Evaluating scholarship, or why I won’t be teaching Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

I’ve been trying to sort out my opinion about The Age of Surveillance Capitalism since I read it almost a month ago. While I am predisposed to agree with Shoshana Zuboff’s worries about an … apocalyptic isn’t too strong a word … surveillance capitalist dystopia, I found much of the book problematic, almost on a molecular level. The way that Zuboff presented her argument, particularly her seeming neglect of whole swaths of relevant literature, all spoke of a book that was much more flawed than the rave comparisons to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century would suggest. It was as if we’re reading completely different books.

Which is why I was quite happy to see Evgney Morozov’s masterful, epically long review of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which gets to the heart of some of the book’s substantive issues.

In his review, which is a wonder of careful thinking and contextualization, Morozov performs a couple of useful services. First, he highlights the extent to which Zuboff’s argument about how surveillance capitalism works rests on a tautology – “surveillance capitalists engage in surveillance capitalism because this is what the imperatives of surveillance capitalism demand” – that leaves they why of the matter unexamined. Second, he places her squarely within an intellectual tradition of “managerial capitalism” and a wider functionalist tradition in sociology associated with Talcott Parsons. Morozov argues that partly as a result of this (unacknowledged) mindset, Zuboff fails to understand the extent to which her critique of surveillance capitalism is actually a critique of capitalism, full stop. This inability to see anything outside the mindset of capitalism accounts for the way the book just kind of finishes without suggesting any real possible paths forward other than, we need a new social movement, and surveillance capitalism must be destroyed and replaced with a better form of (digital?) capitalism.

I hadn’t made those exact connections, and Morozov’s review does a great job in concisely summing up these intellectual frameworks. And if you didn’t know anything about managerial capitalism and Alfred Chandler, or the Italian Autonomists, you could also be forgiven for not making those connections either. I knew very little about managerial capitalism, nothing of Alfred Chandler. I am familiar with Parsons and my only exposure to the Italian Autonomists was by reading Hardt and Negri’s Empire during my PhD, which was enough to convince me that I wanted nothing to do with them.

Morozov’s final conclusion is both persuasive and damning from an academic perspective. The book, he says, could be politically powerful because it is a sharp broadside against two companies – Google and Facebook – that represent a clear and present danger to society. However, it “is a step backward in our understanding of the dynamics of the digital economy.”

I think that’s about right.

I am also pretty sure that, despite the acclaim it’s getting in non-Baffler circles, I’m not going to be teaching The Age of Surveillance Capitalism in my Global Political Economy of Knowledge course, but not because I disagree with Zuboff’s argument or feel threatened by her analysis. To the contrary, she’s pretty much telling me exactly what I want to hear. Or more to the point, what I want to believe.

I’m not going to be teaching it because as an academic work, it falls far short of the standards to which we should hold ourselves. It may be a politically effective polemic, but as scholarship that advances our understanding of the world, it is sorely lacking.

Academic writing works on a formula. There are a certain number of things you have to do in order to prove that your work is legitimate and worthy of attention. You have to show how you connect with the larger, ongoing conversation in your area of interest. You have to present your evidence carefully. You have to show the framework you used to conduct your analysis. Missing these steps is a signal that there are very likely problems with the work in question, but the steps are also important in their own right: they’re necessary in order to construct a sound argument, and not just a lawyer’s brief.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism has problems on all three accounts. Taken together, they help to explain, or maybe contextualize, the blind spots that Morozov noted in his essay.

Before beginning, I should note that my background is in political science and International Political Economy, with a current research agenda focused on the political economy of knowledge. While I’m acutely sensitive to how this book – which is all about political economy – doesn’t really engage with the political economy literature, my biggest issues with The Age of Surveillance Capitalism aren’t really about disciplinary differences. After all, different disciplines will attack problems in different ways. Rather, they’re grounded in the basic expectations we should have of any researcher working on this very important issue, at a very consequential time.

(And students! What follows doubles as a list of things to avoid when writing your own essays, and what to look for when assessing someone else’s work.)

