Capitalism’s New Clothes

In a series of remarkably prescient articles, the first of which was published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in the summer of 2013, Shoshana Zuboff pointed to an alarming phenomenon: the digitization of everything was giving technology firms immense social power.

The mismatch between the possible and the real has framed the intellectual context in which Zuboff—previously cautiously optimistic about both capitalism and technology—constructed her theory of surveillance capitalism, the darkest and most dystopian tool in her intellectual arsenal to date.

The depressing conclusions of her latest book are a far cry from what Zuboff was saying just a decade ago. As late as 2009, she argued that the likes of Amazon, eBay, and Apple were “releas[ing] massive quantities of value by giving people what they wanted on their own terms in their own space.” Zuboff arrived at this sunny diagnosis via her overarching analysis of how information technology was changing society; in this respect, she was one of a cohort of thinkers to argue that a new era—some called it “post-industrial,” others “post-Fordist”—was upon us.

It is from within that analysis—and the initial positive expectations it engendered—that Zuboff’s current critique of surveillance capitalism has emerged. It’s also why her latest tome often ventures, in content and language alike, into the turf of the melodramatic: Zuboff, together with the entire American business-managerial establishment, besotted with the promises of the New Economy, had hoped that something very different was in the offing.

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