The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — Notes

Osama Alkhawaja
8 min readJun 6, 2022


The following is for educational purposes only. It is a collection of quotes, themes, passages, and reflections on “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” by Shoshana Zuboff.

This book describes how large tech companies have created a brand new market place that is fueled by the collection of our data and behavior. This market seeks to modify our behavior in order for us to be “better,” more predictable, consumers. This industry exists outside the scope of traditional legal or market restraints, and has commodified every aspect of our lives.

General concepts:

  • Surveillance capitalism: 1) improvement 2) surplus 3) behavior. It claims human experience as free raw materials for translation into behavioral data. The shift from serving user to surveilling them to mining their behavior to changing it.
Surveillance capitalism explained
Surveillance capitalism explained
  • Behavioral modification: goal is consumer clarity. Perfect predictive behavior. The “predictive power of data.”
The importance of predictable behavior
  • Parasitic economic logic: peoples’ behavior has become is the “source” of “raw-material” supply.” The “corporation thus created out of thin air and at zero marginal cost an asset class of vital raw materials derived from users’ non-market online behavior.”
  • Right to be forgotten — is not a right
  • “Addition by design”
  • Behavioral surplus: every action a user performs is considered a signal to be analyzed and fed back into the system.
The new “supply chain”
  • Commodification of behavior — in this context, “Smart” is a euphemism for rendition
  • “Certainty for profit.” — “This assembly is a market project: its purpose is to fabricate prediction which become more valuable as they approach certainty.”
The lack of theory

On traditional capitalism:

  • Edison and Ford believed that America, and eventually the world, would have to fashion a new, more rational capitalism in order to avert a future of misery and conflict.
  • Capitalism evolves in response to the needs of people in a time and place
  • You can have any color you want as long as its [insert only option here]
  • Shareholder value maximization was widely accepted as the objective function of the firm
  • “Henry Ford set out to prove that he could maximize profits by driving up volumes, radically decreasing costs, and widening demand.”
Capitalists argue that their success is a force of nature
  • “Surveillance capitalists are no different from other capitalists in demanding freedom from any sort of constraint. They insist upon the “freedom to” launch every model practice while aggressively asserting the necessity of their “freedom from” law and regulation.”
Traditional capitalists had some restraints/limits
  • “Smith argued that price increases had to be balanced with wage increases ‘so that the labourer may still be able to purchase that quantity of those necessary articles which the state of the demand for labour…required that he should have.”
Concentration of wealth in fewer hands

On privacy:

  • “Surveillance capitalism cannot be reduced to known harms such as monopoly and privacy.”
  • In 2010, Mark declared that “privacy was no longer a social norm and then congratulated himself for relaxing the company’s ‘privacy policies’ to reflect this self-interest assertion of a new social condition.”
  • Courts have upheld the legitimacy of click wrap agreements despite the obvious lack of meaningful consent
  • Companies began to explain violations of privacy as the necessary quid pro quo for free internet services
We should trust Google more than democratic institutions
  • Google also benefits from post 9/11 hysteria which “created[ed] incentives for the government to rely on private enterprise to collect and generate information for it.”
  • “Not surprisingly, Google’s leaders are passionate inevitablists….Many of the changes we discuss are inevitable. They’re coming.”
No place to be private


  • “Google’s reinvestment priorities would shift from merely improving its user offerings to investing and institutionalizing the most far-reaching and technologically advanced raw-material supply operations that the world had ever seen.”
  • “Google would now secure more behavioral data than it needed to serve its user. That surplus, a behavioral surplus, was the game changing, zero-cost asset that was divested from service improvement toward a genuine and highly lucrative market exchange.”
  • “Google has learned to be a data-based fortune-teller that replaces intuition with science at scale in order to tell and sell our fortunes for profit to its customers, but not to us.”
  • Page and Brin were the first to introduce a dual-class share structure to the tech sector with Google’s 2004 public offering: “we have set up a corporate structure that will make it harder for outside parties to take over or influence Google.”
dual share structures
  • “Google has done incrementally and furtively what would plainly be illegal if done all at once.”


