At A Glance – Surveillance Capitalism

Will we be the masters of information, or its slaves?

In 2014, business theorist Shoshana Zuboff introduced the theory of surveillance capitalism. She described it as ‘a variant of information capitalism’ that was based on ‘the commodification of reality’. In other words, it uses information about consumer behaviour to drive analysis and sales. Surveillance capitalism is similar to the industrial capitalism of the 20th century, but differs in that it exploits largely uninformed users rather than creating a mutually beneficial ecosystem for employees and consumers.

The main characteristics of surveillance capitalism include mass data accumulation, automated data collection methods, personalisation and customisation, and the use of technological infrastructure to constantly monitor users. In many ways, surveillance capitalism ties into the rise of corporatocracies, where power lies with major tech firms instead of governing bodies. Google and Facebook have been identified as pioneers of surveillance capitalism, building profitable platforms with user data. For many, the monetary motivations of big businesses could compromise freedom, democracy, and privacy.

Governments, businesses and other organisations need to work to make structural and cultural changes to prevent the misuse of information. While there are risks of exploitation, if well regulated and used benevolently, surveillance capitalism could be viewed as a good thing, as the information is ultimately used to build more relevant products and services. It’s also arguable that the economic pressures of capitalism have forced businesses to dig deeper for data. Issues arise, though, when data collection oversteps the mark and impinges on personal privacy. Ultimately, Zuboff’s question is this: will we be the masters of information, or its slaves?

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