Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

We’re All Truman Now: On Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

August 28th, 2019 | 11 min read

By Austin Gohn

It’s been over twenty years since the release of The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir. Truman, the star of the show, is unaware that the show even exists. Billions of people around the world watch his every move, tracked by thousands of hidden cameras hidden around the “largest studio ever constructed.” Everyone in his life—from his wife to his best friend—are actors directed by Christof, the show’s producer, and Truman’s actions are carefully nudged by events and conversations invisibly orchestrated from above.

In the same year, 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google. It was a way to search all 25-million pages of the Internet. I remember using Google on our family’s Gateway to search for information about Beanie Baby values. And, only a few years later, to search for pornography using only the word sexy because it was the only word in that genre that I knew.

With every search, from the nine-year-old me and millions of others, Google got better—at first, to improve the experience of its users. In the coming years, though, haunted by the question, How do we turn all these users into dollars?, Google evolved into something different. Like Christof, it began to construct its own world, one in which it could track where we’re going, what temperature we like in our houses, the speed of our cars, the dimensions of our living rooms, what we’re feeling, and what we want—so that it could nudge our behaviors in profitable directions. To do this, it didn’t need to build a film studio visible from space. It only needed to create devices we were willing to carry in our pockets, attach to our walls, or set on our kitchen counters. Little did we realize, it was building the studio right around us. We’re all Truman, now.

Shoshana Zuboff, in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontiers of Power (Public Affairs Books, $38.00), tells the story of how we let this happen, why it shouldn’t be happening, and what we can do to stop it from happening more. If Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age mapped the religious landscape of the last five-hundred years, Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism maps the digital landscape of the last twenty.

In Part One, Zuboff explains how companies like Google provided an answer to the “existential contradiction” of what she calls “second modernity.” In a cultural moment at the intersection of I can do what I want and I can’t get what I need to do what I want, Google and Facebook, two of the first in a slew of companies, offered a way forward that would only cost us what it means to be human. Let us extract your human experiences and render it into data that can be used to make predictions about your behavior and sold to advertisers, they said, in privacy agreements most of us never read, and we’ll give you everything you’re looking for. Search for Beanie Baby values or porn on Google, purchase Eat, Pray, Love or Mein Kampf on Amazon, or “like” a post from a friend on Facebook, they’ll just be making notes from the other side of a one-way mirror.

Then, in Part Two, Zuboff explores how the “imperative” to extract as much data as possible weaseled its way into every aspect of our existence. In effect, the Internet is simply disappearing into the background of our lives as these companies create more and more products that track the scope and depth of human experience without us even noticing. For scope, they want “your bloodstream and your bed, your breakfast conversation, your commute, your run, your refrigerator, your parking space, your living room.” For depth, they want “your personality, moods, and emotions, your lies and vulnerabilities.” The more they know, the more certainty they have about us, the easier it is for marketers to nudge us toward outcomes they want. Even if we want to stop using these products, we can no longer imagine life any other way.

Finally, in Part Three, Zuboff examines the future that surveillance capitalism is quickly creating. It’s not totalitarianism, the world of 1984, but rather what she calls instrumentarianism. Instead of Big Brother, it’s what she calls “Big Other.” The more they know about us, the less we know about them, the easier it is to “herd” us toward an ideal society. It’s a new era of applied utopianism, with the explicit goal of creating a “nervous system for humanity.” In this world, plans, created by the “priests” of this new digital order with a “God’s-eye-view” of everything, will replace politics. It’s a world ruled from Silicon Valley not Washington D.C., one decided by investors rather than voters.

As Zuboff reminds us throughout the book, nothing about this world is inevitable. In the end, her solution is both bottom-up and top-down. From the bottom, there must be a groundswell of moral outrage. It starts with people, like Truman, asking questions about reality. Is having a Internet-enabled thermostat that can save me a few dollars a month worth the cost of my humanity? And, from the top, our political institutions must hold these companies accountable—instead of succumbing to the logic of the neo-liberal economic paradigm, which allows these companies to continue unhindered. Together, from the top and the bottom, we must make “synthetic declarations” of “alternative pathways that lead to a human future,” countering the underlying assumptions of surveillance capitalism. And, in the meantime, it’s likely that we will see more digital natives do whatever it takes to opt out.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism represents a significant turning point in the conversation around digital technology. She shifts the main critique of the digital economy from distraction to extraction—one of the many terms Zuboff introduces throughout her book. It’s not just that these technologies distract us from what’s important to us. It’s that they extract what’s important to us so that they can make predictions about us—threatening what Zuboff sees as essential to what it means to be human. If this book falls short, though, it’s because the “human future” Zuboff is fighting for is not quite human enough.

