Summary: Surveillance Capitalism of the 21st Century

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The advancement of technology is inevitable as time progresses and it can affect our society in many aspects such as in terms of the economy and politics. It is obvious that modern technology develops rapidly with more big companies relying on it for opening door for various industries. Technology is evidently serves its purpose of making a better life for mankind as observed throughout history. One of the most important product of it is the social media. Social media makes communication easy for everybody especially those who have a good internet connection which they can interact with other people anywhere and anytime in the world. It also serves as a more convenient and faster outlet of spreading news, certain issues, and propagandas. However, since social media is one of the tools that companies used in creating commodities and its promotion, it unlocked various threats for everybody and a new face of modern capitalism in the form of surveillance capitalism.

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Surveillance capitalism describes a market-driven process or system in which your personal data are the commodity for sale, and the collection and production of this data is based on mass internet surveillance and results in generating a big data economy (Holloway, 2019). Google and Facebook give us free services in return of obtaining data and information in our daily social media activities. Surveillance capitalism was first coined by Shoshana Zuboff in 2014 to describe the new way companies and industries holds private human experience. This topic is the main focus of her published work entitled “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. It unpacked the secrets of a new business model that is lurking in the cyberspace. The basic structure of this new strategy is the gathering of data of the same groups of people who will eventually be its targets. For example, Google accumulates personal online data and then target us with various advertisements based on our recent searches, likes, and views. Surveillance capitalism is first integrated by Google. They used data extraction procedures and packaged users’ data to create new markets for this commodity. Other big actors in this new face of capitalism are Facebook Apple and Amzaon and together, they control a vast quantities of information about our daily behaviours and transfomed these into products and services. This new system of business is also practice by some third-party data brokers and sells data to companies from different sources with various intentions.

Marxism is a set of ideas brought to the world by Karl Marx in the 1840s, which basically deals with describing the struggle of the working class or proletariats to achieve a higher form of human society or socialism. It is also a socio-economic method of study that examines class relationships and illustrates the nature of an imminent social conflict using a materialistic view of historical development. These views are created in times where there is the emergence of factories in the industrial revolution and Marx believed that the system was unfair to the workers, taking away their independence and their pride in their work. In our time, capitalism is still evident and technology provides a new form for it which is the surveillance capitalism. It works by supplying a wide range of free services that billions of people are conveniently using it, enabling the providers of those commodities in monitoring the behaviour of those users in confounding detail often without even asking for our explicit consent. Surveillance capitalism brings back the old concept of capitalism of Karl Marx as a system that feeds on labor but with an unusual manner. Instead of labor, this type of capitalism feeds on every dimension of the life of every human being. (Zuboff, 2014). “Surveillance capitalism,” Zuboff added, “unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioural data.” We can agree to the fact that some of these data are obtained necessary for the service improvement but what is disturbing is that the rest are established as behavioural surplus, transferred into a more advanced manufacturing processes known as ‘machine intelligence’, and generated into prediction mechanisms that will predict what you will do now, soon, and later. Finally, these products are traded in a new type of marketplace in the name of behavioural futures markets. Surveillance capitalists have grown immensely wealthy from these trading operations, for many companies are willing to lay bets on our future behaviour.” It still has the structure of the old capitalism wherein the benefits are only for the capitalists and these are obtained by the oppression of the proletariats, which in this case, their data and own privacy.

Alienation is also a concept introduced by Karl Marx and it somehow still shaped the form of the surveillance capitalism nowadays. Alienation in a generalized abstract sense is a loss of control over the attribute of self in which the worker is excluded from any sense of agency in relation to the attribute. It is a historically objective process that comes into being in the specific mode of production in existence from the relations and forces of production. Marx’s alienation comes into being through the presence of production structures found in capitalist society. We consider the conditions necessary for the emergence of alienation within the capitalist mode of production. In case of the surveillance capitalism, the users are alienated by their own data that companies utilized in their production (Armando, 2017). Such circumstances are the fact that workers in capitalist society are forced to sell their labor power as a commodity to someone else by the need of survival and lack of control over the means of production. The specialization of labor, the reserved type of labors, and the creation of routine system work flows like an assembly line and are essential to the emergence of bourgeois alienation. There are four aspects of alienation that Marx defined as contributing to the capitalist mode of production: the alienation of the worker from the products of his labor, the alienation felt in the process of production or labor, the alienation from the nature of our species or human existence, and finally the alienation of man from man. They may be seen as nesting along with one leading to the other, but they are just aspects of one reality which is the alienated labor. Surveillance capitalism lies under the fourth type of alienation. The fourth dimension of alienated labor for Marx can be derived from the fact that, according to Marx, we are alienated from our own human nature or essence. In surveillance capitalism, the hours we spent on using social media platforms make us alienated in our own preferences and we only take this for granted. Thus alienation exists in capitalist society’s relations of production. The companies make products out of our data without our consent. In the capitalist relations of production, we are alienated not only from the consumer and the production process, but since we are alienated from our human nature, we are alienated from ourselves and each other in return. So this aspect of alienated labor deals with the fact that our social relations themselves are alienated. For Marx, our conscious life activity is embedded in a social framework since we are a social species from birth. This alienation is manifested as hostility or competition between workers and members of society. As Marx wrote: “In the relation of alienated labor, every man sees the others according to the standard and the relation in which he finds himself as a worker”. The surveillance capitalists practice this thought by ignoring the privacy of the proletariats in order to generate more profits with the aid of the big data economy.