Four tells of poor academic scholarship

1. Exaggerated claims to novelty

My very first academic assignment as a journalism undergrad was to observe people at the Rideau Centre in Ottawa and write down what I saw. I think it was about encouraging an eye for detail, but the professor or TA also had us go to the library (this was back before everything was online, kids), and do some small research on the psychology of observation. Or something – I’m going back almost 30 years for this gripping tale. Anyways, I got my one or two academic sources and used them to report back that there was not a lot of research on this particular topic. No, my TA pointed out, it’s not that there’s no existing work; it’s that I didn’t do enough research.

Lesson learned: There is almost always a precedent. The easiest way to convince yourself that you’re doing something unprecedented is to limit your reading.

And so, when Zuboff claims on page 17 that hers is “an initial mapping of a terra incognita, a first foray that I hope will pave the way for more explorers,” all my alarm bells went off. In this case I know for a fact that the ground she is tilling has been well-prepared for her. As Morozov notes, even her catchphrase, “surveillance capitalism,” was first used “by the Marxists at the Monthly Review … and in a far more critical manner.” To give only one other example, Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism, which predates Zuboff’s by about two years, is playing in the same ballpark, but Zuboff doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s on the field.

Almost always, the novelty of an academic’s contribution is in her or his twist on or extension of existing knowledge. As I was taught in my second-year political philosophy class, Marx’s theory was a riff on Hegel. Keynes built on Marshall. In this case, Zuboff’s most important contribution (and it is important) is the clarity with which she lays out the business model for surveillance capitalism. But bringing clarity is not the same as tilling a terra incognita. Claiming that it is has important negative consequences, as we will see below.

2. Absence of relevant literatures

One of the first steps an academic has to take when embarking on a new project is to “situate oneself in the literature.” Scholarship is a conversation, so who are you responding to? How do you relate to their work?

Now, pretty much any issue can be tackled from a million different perspectives. If you’re interested in Facebook and Google’s monkeyshines, you can take a legalistic perspective, in which case you might be interested in how different legal frameworks might affect their behavior. You could also analyze their cultural effects, or their workplace environments: all different approaches, and all with something to say about our big, crazy world. But, your particular angle dictates in large part the scholars – the literatures – with which you have to engage, if only to make sure that you’re not just repeating someone else.

So. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a study of the messy interactions between economic and social imperatives. (Actually, I’d argue it’s really two linked business case studies of Facebook and Google that wants to be a study of a larger system, but that’s another matter entirely.) This means that it is a study of political economy. Which means it has to engage with the political economy literature on surveillance (a specialized literature, but it does exist) and capitalism (its entire raison d’être). I expect it to engage with particular sources, like Srnicek, like Shawn Powers and Michael Jablonski’s The Real Cyber War. With, in other words, the books that can provide context and support for, and pushback against, its argument.

And if you’re talking about big trends in capitalism and society from a critical perspective, Hannah Arendt is not your go-to. You also need to go beyond the social-science founders – Durkheim, Marx, Weber. You need to engage with the likes of Susan Strange. Or Robert Cox. Or Michael Mann, people who are interested in exactly the same issues that you are dealing with. Karl Polanyi is great, and Zuboff grabs just the right concepts from him. But He. Is. Not. Enough.

(Polanyi was also much more than an “historian,” as Zuboff identifies him. As his Wikipedia entry makes clear, he was an “economic historian, economic anthropologist, economic sociologist, political economist, historical sociologist and social philosopher. Then again, the phrase “political economy” appears only four times in this book, and exclusively in the titles of cited books and articles in the endnotes.)

Finally, if one is talking about the dangers involved in a form of power that “knows and shapes human behaviour toward others’ ends” (page 8) and Antonio Gramsci’s conception of hegemony doesn’t rate a mention, I don’t even know. Especially if it’s presented as a completely new idea (in this case “instrumentarian power” – see: Exaggerated claims of novelty). The Gramscian concept of hegemony is all about how the powerful can get other groups to buy into ideologies that may not be in their best interests.

