A book review for pastors: Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power (London: Profile Books, 2019)

The issues at stake in this important book shape the inner life of almost every member of the church. Including you.

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Once a year or so, maybe less often, a book comes along that ‘everyone’ says that ‘everyone ought to read.’  I heard Andrew Marr on BBC Radio 4 describe this book as more impressive even than that: he said it was a once-in-a-decade kind of book.

I think it’s both much more, and slightly less, than that.  More, because the challenges it explores are staggeringly important, scary, and of a kind that almost defy exaggeration. Less, because I don’t think it’s quite as good a book as the issues demand. 

But it’s more than worth a read. Because, pastors, the issues at stake shape the inner life of almost every member of the church.  Including you. It is, to state the obvious, a big and dense book, and what follows cannot be a competent review.  A lot of what needs to be said about it can’t be said here: it needs political, philosophical and economic geeks crawling all over it.

Shoshana Zuboff is a professor at Harvard, with a PhD in social psychology, and where she teaches the issues this book explores. It’s long, well-informed, widely and deeply read, and passionate.

Here’s the basic question: what is the economic engine that fuels Google, Facebook, Twitter and their subsidiaries? How can companies that make nothing, make billions?

You think you know the answer.  They make it by advertising to you.  And you think you’re wise to the deal: you click on Google to search for some shoes,  and your Facebook stream shows you some adverts for shoes for the next few weeks.  I can put up with that, you think.  It’s not exactly Blade Runner.

That is yesterday’s answer, and it’s way too superficial.

Big Tech tracks everything that’s connected about you. Your phone, your watch, your smart speaker, your thermostat. Not a click is forgotten, not a workout is neglected, not a map, not a voice search.  And that data is mined and sold on.  You didn’t realise that when you agreed to those vast terms and conditions, but that’s the economic engine.  Zuboff has irritating little models with cartoons to explain this, but basically there is vast behavioural surplus about each of us, and we’ve given it away for nothing.

Does that matter?  Well, as the European foray into GDPR has shown us, it is enormously hard to get this kind of activity under any legal control.  The speed that Big Tech works, the unprecedented nature of its ability to store and harvest and sell information, the hidden nature of its algorithms, makes Zuboff very worried.  This is massive, unregulated activity. If you thought it was hard getting hold of Google’s tax, try accessing its data.

And, as the nervousness around elections and referendums has shown us, there is growing concern that this activity is covertly messing with democracy itself, and there’s nothing we can do about it. 

In a sense, Zuboff argues, this is a new version of the old question, quis custodiet ipsos custodes, Who polices the police?  Except, of course, that police are legally constituted.  Her questions are three fold: Who knows?  Who decides who knows? And who decides who decides?

If that makes you think Big Brother, she wants it.  She calls it Big Other, and by the end she’s name checked not only Orwell, but main political and economic thinkers, reaching back to Thomas Paine. Spoiler alert: she’s of the left, believes that unregulated capitalism is destructive, and sees these companies as awful examples of that. So, on the map, she’s against Hayek. She’s not against tech per se.

Now, why is this worth engaging with as a pastor?

Because it seems to me we and our fellow Christinas are both victims, but also rescuers in this scenario.

We’re victims, because we too are being hoovered into a huge knowledge vat, which is being served and sorted.  Make sure, Facebook’s algorithms know your faith position, your politics position, and how you choose to spend your fun time.  They will feed you, prod you, engage you, feed you ‘like’s  and (occasionally) provoke you, in order solely to keep your eyes glued to the screen, and distracted from off-line engagement.  It worries me that my primary source of information on any issue would be a news feed that is tailored.

But deeper than that, the questions that she asks are actually theological ones: what does it mean to be a human? What does it mean to have a will? What does it mean to be a self? What is home, and what is exile? What is freedom?

Other people have asked those questions, of course, and started to interrogate the destruction of the inner self that happens when one lives only, mostly, or defined by being, online.  Zuboff goes much further in making me very uneasy about the economic model which thrives by pushing us ever deeper into that space.

Or to step it up a level, she’s very concerned about who will hold to account a multinational, unregulated, unregulatable organisation. Who will judge it? For what it’s worth, I think she’s too cynical about Big Data: I don’t think they have the foggiest idea what they’re doing either.  No-one at Facebook or Google has a master plan to destroy democracy; it’s just happening on their watch, with their tools, and they haven’t got any idea about how to stop it. Although, as long as it keeps making them money, they can live with it. Everything about us is being commodified.  And Zuboff means us to understand that she does mean everything.

