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The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Book cover of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shosana Zuboff on a black gradient background. Credit: Goodreads

This year has put a bright spotlight on the inequities that exist in our world. We've seen inaccessible websites, unjust policing, and mountains of cash the 1% have gained while many suffered through a pandemic. While it feels like I'm finally able to breathe a small sigh of relief, as much of the country is being vaccinated, the systemic conditions that led us to this moment persist.

Most of my day-to-day life is spent on the internet. This isn't unusual for people of my generation. We were in middle school and high school when Google, Facebook, and others took the main stage. My first phone was a Motorola Razr flip-phone, not the iPhone 12. We had AOL Instant Messenger, and dial-up internet.

I bring these facts up, not to date myself, but rather to point out that the internet still had a facade of innocence when I was growing up.

I think it's admirable that Google, Facebook, Apple, and the other big tech companies started with an altruistic vision. They wanted to make life easier, more connected, more innovative. What pains me now is how these goals have become the wool over our eyes rather than the reality. We're no longer part of the "reinvestment cycle" that promised to bring a democratized internet and free access. We're now simply the raw materials that make a prediction and behavioral modification possible.

I didn't even get 80 pages into this book without feeling a strong urge to abandon the internet and modern life altogether. Everything we do, every smart device we own, turns our very existence into digital exhaust that is consumed and refined into "certainty." Friends and family members will say things like, "They already know everything about me" or "I've got nothing to hide."

It's not the data that scares me to the point of existential crisis, but what these companies do with that data. It's the herding and tuning for maximum profit, the threat to my free will that I'm scared of. Let's look at the evolution of society through the lens that Shoshana describes. We're headed down a path to lasting numbness. Mass production stripped us of our traditions in favor of radical individualism. Now, mass consumption will rob us of our free will.

This book taught me a few things:

  • It's okay to live life with more intention. I've turned down notifications and removed apps altogether from my phone. I feel less anxiety. I feel more in control of what I consume, when I consume, etc.
  • Just because something is more convenient doesn't mean that it's in your best interest. Taking time to learn about what information you're giving up is a good idea.
  • To pay attention to the bias in every digital interaction. Why is this being presented to me? Why does this look this way?

It's a heavy read (500+ pages), but this book is something I'd consider essential reading for anyone working in technology. Pick up your copy on Thriftbooks.

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