  • “Our mission is to connect every person in the world. You don’t do that by having a service people pay for.” — Mark
  • “Facebook was the first and has remained the most aggressive competitor for behavior surplus supplies.”
  • The “Like” button is a powerful supply mechanism from which behavioral surplus is continuously captured and transmitted.”
  • In November 2011, Facebook consented to a settlement with the FTC over charges that it had systematically “deceived consumers by telling them that they could keep their Facebook information private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”
Facebook provided qualitative data
  • “Cambridge Analytica merely reoriented the surveillance capitalist machinery from commercial markets in behavioral futures toward guaranteed outcomes in the political sphere.”
  • “Many people feel that if you are not on Facebook, you do not exist.”
  • “The more that a user ‘liked,’ the more that she informed Facebook about the precise shape and composition of her ‘hand,’ thus allowing the company to continuously tighten the glove and increase the predictive value of her signals.”
  • “Expanding one’s social network by adding a number of distant friends through Facebook may be detrimental by stimulating negative emotions for users.”
  • “An analysis of young men and women who had used Facebook for at least six years conducted that, regardless of gender, more Facebook participation leads to more body surveillance. A sense of self-worth comes to depend on physical appearance and being perceived as a sex object.”
  • “Facebook use does not promote well-being . . . Individual social media users might do well to curtail their use of social media and focus on real-world relationships.”

On Government

  • “Their efforts have been marked by a few consistent themes: that technology companies such as Google move faster than the state’s ability to understand or follow.”
  • “lawlessness is the necessary context for ‘technological innovation.’”
Government adapts slowly
  • “Most significantly, anxiety and vigilance have been fixed on the known threats of surveillance and control associated with state power. Earlier incursions of behavior modification at scale were understood as an extension of the state, and we were not prepared for the onslaught from private firms.”
  • “Surveillance capitalism found shelter in the neoliberal zeitgeist that equated government regulation of business with tyranny.”
  • “Surveillance capitalism’s velocities outrun democracy even as they outrun our ability to understand what is happening and consider the consequences.”
  • “in the nearly two decades since the invention of surveillance capitalism, existing laws, largely centered on privacy and anti-trust, have not been sufficient to disrupt its growth.”
Minority report
  • “So far US privacy laws have failed to keep pace”
  • “When US scholars and jurists assess the ways in which digital capabilities challenge existing law, the focus is on Fourth Amendment doctrine as it circumscribes the relationship between individuals and the state.”
  • “The Fourth Amendment as currently construed does not help us here.”
  • “Individuals each wrestling with the myriad complexities of their own data protection will be no match for surveillance capitalism’s staggering asymmetries of knowledge and power.”
Complete knowledge →perfect prediction →total control

Misc Quotes

  • “No longer content to be anonymous members of the mass, we feel our entitlement to self-determination, an obvious truth to us that would have been an impossible act of hubris” in the past.
  • “the yawning gap between the right of self-assertion and the capacity to control the social settings which render such self-assertion feasible.”
  • “every successful vaccine begins with a close understanding of the enemy disease”
  • “In the absence of a clear-minded appreciation of this new logic of accumulation, every attempt at understanding, predicting, regulating, or prohibiting the activities of surveillance capitalists will fall short.”
  • “Worse still, it gradually comes to seem inevitable. New dependencies develop. As populations grow numb, it becomes more difficult for individuals and groups to complain.”
  • “If you are not on our map, you do not exist”
  • “Despite their claims of objectivity and neutrality, they are constantly making value-laden, controversial decisions. They help create the world they claim to merely ‘show’ us.”
  • “the surest way to predict behavior is to intervene at its source and shape it.”
  • “The new power is action…The real power is that not you can modify real-time actions in the real world…You can make people do things with this technology. Even if it’s just 5% of people, you’ve made 5% of people do an action they otherwise wouldn’t have done, so to some extent there is an element of the user’s loss of self-control.”
  • “Surveillance capitalists’ interests have shifted from using automated machine processes to know about your behavior to using machine processes to shape your behavior according to their interests.”
  • “Tyranny is the obliteration of politics.”
  • “I turn once more to Tom Pain, who called upon each generation to assert its will when illegitimate forces hijack the future and we find ourselves hurled toward a destiny that we did not choose.”
  • “Arendt, like Orwell, asserts the possibility of new beginnings that do not cleave to already visible lines of power.”

Various Sources

  • Hal Varian: “Adam Smith of Googlenomics.” God father of the advertising models.
  • Sheryl Sandburg — hired by Mark to transform Facebook from a social networking site to an advertising behemoth
  • Emile Durkheim — The Division of Labor in Society
  • Antonio Garcia-Martinez — Chaos Monkeys
  • Hannah Arendt — Origins of Totalitarianism
  • Thomas Paine — Rights of Man
  • Edmund Burke-Reflections on the Revolution in France



Osama Alkhawaja

Lawyer writing on politics, history, and anything that interests me in at the moment