Much of the book is about how surveillance capitalists are working to change human nature so that human thinking more closely resembles that of machine learning. Absolutely correct, but not only is this not the first time that the powers that be have worked to reshape what we think of as human nature, it’s also kind of what it means to rule a society, any society. That’s what the whole concept of hegemony is all about, as any student of Gramscian thought could tell you. Or what someone like Susan Strange or Robert Cox (the two thinkers I’m using in my own work on these very subjects) would note. Knowing that this type of activity is simply how power works in human society puts a different spin on what Zuboff is arguing. It’s not so much that surveillance capitalists are rewiring human nature, but that their ideology is antithetical to a particular type of human nature, namely one in the liberal-democratic vein. Actually engaging with the voluminous work on hegemony and the social construction of knowledge, however, would have challenged Zuboff’s argument that the knowing and shaping of “human behavior toward others’ ends” is unique to surveillance capitalism.

(Maybe the problem is with capitalism itself? As Morozov noted in a follow-up tweet, “My critique of Zuboff’s new book boils down to a paraphrase of Horkheimer: ‘If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you’d better keep quiet about surveillance capitalism’.”)

And it’s just a bit odd that Michel Foucault doesn’t get so much as a mention beyond a reference in a footnoted title about neoliberalism. In a book that’s all about the relationship between power and knowledge.

Strange shows us how it should be done

In terms of how to situate yourself in the academic literature in a book like this, it’s useful to see how Susan Strange dealt with the same issue. One of the reasons I was underwhelmed by The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is that I have spent the last several years researching and publishing about knowledge governance, with Strange’s work as my primary guide. Everything in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is easily modelled within Strange’s “structural power” framework, which emphasizes the ability of non-state actors to exert power so as to shape society’s foundations, the importance of knowledge creators and producers, and the importance of knowledge production itself.

Strange – an absolute giant in International Political Economy and in academia generally – was a committed materialist who nonetheless placed the creation and legitimation of (immaterial) knowledge at the very heart of her theory of the international political economy. Unsurprisingly, she’s nowhere to be found in this book.

Here’s part of what Strange wrote about the control of knowledge in her book States and Markets:

Well aware of my own limitations, I have made no reference in the course of this brief survey of the knowledge structures of the international political economy to the active debates conducted by philosophers, especially in Europe, on the nature of knowledge, or the relation between power and communication systems or on the role of ideology in defining the goals of knowledge and thus determining in some degree the findings of social ‘science’. Such debates are not on the whole conducted in a language easily understood by me or, I imagine, by most of my readers. They are debates with roots going back at least to Nietzsche, Hegel and Weber, and some would say to Plato and Aristotle. The most influential modern contributions have been Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Karl Popper and Georg Lukacs. They are also debates that remain largely unresolved.

The footnote to this paragraph reads:

Some selected titles are: J. Habermas, Communications and the Evolution of Society, 1979; R. Barthes, Mythologies, 1973; J. Baudrillard, for a critique of the political economy of the Sign, 1986; R. Williams, Communications, 1976; A. Smith, The Geopolitics of Information. How Western Culture Dominates the World, 1980; R. Hoggart, An Idea and its Servants: UNESCO from Within, 1978; M. Mulkay, Science and the Sociology of Knowledge, 1979; K. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, 1960; M. C. Gordon (ed.) Power/Knowledge, 1980; M. Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse of Language, 1972; K. Deutsch, Nationalism and Social Communication, 1953; J.I. Gershuny and I.D. Miles, The New Service Economy, 1983; (see bibliography for details).

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, meanwhile, does not even include a reference list or bibliography, relying instead on hard-to-assess endnotes.

Note the modesty in Strange’s words. Now, Strange’s oeuvre is not marked by any particular humility. States and Markets – really, her whole career – boil down to a claim that everyone else is wrong about how the international political economy works. In the pages preceding this quote, she lays out her own theory about the relationship between power and knowledge. She could have left it at that, secure in the knowledge that many IPE scholars are terrified of Continental European philosophy and wouldn’t delve too deeply into the issue.

