How did data get so big, and where is it going? More importantly can we trust the companies that collect it? These are a couple of the questions Shoshana Zuboff tackles in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It is a daunting 525 pages, but is a surprisingly easy read. Given the size of the read I will focus on two of the concepts centered on data: behavioral value reinvestment cycle and the discovery of behavioral surplus.
The capitalization of data started with the good intention of improving the user experience in a process Zuboff termed the “behavioral value reinvestment cycle”.1 This process was designed to allow companies to make quick changes and improve user experience. Zuboff uses Industrial Age terms to explain the four step process: 1) the user provides data to the company, 2) the company takes this raw material and separates the data for the company’s improvements, “gold”, from the rest of the data, 3) the company then refines this gold through analytics into something useful, 4) these refined products would be put into the system to improve service back to the user who would use the system more, creating more behavioral data. Like any manufacturing process there is waste, “Data Exhaust”, and it is the byproduct left after step two of the cycle. Turning the surplus behavior exhaust into revenue is when we transitioned into the Information Age.
Digital companies want to minimize the amount of waste and profit off everything it makes. This led to what Zuboff termed “the Discovery of Behavioral Surplus.”2 The data exhaust from the behavioral value reinvestment cycle is used to find new ways to use the data. Companies then discovered they could use this data to start predicting how consumers would behave. Advertisers started paying for more accurate predictions. To make the most accurate predictions possible, digital companies are now trying to modify consumer behavior to ensure the future.
Zuboff has great research to back up the negative cyclical effects this push for better means of production and more accurate future predictions has had. Companies put funding into research that is in line with these ideas. This results in leading universities conducting the research for the funds. The end result is that university research helps companies build better ways to modify consumer behavior to their own ends. Thus, by using the products, the average user is building their own cage that digital firms mine our data from.
The book paints a grim picture of the future of society in a digital capitalism. A future where companies buy and sell data with the producer of that data, the user, getting nothing in return. However, it does offer a few ways to combat this. Zuboff talks about what companies, users, and governments could do to ensure everyone prospers in the Information Age, not just the top 1%. All and all I would say this is a must read for anyone that is interested in how data became so powerful, without regulations, and where that power is taking us in the future.
- Zuboff, Shoshana, page 69, The age of Surveillance capitalism: the fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Hachette Book Group, 2019.
- Zuboff, Shoshana, page 96, The age of Surveillance capitalism: the fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Hachette Book Group, 2019.