Surveillance capitalists in seeking independence from any kind of restraint are no different from other capitalists. They demand that every novel activity be launched ‘freedom to’ while vigorously stressing the need for their ‘freedom from’ law and regulation. The classic pattern reflects two fundamental assumptions made by their own theorists about capitalism: the first is that markets are essentially unknown. The second is that the confusion created by this lack of knowledge demands that market actors have wide-ranging freedom of action. The idea that ignorance and autonomy are essential features of capitalism is ingrained in the conditions of life prior to the advent of modern communication and transportation systems, let alone global digital networks and the internet.

Adam Smith’s famous ‘invisible hand’ metaphor drew on human life’s enduring realities. In pursuit of immediate comforts and necessities, the individual, Smith reasoned, employs his capital locally. Each one attends to “his own security… his own gain… led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.” The ‘business’ is no longer evident when it comes to the management of activities by the capitalists, certainly not in the way Smith expected. The competitive struggle between various surveillance strategies of capitalists creates the compulsion toward totality. Total data has a propensity to be certain and to promise guaranteed results. Such operations mean that there is infinite complexity in the supply and demand of behavioral futures markets. Surveillance capitalism thus replaces uncertainty with certainty as it replaces rendering, behavioral modification, and forecasting of the old ‘unsearchable sequence.’ This is a radical reversal as fundamentally unknowable of the traditional ‘business’ paradigm. Surveillance capitalism is not the old capitalism, and its members are not the capitalists of Smith (Biddle, 2019). Under this, there is no longer twin born independence and oppression, no more two sides of the same coin called mystery. Instead, a remarkable fusion of freedom and information distinguishes surveillance capitalism. The degree of this convergence is exactly in line with the scope of instrumental power. This unimpeded concentration of power systematically hijacks the division of education in society, creating the structures of inclusion and exclusion on which monitoring income depends. Surveillance capitalists demand the right to order information, and then use that advantage of knowledge to preserve and extend their rights.

In his book, The Labor Division in Society (1893), Emile Durkheim argued that the transition from mechanical to organic was rendered by social order as society became more complex. According to Durkheim, preindustrial communities are kept together by mechanical unity, a kind of social order established by a culture’s collective consciousness. Mechanical solidarity communities behave in a mechanical fashion; stuff is done mainly because it’s always done like that. This kind of thought was popular in pre-industrial societies where strong kinship bonds and low labor division produced shared morals and values among people, such as groups of hunter-gatherers. Durkheim concluded that when people tend to do the same kind of job, they tend to think and behave alike. Mechanical solidarity is replaced in industrial societies by organic solidarity, which is social order founded on recognizing economic and social differences. Durkheim wrote that division of labor becomes so specialized in capitalist societies that everyone do different things. Organic solidarity allows people with different values to coexist instead of punishing members of a society for failing to assimilate common values. Laws exist as formalized principles and are based not on vengeance, but on restitution.

The division of labor plays a big role in the maintenance of the surveillance capitalism. Zuboff supported this Durkheim’s concept and argues that companies like Facebook and Google are able to do all this because they have monopolized the work and how they are viewed. Specific works are given to the members of each data companies and making the structure of surveillance capitalism effective. Their work is hidden in proprietary closed-source code; they use non-disclosure agreements and vertical organisation to obfuscate their practices Large supervisory firms ‘ CEOs often have near-controlling stock levels, allowing them to steer their companies as they wish. The ensuing divisions make it difficult for anyone or us other than supervisory capitalists to make definitive explanations about what they are doing. (Dibella, 2014)

Surveillance capitalism moves from focusing on individual users to focusing on people, like cities, and ultimately on the whole of society. Think of the capital that can be attracted to futures markets where population predictions evolve to a certain degree. This was a learning curve for capitalist surveillance, motivated by competition over predictive products. Next, they discovered that the more surplus, the better which resulted in supply effort economies of scale. Then they found that the higher their predictive value, the more diverse the surplus. This new drive towards economies of reach sent them out into the world from the desktop to the smartphone. The capacity to shape behavior is fully self-authorizing for the gain or power of others. It has no basis in political or moral authority as it neglects the right of choice and erased the mechanisms of individual autonomy that are central to the operation of a democratic society. These dangerous asymmetries are institutionalized in their data science monopolies, their machine intelligence dominance, which is the ‘means of production’ of capitalism surveillance, their supplier and customer ecosystems, their forecasting markets, their ability to influence person and population behaviour, their ownership and control of our public engagement networks, and their vast reserves of resources. In this new face of capitalism, we are entering the 21st century marked by this strong inequality: they know more about us than we do about ourselves or about them.

Surveillance capitalism is a creation of man. This exists in history, not in the inevitability of technology. The command and control of the education about the division of society through s urveillance Capitalism is the signature function that breaks with the invisible hand’s old justifications and entitlements. The combination of information and autonomy serves to speed up the asymmetry in power between the control capitalist corporations and the communities they live in. This poses a threat to freedom, liberty and privacy. Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism carefully as a capitalism rather than a capitalism offshoot. With that, she sees surveillance capitalism as having concrete predecessors and an overextension of capitalism as totally unprecedented. The new condition unravels the capitalist rationale for the double movement’s evisceration and the rise of new capitalism: its free markets, free-market players, and self-regulating enterprises.






  1. Holloway, D. (2019, August 16). Explainer: what is surveillance capitalism and how does it shape our economy? Retrieved from capitalism-and-how-does-it-shape-our-economy-119158.
  2. Naughton, J. (2019, January 20). ‘The goal is to automate us’: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism. Retrieved from zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook.
  3. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  4. Armando. (2017, November 10). Marx’s Conception of Alienation. Retrieved from
  5. Zuboff, S. (2019, February 22). The Road to Digital Serfdom? The Visible Hand of Surveillance Capitalism. Retrieved from hand/.


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