Throughout the book, Zuboff makes it clear that her philosophical starting point is the post-Enlightenment category of individual. To be human, according to Zuboff, is to have the will to will. It’s to decide for yourself who you want to become and to have the resources, both internal and external, to do so. The threat, then, is the subjection of the “I will” of the individual to the “you will” of surveillance capitalism. If we lose the will, we lose our humanity and, with it, the foundation of democracy—another category that hearkens back to the Enlightenment. By sticking to post-Enlightenment categories, it seems that Zuboff’s “human future” does not go back far enough—which means that her proposed solutions, thoughtful as they are, fail to take into account the fullness of what it means to be human.

What Zuboff’s argument needs most is theological reflection on what it means to be human. It needs vocabulary like imago dei and the flesh. To be human is to be made in the image of God, a fact that both includes and goes further than the mere will to will. As the book of Romans, and the history of humans, makes clear, the will is in captivity to the flesh. “Now if I do what I do not want,” Paul writes in his realistic analysis of human nature, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Apart from the grace of God, we’ve never had the will to will.

If this is true, it means surveillance capitalism, demeaning as it is, is a symptom of how Sin—as a power—has weaseled its way into the very systems of capitalism and democracy. It’s not enough to simply transfer the “I will” of Google executives back to Zuboff’s individuals because power spread out at the bottom is prone to the same sinful patterns as power concentrated at the top. If we are to fight for a truly human future, it must begin with the church.

These companies want nothing less than to be god, as made clear in the language Zuboff employs throughout the book. Their aim is to be all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful. You know when I sit and when I rise, thanks to the location tracking that is almost always on. Before a word is on my tongue, O Google, you auto-fill the rest for me. Where can I flee from your presence?, only that dead spot on the way to your in-laws house, which they will soon fix. When I am awake, I am still with you.

Instead of the God of the Bible, though, these companies are a shadow god, more Christof than Christ. Presence, knowledge, and power are not used to serve us but to serve the ends of advertisers. This is why Joy Clarkson, also noting the similarity between The Truman Show and our cultural moment, concludes, “The Truman Show is not an indictment of Christianity, it is a cautionary tale, reminding us what happens when we let technology, media, and consumerism play god in our lives.” Instead of leading us toward true flourishing, they shepherd us into the brand of flourishing depicted by advertisements for Bud Light, a fleeting, watered-down taste of the real thing.

And, it’s possible that the very church that should be fighting for a human future is complicit in the arc of surveillance capitalism. Andrew Sullivan, in his viral New York Magazine essay from 2016, “I used to be a human being,” argued that perhaps the greatest threat to the church is not hedonism but distraction. What if, as Zuboff writes, it’s not distraction but extraction? The church has the opportunity to shepherd those who are opting out of the digital ecosystem into a new way of being human, but not if it’s too busy leveraging the power of targeted marketing in order to win more custo-verts. What will happen when people begin to wonder whether their spiritual experiences were nothing more than a nudge from surveillance ecclesiology? 

At the end of The Truman Show, no longer willing to be guided toward the safety of Seahaven, Truman bravely sets sail to the edge of his world, the only reality he has ever known. After crashing his sailboat into the outer wall of the studio, he ascends a staircase and exits the world with his famous line, “In case I don’t see ya. Good afternoon, Good evening, and Good night.” He was outside the walls.

Digital natives, who have known only the reality presented to them by the digital age, are beginning to board boats of their own and sail toward the edge of the digital landscape, where surveillance can’t follow. They’re becoming digital refugees, escaping from the only world they have ever known guided only by a deep ache for something else. It’s not long before, like Truman, they’ll crash into the edge, climb the staircase, and opt out. The only question is: Who will be there to welcome them?

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0