Also, she is playing for big stakes.  She is openly talking about Totalitarianism, and she doesn’t mean that metaphorically. By the end, Hannah Arendt is centre stage.

But the answer to the questions must be theological, mustn’t it?  As Arendt also argued. The hidden data these companies hold, the unimaginable computational power they express, is not worth an ant’s synapse compared to the wisdom and knowledge of our Father, before whom nothing is hidden. And since all law and justice flows from him, it will not be impossible to construct the legal controls for Big Data, if we can think wisely.  As Zuboff says, GDPR is a good test case, and probably more robust than anything US law has thrown up thus far.

More than that, our deepest knowledge has two interconnected axes, as both Calvin and Augustine famously assert: knowledge of self and knowledge of God, and it is at the intersection of those two that I am most truly me.  If we deny the reality of God, we are left with the loneliness of a fragmented I, and although we currently experience that online, it’s actually no different to the experience of a Descartes or a Sarte. A self curved in on itself, as Luther put it.

As a sidenote, Zuboff’s cultural notes don’t go that far back.  She stops at the Bentham/Burke debate on the French Revolution.  Fine and well, and that is a rare foray into European thought for her, but we western Christians have a deep intellectual tradition to fight from here, and we shall need it.

Wonderfully, the solution to that incurved self can never be online, because our relationship with God cannot be expressed in that form.  Yes, you can read your bible online, but you can’t pray online – or at least, no algorithm could answer those prayers. No algorithm can give you the assurance of salvation, the sweetness of a promise made and kept.

Which means that the challenge for us as Christians will be to make sure that our relationships with each other share that too.  Church must be real, not virtual, so must small groups, prayer triplets, support groups and counselling.  Discipleship happens over shared meals, long walks and deep conversations; that was Jesus’ way, and it should become ours, too.  Our patterns of spiritual disciple cannot be shrivelled to a tweet.  

Just be aware though – and Zuboff is rightly trying to spook us – when you go for that walk or share that meal, your phone is tracking every step and listening to every word.  How else does it hear you say, “Alexa?’

There are dozens of micro lessons here, and I’m going to cover them in a different book review soon.  Just notice that I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and I’ve sworn off Google search and maps.  Why not Apple? – interesting, very interesting.  Zuboff argues that it’s the economic engine: Google sells us stuff at a loss, and sells our behavioural surplus to make its profit; Apple sells us kit to make the profit, and retains the behavioural surplus.  Actually, I reckon they’ve been reading this book because the messages from Cupertino are all about how Apple doesn’t retain the data, and even they can’t unscramble their algorithms. Watch the space.

If this was a proper book review, I’d make some comments on style.  First, it’s repetitive.  Zuboff is, I think, trying to make a cumulative case, but I reckon it could ave lost at least a third, and gained only clarity.  Secondly, it’s shrill.  Now, Zuboff may have calculated that she needed to give the book a sharp, cutting edge for the urgency of what she has to say to get through, but I did get more than the occasional sensation of wanting to argue back, or wonder if things are quite as bleak as she describes them.  Third, Zuboff has the literary style of coining new phrases to describe what she means, as shorthand.  You either like this or not, and I can’t decide where I sit.  It’s certainly clever, but often clever-clogs.  It’s not something I’d use while preaching because of the risk of putting people off.

Most seriously, I don’t think she has uncovered the engine that fuels the rise of democracy-distorting ‘fake news.’ It might be mere greed, but if there is a political, anti-democratic agenda as well, she does not name it. My guess is that she’d name our friends in the Kremlin, but doesn’t what to set that issue running.

But Shoshana Zuboff has put her finger on a series of critical political, economic, cultural and political questions, and she has done so first, and keenly. If she is right, we stand at a crossroads, the equal of the most significant we have ever faced, and unprecedented in its global scope.

We may fine tune her questions, and we might well deepen her answer (to some, like the legal ones, she really has none). But we need to engage, deeply, well, and fast. And as Christians, we have the deepest roots of civilisation to do it from.

Oh, and put Mark Zuckerberg, Eric Schmidt and Tim Cook on your prayer list.  The Bible tells us to pray for our rulers.

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