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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

Go deeper

Trump sues New York Times and his niece over tax report

Former President Trump hosting a boxing match in Hollywood, Florida on Sept. 11. Photo: Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

Former President Trump filed a $100 million lawsuit against the New York Times and his niece Mary Trump on Tuesday over the news outlet's 2018 reporting on his tax records, the Daily Beast first reported.

Details: The suit, filed in New York's Dutchess County, alleges NYT journalists "engaged in an insidious plot to obtain confidential and highly-sensitive records" and that they "convinced" Mary Trump to "smuggle records out of her attorney's office and turn them over to The Times."

Brazil's health minister tests positive for COVID during UN summit in N.Y.

President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro (L) and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga in Brasilia, Brazil, in May. Photo: Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Brazil's Health Minister Marcelo Queirog has tested positive for COVID-19 while in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), he confirmed Tuesday night.

Why it matters: Hours earlier, Queirog had accompanied Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to the UNGA. The Biden administration expressed concern last week that the gathering of world leaders could become a coronavirus "superspreader event."

House passes government funding, debt ceiling bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The House passed a bill on Tuesday to fund the government through early December, along with a measure to raise the debt ceiling through December 2022.

Why it matters: The stopgap measure, which needs to be passed to avoid a government shutdown when funding expires on Sept. 30, faces a difficult journey in the Senate where at least ten Republicans would need to vote in favor.