Cory Doctorow describes what's wrong about "Surveillance Capitalism"

Originally published at:


It’s like he never left.

Well, not really, but I appreciate these updates.


From the article: (emphasis mine)

His thoughts on this subject have been influential enough that they may sound familiar to you by now: That anytime you are provided with a service, like Facebook, for free, you are in fact the product being sold. That social media companies are basically giant behavior-modification systems that use algorithms to relentlessly increase “engagement,” largely by evoking bad feelings in the people who use them. That these companies in turn sell the ability to modify your behavior to “advertisers,” who sometimes come in the old form of people who want to persuade you to buy soap but who now just as often come in the form of malevolent actors who want to use their influence over you to, say, depress voter turnout or radicalize white supremacists. That in exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you. That because of all this, and for the good of society, you should do everything in your power to quit.


Yes, this still applies and does not contradict Cory’s thesis.

I came to say ‘why not both?’

I.e. yes Cory’s diagnosis is correct in that monopolies are the problem, but it is ALSO a problem that both monopolies and those who aren’t DO use the tech to manipulate people’s behaviour


(I was not arguing against Cory, rather adding another succinct way to describe the situation.)


This post is a book plug and an exercise in surveillance capitalism all in one! The badger reports the following from the post page: “Privacy Badger detected 17 potential trackers on this page”


Yeah, I first learned about Privacy Badger from a BB post by Cory 5 years ago. As soon as I installed it, I saw how many trackers there were in his post. As evidenced by Cory’s own site being tracker free, I don’t think BB contributors get to choose what ads run on their posts


Switching business models is hard. If BB ever makes the leap I would likely support the new model. Until then it blog view and ad blockers set to kill.


I don’t think that is the core of the problem, which is that capitalism inevitably leads to monopolies. So to get rid of surveillance capitalism, we’d need to get rid of capitalism. Kinda obvious, too: can’t have no surveillance capitalism without capitalism. Maybe I should write a book about that? A very short one.

True. For that to happen though, we would at the very least need to abolish intellectual property.


what’s wrong about “Surveillance Capitalism”


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Well, if he’d never left, the headline of this article would be “‘Products’ fight back against Surveillance Capitalism, an urgent problem with monopolist control by Big Tech unaddressed by traditional privacy lenses,” but otherwise, yeah.

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That’s… a spookily plausible Cory title.


Despite the word salad, I kind of miss those titles.

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So, when they come up with a covid tracking app that monitors where you are and who you stand next to, will you install it?


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To me, one of the great ideas in Zuboff’s book is that “you are the product” is not the way to look at it. That gives the data companies too much credit, and makes you sound more important to them than you are in reality. Companies actually care about their products and whether they’re in good shape or not. In the case of data, though, your DATA (separate from you, the person) is the product that the companies sell for profit. You (the actual, living breathing person) are the irrelevant byproduct of the data extraction. I like to think of it like this: Sunkist sells orange juice. The juice is the product. You + your private data are an orange. Once Facebook is done extracting your data for sale, you and what’s left of your privacy are an orange rind, to be discarded. $0.02


I have been a fan of Cory’s writing for what, two decades now? Fiction and non-fiction, his ideas have always been helpful to me. I really admire his talent.

I also have been a huge Zuboff stan the past year or so. I have dragged her book into any comments threads here I could. I think her writing in Surveillance was tremendously helpful and I wanted there to be a wider, honest engagement with her ideas in our world.

Cory’s most recent is not that. I am embarrassed by his reductio of her thesis to “Facebook uses mindrays” and the pivot from that absurdity to make a point that doesn’t contradict her thesis.

I have been thinking of this as similar to reviewers not liking an author’s work because the plot doesn’t go they way they think it should. It is especially bad that Zuboff’s book provides a overarching framework for critical analysis of digital capitalism, one that in no way precludes Cory’s proposed solutions. She effectively equates surveillance capitalists with Nazis. The book has a long section on the corrosive effect of B.F. Skinner on an entire generation, and on nerds in particular. She describes how surveillance capitalists captured the regulatory state, and the effects that will propagate from that. I mean et cetera. But her real thesis is something something mindrays.

Some writers crapped their pants when they got a chance to read Thomas Piketty’s 900 page description of how unequal our current society is. But presented with Shoshana Zuboff’s book proposing a new paradigm for analyzing the superstructure of our current economy, it’s (jagoff gesture) mindrays pfft.

I’m glad Cory has solutions to propose for how to fix our current problems. I’m sorry he feels that Zuboff didn’t propose those solutions he feels are correct. But slagging (some of) her work to call attention to your own pets is weak.

Seriously, wtf Doctorow?


As is often the case with Cory, his summary is much more polemical (and confusing, if not misleading) than the long form piece.

The actual article is full of praise for numerous aspects of Zuboff’s work. He just disagrees with her about how effective tech firms are at using all the data they hoover up.

Given that he agrees with her on most of what she wrote (and says so), it’s hardly surprising that he focusses on the bit(s) he doesn’t agree with.


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