‘Surveillance capitalism’: How similar or different is it from traditional forms of surveillance?
On Saturday morning, after losing a close relative, I woke up, did my morning routine and then, opened YouTube. I got notified of a particular video on how to deal with loss. I clicked on it, listened, and it turned out to be helpful; I got to learn one thing or two. I remember saying to myself, “I needed this!” after watching the video. At that time, I thought it was a total coincidence. However, what if it was not? What if it was intended and predicted to be clicked on by me? What if there is “something” somewhere that collects information about us without explicitly telling it? What will that “thing” be called, and how will it function? So many questions to answer, and this article will try to do it by contemplating one specific subject: ‘surveillance capitalism’.
Before going further, it is necessary to clearly define what constitute both sides of the comparison first. What does qualify as ‘traditional forms of surveillance’? This article acknowledges that there is no ‘universal definition’ of what these traditional forms are. It depends on perspectives, timelines and how people analyse historical events periodically . However, the essay uses Michel Foucault’s book on “power and prisons”, but more specifically, his emphasis on panopticism to showcase what the ‘traditional form of surveillance’ entails.
The panopticon, a theory introduced by Bentham then later cited by Foucault (1995), is a system designed to discipline through surveillance with the main effect: “to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault, 1995). Three key takeaways are worth noticing in this main effect of the panopticon theory.
First, this operation was done on specific types of people: inmates. Second, those inmates were aware or conscious of a ‘permanent visibility’; in fact, it was the theory’s goal to do so: “for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed … he does not need in fact of being so” (Foucault, 1995). Just the fact that inmates know they are constantly being observed (whether true or not) is enough here. And lastly, the motive or purpose of this operation: upholding power and disciplining inmates. These were some characteristics of surveillance at that time. But they indeed have changed as decades went by.
Gary T. Max did portray the changing nature of surveillance and said that the fact that definitions have failed to capture what surveillance truly entails shows how rapidly this concept is changing. He quoted the Concise Oxford Dictionary on surveillance, which is: “Close observation, especially of a suspected person” (Marx, 2002). Again, we can see similar characteristics as the panopticon here: a specific group or individual is targeted like a ‘suspected person’.
This means that not everybody is meant to be under surveillance (at least not with the same rigour) if we consider this definition. Moreover, we have a ‘close observation’, which implies some level of distance constraints. All these are what was once thought to be surveillance; What we now can call ‘traditional forms of surveillance’. It differs from ‘surveillance capitalism’, and we are going to explore what it means next.
Shoshana Zuboff introduced surveillance capitalism as: “a new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales” (Zuboff, cited in Rosen, 2020). According to her, its aim is: “to predict and modify human behaviour as a means to produce revenue and market control” (Zuboff, 2015). She also mentioned that Google was the first to discover and consolidate it, then passed it to Facebook and scattered it over the internet afterwards (Zuboff, 2016).
“Cyberspace was its birthplace”, and she, later on, quoted what Eric Schmidt (Google Chairperson) and Jared Cohen (his co-author) said in their book on ‘the digital age’: “terrestrial laws do not truly bind the online world…it’s the world’s largest ungoverned space” (Zuboff, 2016). This is a lot of information on ‘’surveillance capitalism’ that needs to be unpacked one by one.
First, the objective has shifted from power and discipline (in traditional surveillance) to more profits and fortune making while manipulating people’s behaviour. Target, an American retail company, grew its revenues by billions after hiring a data analyst who would work to predict people’s likeliness to buy a product. “The company doesn’t break out figures for specific divisions, but between 2002 — when Pole was hired — and 2010, Target’s revenues grew from $44 billion to $67 billion” (Duhigg, 2012). This goes to show how beneficial this trend is.
It is not about security vs privacy anymore or governments wanting to discipline people who do not align with the community rules. Surveillance capitalism sicks to leverage our presence online, analyses the data trails we leave behind, and then understands our behaviours and tendencies, which are later manipulated to suit their supply chain.
Second, the ways these operations are carried out go beyond ‘close observation’. They now involve complex mechanisms and focus more on human experience, which turns out to be very valuable for them. “We’re living through a golden age of behavioural research. It’s amazing how much we can figure out about how people think now” (Siegel, cited in Duhigg, 2012)). One important thing to notice here is that it is no longer ‘suspected people’ or ‘inmates’ or any other type of specific individual. It is all of us ‘human beings and our behaviours that this new surveillance is after. As Zuboff puts it above, it claims “human experience as free row material”. On top of that, the way it is carried out is almost undetectable to humans.
It is becoming harder to understand what really happens with pictures we post online, the online purchases we make, or simple things like our Facebook feeds and how they are generated. In 2012, we learned that Facebook had the capacity to manipulate mood through an experiment done on its users (Meyer, 2014). Worth noticing here is the fact that users were not aware of what was going on, which means that Facebook was able to bypass their awareness and used their presence on the platform to undertake a whole experience. Target also was able to predict that a girl is pregnant before her father knew, just by analysing her purchase history (shift from heavily scented shampoo to less scented) (Hill, n.d.). All these are examples that show how undetectable surveillance capitalism is. Who would have known that corporations will use just a shift from one shampoo to another to learn more about you?
Lastly, the ubiquitous aspect of ‘surveillance capitalism’ is also widely palpable, especially with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). It seems as if it is almost impossible to go off the radar, unlike the traditional ways where people could try not to fall into targeted groups like ‘inmates. Now, everybody, everywhere, from home devices (smart TVs and fridges) to portable devices (mobile phones and smartwatches), all of them generate valuable data about us, information used by various corporations and governments mostly without our knowledge.
To conclude, this article seeks to clarify what the ‘traditional form of surveillance’ and ‘surveillance capitalism’ entails or how different they are. With the use of Michel Foucault’s book on ‘power and prison’, specifically the panopticism theory, we get to explore various aspects of ‘traditional forms of surveillance’. Then after, the essay presents three significant differences between the two forms of surveillance: The shift in the objective of surveillance (from power and discipline to predicting human behaviours and monetizing them), the ubiquitous and almost undetectable aspects of ‘surveillance capitalism’ compared to the traditional form of surveillance.
Duhigg, C. (2012, February 16). How Companies Learn Your Secrets.
The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html
Foucault, M. (1995). DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books.
Hill, K. (n.d.). How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father
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