Instead, Strange pointed readers toward thinkers who would probably have some very sharp disagreements with her argument, laying the groundwork for someone else to adapt and surpass, or invalidate, her theory. Because the point of academic writing is not just to win arguments, but to build knowledge. To do that, we have to recognize that our analyses are only ever partial, that someone else may have the correct answer, and that we might be wrong.

3. Unclear framework

I’ve long thought that the only major difference between academics and journalists is that academics are required to foreground the scaffolding that they use to construct their arguments (disclosure: my first post-university job was as a reporter). In contrast, journalists build their argument from the ground up, via observation. Their theoretical frameworks – the assumptions underlying their worldviews – operate in the background. The best academic writing makes its assumptions clear, not to pre-empt arguments, but to clarify the terms of engagement, to make arguments more productive. They make it easier to figure out why you disagree with the author. In other words, if you’re an academic, you’ve got to show your work.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff does not show her work. Much of Morozov’s 16,500-word review is devoted to puzzling out her analytical framework and figuring out her thesis. I’ve already noted Morzov’s comments about her analytical framework and the fact that it goes largely unacknowledged in her book. As for her theses, Morozov argues that while she claims only to have one – she merely wants to name and describe surveillance capitalism – he identifies two more: that “data extraction and behavior modification [are] not occasional consequences of capitalist competition, but … the underlying causes that propel the emergence of the new economic order, while its imperatives, in turn, come to overpower those of capitalism itself”; and that “surveillance capitalists engage in surveillance capitalism because this is what the imperatives of surveillance capitalism demand.”

The best parts of the review involve Morozov’s use of analytical philosophy to slice these to bits, but if Zuboff had been clear about her argument a) she could have avoided this messiness; and b) I wouldn’t have had to spend two full hours the other morning reading Morozov’s Baffler review.

4. Use of hyperbole: These go to eleven

 The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a polemic: it argues a single side of a case forcefully with every means at its disposal. I would go so far as to say that any success it enjoys will be due almost completely to Zuboff’s use of compelling metaphors to illustrate the data extractivism practiced by surveillance capitalists. Check out her description of how people fit into surveillance capitalism, which just floored me:

I think of elephants, the most majestic of all mammals: Big Other poaches our behaviour for surplus and leaves behind all the meaning lodged in our bodies, our brains, and our beating hearts, not unlike the monstrous slaughter of elephants for ivory. Forget the cliché that if it’s free, ‘You are the product.’ You are not the product; you are the abandoned carcass. The ‘product’ derives from the surplus that is ripped from your life (page 377).

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is designed to elicit maximum revulsion. Comparing Facebook users to abandoned elephant carcasses highlights the extent to which Zuboff is playing on our emotions to make her point. At its best, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism succeeds better than anything else I’ve read at getting across the threat posed by surveillance capitalism.

Using vivid language is a perfectly appropriate means to make a point. It becomes problematic, however, when it shades into hyperbole. When that happens, one’s argument stops relying so much on reason, logic and evidence – the foundation of an academic’s authority – and begins relying on how it makes the reader feel. Good academic writing uses strong writing to make a point; polemical academic writing obliterates the potential for argument and cares more about scoring emotional points than about accuracy.

Return to the disturbingly pungent image of the elephant carcass. It gets at a certain part of the reality of what it means to be a social-media user: we are the natural resource being harvested. But is that all we are? Some reviewers have taken Zuboff to task for neglecting the benefits that people get from using Facebook et al. This is an important point, because it suggests that many people are, in fact, comfortable with the social media-for-data tradeoff. Of course, as Zuboff points out in Chapter 16 (which I’ll get to momentarily), there is likely an element of addiction at play here. However, the failure to think through the fact that people derive value from these platforms means that Zuboff misses a much more helpful, if less immediate, way of representing the problem. That is, social media use/data extractivism as an activity that produces negative externalities – when an individual’s action, while having a positive outcome for them, negatively affects the well-being of others. As it happens, there is a well-worn economic solution for this long-recognized problem: tax or regulate the activity.

