In his 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, the economic historian Karl Polanyi told the story of modern capitalism as a “double movement” that led to both the expansion of the market and its restriction. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, old feudal restraints on commerce were abolished, and land, labor, and money came to be treated as commodities. But unrestrained capitalism ravaged the environment, damaged public health, and led to economic panics and depressions, and by the time Polanyi was writing, societies had reintroduced limits on the market.
Shoshana Zuboff, a professor emerita at the Harvard Business School, sees a new version of the first half of Polanyi’s double movement at work today with the rise of “surveillance capitalism,” a new market form pioneered by Facebook and Google. In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, she argues that capitalism is once again extending the sphere of the market, this time by claiming “human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.” With the rise of “ubiquitous computing” (the spread of computers into all realms of life) and the Internet of Things (the connection of everyday objects to the Internet), the extraction of data has become pervasive. We live in a world increasingly populated with networked devices that capture our communications, movements, behavior, and relationships, even our emotions and states of mind. And, Zuboff warns, surveillance capitalism has thus far escaped the sort of countermovement described by Polanyi.
Networked devices capture our communications, movements, behavior, and relationships.
Zuboff’s book is a brilliant, arresting analysis of the digital economy and a plea for a social awakening about the enormity of the changes that technology is imposing on political and social life. Most Americans see the threats posed by technology companies as matters of privacy. But Zuboff shows that surveillance capitalism involves more than the accumulation of personal data on an unprecedented scale. The technology firms and their experts—whom Zuboff labels “the new priesthood”—are creating
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