60 pages 2 hours read

Shoshana Zuboff

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide


The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power is a nonfiction book published in 2019 by American author and professor Shoshana Zuboff. It seeks to define and analyze the new and dangerous economic form of surveillance capitalism that has taken root in the 21st century. Zuboff investigates surveillance capitalism through the lenses of history, economics, politics, and philosophy to establish a thorough understanding of this unprecedented economic phenomenon.

Please note that this study guide uses the first edition eBook and citation pages may vary from print editions.


In her introduction, Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a process whereby technology firms collect data on lived human experience to create prediction products. These products are sold on behavioral futures markets to buyers who wish to know and influence people’s future behaviors. The author argues that surveillance capitalism’s secret exploitation of the mass public is a dire threat to the future of democratic society, threatening the very idea of free will.

Part 1 of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism looks at specific historical, political, and economic circumstances that led to the rise of surveillance capitalism. Zuboff identifies the collision of second modernity’s individualism and neoliberalism as a key moment in history that ruptured society, triggering a phase of socio-political turmoil that allowed for surveillance capitalists to enter the stage and exploit modern citizens’ vulnerabilities for their own gain. Surveillance capitalism fortified its growth by establishing close ties to the government, lobbying Congress and creating relationships with US presidents to shield itself from federal regulation.

In Part 2, Zuboff analyzes surveillance capitalism’s present operations. Surveillance capitalism enforces a division of knowledge to preserve its power dynamic. The division of knowledge is expressed through two texts: a public facing text, which is composed of all the material that anybody can access online, and the “shadow” text, which is all of the behavioral data surplus that only the surveillance capitalists can access. They then leverage this knowledge against the mass public, using it to predict and encourage future behaviors that might work in their profitable favor. This process relies on mundane, everyday technologies that secretly glean user behavioral data on a regular basis.

The final part of Zuboff’s book casts its eyes on the future, theorizing what a society under surveillance capitalism’s rule would look like. The author argues that surveillance capitalism seeks to create a world of ubiquitous computing, making the entire world population a source of raw behavioral material. This network of ubiquity—the “apparatus”—enforces instrumentarianism, surveillance capitalism’s form of power that seeks to control behavior at a massive, global scale.

In her conclusion Zuboff emphasizes the fact that surveillance capitalism’s wishes for a utopia of certainty comes at the expense of profound ideals that modern humanity holds dear, such as democracy and free will. While it will be a utopia for the surveillance capitalists, it will be an oppressive dystopia for the mass public. According to Zuboff, only a collective, popular resistance movement that urges world governments to recognize and legislate the dangers of surveillance capitalism can prevent the looming instrumentarian future.