Unfortunately, the reality that people have a complex relationship with social media, and are not merely elephant carcasses is buried under the weight of Zuboff’s metaphor, and with it some of the nuance needed to think through how to deal with these issues. As a result, the challenge of regulating data extractivism is transformed from a solvable, if politically challenging, regulatory problem into an existential crisis the likes of which the world has never seen.

Since the dawn of time…

Beyond rotting elephant carcasses, I was also surprised to discover that one of the reasons everyone missed the threat of surveillance capitalism was that we were so focused on the potential for tyranny from the state that nobody thought that the market could become our master:

over the centuries we have imagined threat in the form of state power. This left us wholly unprepared to defend ourselves from new companies with imaginative names run by young geniuses that seemed able to provide us with exactly what we yearn for at little or no cost (page 53; emphasis added).

If by “we,” Zuboff means “libertarians, US politicians and certain American academics,” then, maybe? But huge swaths of globalization studies and International Political Economy, to say nothing of scholars with a Marxian bent, the most dogmatic of whom believe that the state merely represents the interests of capital, have been highlighting the rising influence of companies since before disco was king. Susan Strange explicitly argued in the 1980s that we can understand IPE as a contest between the market and authority (the state), and that the market in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to be getting the upper hand.

(You know who else focused on the power of corporations to shape things? Noted IPE scholar Chuck Palahniuk, in his IPE treatise Fight Club (1996).)

“Unprecedented”

In order to make its point, everything in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is amped up to 11. Zuboff’s goal is to sound the alarm about the coming “seventh extinction” (page 516). There is an “unprecedented” (114 appearances in the book’s text, or once every 4.6 pages) concentration of power and authority in market hands, a potential “tyranny” (page 518). “Surveillance capitalism … exceed[s] the historical norms of capitalist ambitions, claiming dominion over human, societal, and political territories that range far beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm or the market” (page 21). (Except, as Polanyi himself noted, market capitalism left unchecked will claim domination over all society, destroying it in the process.)

How bleak is the picture? This bleak:

Every avenue of connectivity serves to bolster private power’s need to seize behaviour for profit. Where is the hammer of democracy now, when the threat comes from your phone, your digital assistant, your Facebook login? Who will stand for freedom now, when Facebook threatens to retreat into the shadows if we dare to be the friction that disrupts economies of action that have been carefully, elaborately, and expensively constructed to exploit our natural empathy, elude our awareness, and circumvent our prospects for self-determination? If we fail to take notice now, how long before we are numb to this incursion and to all the incursions? How long until we notice nothing at all? How long before we forget who we were before the owned us, bent over the old texts of self-determination in the dim light, the shawl around our shoulders, magnifying glass in hand, as if deciphering ancient hieroglyphs? (page 327)

“By any and all means”

This constant hyping takes its toll. Does your house need cleaning? Cuz this book is here to do some sweeping:

With the demise of the fascist and socialist threats, neoliberal ideology cunningly succeeded in redefining the modern democratic state as a fresh source of collectivism to be resisted by any and all means (page 505; emphasis added).

Okay. Yes, neoliberalism – a term that has pretty much lost any consensual and analytical meaning– redefines the line between state and market in favour of the market. The related declining faith in government has created loads of problems, very much including a reluctance to regulate the internet giants. At least in the United States: this extreme reluctance to regulate is very much a US and UK phenomenon (see: the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation – is the GDPR, with its roots in EU data-protection regulations going back to the mid-1990s – part of the neoliberal agenda?). As a German-Canadian colleague once reminded me, neoliberalism in Europe is different from neoliberalism in North America.

The unequal balance between state and market is definitely an important factor in the rise of surveillance capitalism. But the very existence of two different approaches to neoliberalism suggests that the un-nunaced invocations of “neoliberalism” and “by any and all means” are overkill. “By any and all means” suggests that there are literally no limits to what a “neoliberal” would do to resist “the modern democratic state.” No limit? In any situation? Nor does it take into account what actually existing neoliberals themselves believe. For example, UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong self-identifies as a neoliberal, and I’m pretty sure he’s okay with a democratic state, including some collective activities.

