To complete our discussion of surveillance capitalism it is worth considering the power dynamics in play. Social and political motivations are central to the subject of data handling1234. Surveillance capitalism works through the medium of all of the digital instrumentation while turning the user into instruments of others gain. For this dual reason, Zuboff (2019)5 uses the term “instrumentarian power” to describe surveillance capitalism’s instrumental relationship with its user base.

Instrumentation is used at arm’s length to shape behaviour. The user is not aware or afraid of it. Zuboff (2019)5 considers surveillance capitalism to be anti-democratic and makes a convincing case for her views. She considers the potential benefits that may accrue as secondary to how they would be achieved and that getting a great outcome in an anti-democratic fashion is not good for our society. Extreme asymmetries of knowledge result in extreme inequalities of power5. Computation replaces politics. Resistance is not possible because we’re not aware of what’s happening. Computational certainty may not be compatible within the democratic social context.

Other social scientists have taken a different view. Harari67 calls surveillance capitalism a subset of ‘dataism’ and describes it as an emerging ideology in which “information flow [is the] supreme value”. He goes on to describe the historical advantages of democracy in terms of data flow and distributed communication and power sharing. He reasons that democracy flourished in the 20th century because it adopted a more decentralized communications and power system than competing totalitarian systems and points out that democracy or more specifically, liberal democracy has gone through several cycles of crises and regeneration and has the potential to adapt to new forms of emerging power based on data.

When examining power dynamics there are obvious parallels between the traditional advertising industry and surveillance capitalism. When advertising emerged after the First World War, it shared the same characteristics as surveillance capitalism does now. It was an emerging phenomenon based on cutting edge technology and used by private firms as a means of passive manipulation and control and became known as “manufactured consent” (Herman and Chomsky, 20108). Rather than subverting democracy, it instead became a vital tool for democracy in the 20th century.

Next: Thoughts on Data Privacy

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  2. Markus, M.L., 1983. Power, Politics, and MIS Implementation. Commun ACM 26, 430–444. ↩︎

  3. Orlikowski, W.J., 1991. Integrated information environment or matrix of control? The contradictory implications of information technology. Account. Manag. Inf. Technol. 1, 9–42. ↩︎

  4. Sørensen, C., 2011. Enterprise Mobility: Tiny Technology with Global Impact on Work [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 1.15.19). ↩︎

  5. Zuboff, S., 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books. ↩︎

  6. Harari, Y.N., 2018. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Random House Publishing Group. ↩︎

  7. Harari, Y.N., 2016. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harvill Secker. ↩︎

  8. Herman, E.S., Chomsky, N., 2010. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Random House. ↩︎