverishly plotting our future lifestyle — smart cities, driverless vehicles, wearable technology, internet-connected everything at home, and more, all of them activated by our voices and thoughts.

What's happening: For almost two decades, a tiny handful of companies — Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and China's Alibaba and Tencent — have sought to know every possible thing, public and private, in real time, about you and every other reachable individual on the planet — where they go, what they do, say, and feel.

Their product: Certain predictions about what we will do next, often set in motion using techniques of behavior modification.

The overall effect is so big that it amounts to an entirely new strain of capitalism, argues Shoshana Zuboff, an emeritus professor at Harvard Business School. She dubs it "surveillance capitalism."

  • Zuboff, author of "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism," distinguishes this new economic order from the old industrial capitalism with its core aim not of producing a tangible good, but predictions that Big Tech can sell.
  • Notwithstanding its eerie feel, many of the world's biggest legacy companies want in on the bonanza — the Detroit carmakers, banks, insurance providers, retailers, health care firms, educators, and anyone else who intersects with customer data.
  • The appeal is easy to grasp: Saddled with the low traditional multiples accorded by Wall Street to mere profitability, they are salivating at the possibility of a data-driven Silicon Valley valuation.

"It’s all over the place, embedding in every industry," Zuboff tells Axios.

The big picture: We have heard pieces of this thesis. At the Center for a New American Security, a new program tracks "High tech illiberalism," which mostly the state surveillance carried out by countries like China. Similarly, the British researcher Nicholas Wright has documented the rise of "digital authoritarianism."

  • How we have been caught unawares: In the first half of the 20th century, Europeans and Americans, watching early totalitarian power, thought it was imperialism. Similarly, Zuboff argues, surveillance capitalism is so new that people are simply unequipped to comprehend what they are seeing.
  • "We rely on concepts like 'monopoly' or 'privacy' to contest surveillance capitalist practices," she writes.
  • But this is a deliberate strategy by surveillance capitalists, who need people to be unaware for data vacuuming to work best — "all obfuscated and covered in euphemism," she told me in an email.

What's next: What unnerves Zuboff is a future society — led by corporations concerned with all-but guaranteed outcomes — that conditions humans to conform to a certain script. It would be a future "free of mistakes, accidents, and random messes" — and also shorn of the primacy of individuality and personal agency at the heart of the Enlightenment.

"The goal now is to automate us."
— Zuboff, in "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism"

But Zuboff says it does not have to be this way: "The big lie," she writes, "is that this is inevitable. We can easily imagine digital technology without surveillance capitalism."

  • "We are going to need laws that specifically outlaw the methods of surveillance capitalism."

Go deeper: The steady erosion of privacy at home