(Maybe the real challenges with regulating surveillance capitalism emerge from the United States’ particular ideological dysfunctions, and not with a global neoliberal project?)

Making the story fit the argument

And how far is too far to go to make a point? How important is the devotion to accuracy that we usually demand of our great thinkers? How small a detail is too small to care about its accurate representation? Take Chapter 16, the won’t someone think of the children! chapter. Zuboff’s choices to illustrate how social media affects people at the beginning of this chapter are designed for maximum emotional devastation:

“I felt so lonely … I could not sleep well without sharing or connecting to others,” a Chinese girl recalled. “Emptiness,” an Argentine boy moaned. A Ugandan teenager muttered, “I felt like there was a problem with me,” and an American college student whimpered, “I went into an absolute panic mode.” These are but a few of the lamentations plucked from one thousand student participants in an international study of media use that spanned ten countries and five continents (page 445; emphasis added).

These reactions, of students who were asked to give up social media for a day, are incredibly affecting; I was shaken after reading it. Even absent any descriptors, the quotes themselves, cited by Zuboff to the website The World Unplugged, are enough to convince anyone that social media addiction is a thing.

But why keep the feels at ten when they can go to eleven? The website cited by Zuboff does not report how the students responded. The words moaned, muttered, and whimpered appear nowhere on the site. These verbs imply that the students spoke their responses. However, having done some digging, including referring to the journal article written by the project organizers, a few things became clear. The students wrote their responses. While the researchers coded the students’ (written) reports by emotion, they used terms like “boredom,” “confusion,” and “distress,” not the emotionally loaded descriptors reported by Zuboff. Their journal article was, in fact, scrupulous in not imputing any particular characteristics to the students’ comments, using appropriately neutral words like “said” and “reported.”

That’s not the only problem with this paragraph. Does it matter that all the participants were not just students, but university students, whom we usually don’t refer to as “boy” or “girl,” and some of whom were almost certainly over the age of 18, and thus not “teenagers”? Or that the researchers did not make available research linking quotes to gender or – going to the point about teenagers – age? (Which leaves open the possibility that Zuboff had access to their raw data that would have allowed her to make this age-gender link, although this seems unlikely, and is not what the citation claims in any case.) This paragraph, designed to heighten the reader’s sense of the harm from social media, reduces students who were either adults or on the brink of adulthood to the status of (vulnerable) “children.”

It’s also worth noting that the Ugandan student actually wrote, “I missed communicating to my friends through daily social networks and they also felt like there was a problem with me” (emphasis added). The error introduced into the text echoes the previous quotes, solidifying Zuboff’s argument that social media are destroying children’s interior lives. The actual quote places the focus on the student’s friends, not the student’s interior life. These changes make what is still a scathing indictment of social media fit that much more cleanly with the previous quotes.

Zuboff’s version may not be accurate, and it’s certainly not backed up by the reference provided. But it sure does adhere to a smooth narrative that hammers home the point that social media are destroying our children.

A possible defence is that these added words and imputed genders and exaggerations are merely a form of creative license, that it gets at an emotional truth. I’m not buying it (would you buy that argument from one of your students?). Hyperbole is an argumentative style that, I would argue, stands opposed to the careful presentation of evidence required if you want to claim authority as a social scientist. It is possible to write powerfully while still reflecting reality and the truth of others’ words; that’s our job as academics.

People are comparing this book to Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, but that book earned its authority through the careful collection and presentation of evidence, not via emotional manipulation. I’ve read Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’ve taught Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The day I heard about Capital in the Twenty-First Century I drove 100 km to a bookstore so I wouldn’t have to wait two days to have it delivered. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is no Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The final verdict: No go

To be honest, before reading Morozov’s critique, watching the glowing reviews come in, I started questioning my judgment. Sure, there were flaws in the book, some of which I would have called out immediately if committed by an undergraduate, but how much did they really matter?

Part of me, I’m embarrassed to say, was swayed by the identity of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s author. A professor emerita. From Harvard. Who had done important previous work in the field. Even though I know better, I got inside my own head, internalizing the academic class system that places certain schools and scholars above others. The “important voices” whose work is guaranteed a respectful hearing merely by virtue of their pedigree or institution.

