On Monday 30 September, the American Harvard Business School Professor Emeritus, Shoshana Zuboff, visited a crammed Ovnhallen at CBS. Within 48 hours, 600 people had signed up for the event, while 300 were on the waiting list. It was as if an academic Rockstar was in the building.
It’s not entirely wrong to describe this visit by the American professor and author in Rockstar terminology. In the days before the event, Shoshana Zuboff had been on a tour of Copenhagen that had taken her to Industriens Hus, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and a spell in the spotlight on Danish television.
And on this Monday, CBS was the final destination on her tour.
“Users, they call us!”
Shoshana Zuboff started the event by asking audience members to describe in one word why they had come. One shouted “privacy”, another “worry” and one even shouted the word “fear”.
Following this, Shoshana Zuboff read aloud the words that other audiences had called out during her visits around the world, and then the message became clear: people think of the new age of capitalism in a similar way, and we should be humans in our own right – not commodities.
But according to the professor, commodities are exactly what we are to major digital media companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like.
“They don’t perceive us as humans and private individuals, but users… users, they call us!” she said, and several people in the audience nodded appreciatively.
A dark twist
The occasion for Shoshana Zuboff’s visit was a conversation about the whole new age we live in, which she describes in her 704-page bestselling book ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’.
Since the late 1970s, Shoshana Zuboff has studied automatization and digitization of human societies. But according to her, we now live in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, which, in her opinion, threatens citizens’ private lives, society and democracy.
According to Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism imitates the old patterns of capitalism, but does so with what she calls a “dark and unexpected twist”.
While the old capitalism turned raw materials from nature into commodities that could be bought and sold, Surveillance Capitalism takes private human experiences and treats them as raw materials.
These new materials are then translated into behavioral data that can be sold to companies in order to create products that are predictions of people’s future behavior. Ultimately, these products are bought by businesses who, as Shoshana Zuboff puts it, “have a keen interest” in knowing what people will do in the future.
And this trade in people’s future behavior is exactly what the professor calls a “dark twist”.
In many ways, this dark theme could have turned the 1 ½-hour event into a long session of complete depression. However, Soshana Zuboff urged the audience to reflect on the many threats that Surveillance Capitalism poses to the world we live in.
At the same time, she seemed able to convince the audience that they could use this knowledge as a weapon to fight these worrying and fearful developments.