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

In the 1970s, when Shoshana Zuboff was a graduate student in Harvard’s psychology department, she met the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner, who had perhaps the largest forehead you’ll ever see on an adult, is best remembered for putting pigeons in boxes (so-called Skinner boxes) and inducing them to peck at buttons for rewards. Less well remembered is the fact that he constructed a larger box, with a glass window, for his infant daughter, though this was revealing of his broader ambitions.

Zuboff writes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that her conversations with Skinner “left me with an indelible sense of fascination with a way of construing human life that was—and is—fundamentally different from my own.” Skinner believed that humans could be conditioned like any other animal, and that behavioral psychology could and should be used to build a technological utopia where citizens were trained from birth to be altruistic and community-oriented. He published a novel, Walden Two(1948), that depicted what just such a society would look like—a kind of Brave New World played straight.1


A real antisurveillance law would accomplish something different: it would stop the gratuitous surveillance and the reckless accumulation of personalized data. It would do that by allowing only the collection of data necessary to the task at hand: an app designed to help you mix cocktails would not, for example, be allowed to collect location data. Gratuitous surveillance would be banned—and after collecting data, firms would be forced, by default, to get rid of it, or fully anonymize the rest of it.

What we have learned, what Skinner and secret police alike have realized, is this: to know everything about someone is to create the power to control that person. We may not be there yet, but there is a theoretical point—call it the Skinnerlarity—where enough data will be gathered about humanity to predict, with some reasonable reliability, what everyone on earth will do at any moment. That accomplishment would change the very structure of experience. As the legal scholar Jonathan Zittrain has said, it would make life “a highly realistic but completely tailored video game where nothing happens by chance.”

  • 1. It would risk grave understatement to say that Zuboff does not share Skinner’s enthusiasm for the mass engineering of behavior. Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School since 1981, has made a career of criticizing the lofty ambitions of technoprophets, making her something of a cousin to the mass media critic Neil Postman, author of Technopoly (1992)Her intimate understanding of Skinner gives her an advantage that other technoskeptics lack. For as she posits in her latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, we seem to have wandered into a dystopian version of Skinner’s future, thanks mainly to Google, Facebook, and their peers in the attention economy. Silicon Valley has invented, if not yet perfected, the technology that completes Skinner’s vision, and so, she believes, the behavioral engineering of humanity is now within reach.