The saddest thing is, my receptiveness to this argument from authority says as much about where I see myself in the academic food chain as it does about a Harvard professor. Even though I have witnessed the most idiotic arguments and proposals made by scholars from top-ranked universities, endured recycled banalities from leading lights with nothing to say, and read the most embarrassing articles by celebrated Ivy-league academics. Even though I will put my Canadian Carleton University education up against anyone’s from Oxford or Yale or Harvard. I know this.

And yet, there was that part of me, whispering, But look at who she is. She’s an Authority. Look at all the praise she’s getting, the panels she’s on. Maybe you’re just being judgmental. Maybe you’re being too critical. Maybe you’re wrong.

Well, maybe I am wrong, but a failure to produce an honest critique because of our respective places in the academic food chain is the absolutely worst reason not to make the critique. One of my proudest moments as a teacher was when I heard that a second-year student had written a fantastic, well-researched and impeccably argued paper about how I’d been wrong about something I’d claimed in my Introduction to International Relations class. (And she was right.) We should expect all academics to live up to the same standards we set for our students.

So, no. After spending an entire work week reading this book, after taking over 100 pages of notes and thinking about it constantly for far too long afterwards, I do not believe that The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a good piece of scholarship. It is not careful in its presentation of evidence. It chooses hyperbole over accuracy. It fails to engage with the relevant literatures and critical voices that would challenge what ends up being a one-sided, almost existentially bleak argument.

Its lack of engagement with the relevant literatures makes possible the blind spots, trenchantly catalogued by Morozov, regarding surveillance capitalism’s relationship to capitalism, as well as those regarding the role of the state as something more than a bit player in this epic story. These impair the book’s value in terms of its analysis and, as Morozov’s comments about Zuboff’s failure to consider the “capitalism” part of “surveillance capitalism” suggest, its prescriptions. Why the book concluded with a call for new social movements instead of the decommodification of data and internet platforms – the whole point of a Polanyian “double movement” – is beyond me.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’s greatest value lies in its presentation of the mechanics of surveillance capitalism, itself a special case of a more general knowledge-driven economy and society characterized by an emphasis on the commodification of knowledge. Zuboff’s “six declarations” of Google (page 179) is a concise summary of the surveillance capitalist worldview. Her discussion of BF Skinner and behaviorism is fascinating.

As a polemic, the power of much of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism‘s imagery is impressive. As Morozov suggests, it could provide a much-needed public vocabulary (albeit partly borrowed from the Marxists) to reign in our rampaging tech overlords, even if the book is overlong – an editor could easily have cut 200 pages without harming the underlying argument.

But, to paraphrase Cox paraphrasing Marx, “The point is not just to change the world, but to understand it.” As academics, we’re constantly being told that we need to make our work relevant, that we need to write in a way that ordinary people understand. Our work should have an impact on the world.

Sure, but the drive for accessibility and impact must be tempered with a commitment to accuracy and careful research, because that’s what gives us academics our authority. We’re here to build knowledge. Careful research and writing are good scholarship, and they’re as necessary as ever. We should not be satisfied with anything less.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in surveillance capitalism and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Evaluating scholarship, or why I won’t be teaching Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

  1. avidearthling says:

    Thank you for this clear and re-orienting critique. I’m about to dive into Zuboff’s book, having eagerly anticipated it even while becoming aware of its shortcomings. I am hopeful that it can play a role in popular education, but that remains to be seen. Nice work!

  2. Miles says:

    This scholarship feint is BS. What I read in your review is pedantry and envy. Easy to be a critic in the ivory tower, much harder to actually do the work.

    • Susan Delaney says:

      Miles — I have no idea who you are but damn if you didn’t cut through the rhetoric here
      and make your case. I’m halfway through
      Surveillance Capitalism and I find the case
      made by the author to be persuasive and
      compelling. I agree that Blayne Haggart’s
      position that this is a polemic says more
      about him than the author. In this post
      his argument seems facetious at best.

Comments are closed.