Capitalism got its start in 16th century Europe through mercantilism, a system in which merchants moved goods and marked up prices between markets. Two centuries later, Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher of “invisible hand” renown, used writings by his own hand to prop up industrial capitalism, a regime that manifested in factories, mass-produced goods, and machines. Today we’re witnessing the emergence of a new paradigm: “surveillance capitalism.”
The phrase is the title of a new book by Shoshana Zuboff, a retired Harvard Business School professor who helped popularize the term in a 2014 essay for a German magazine. As she wrote at the time, “Under surveillance capitalism, populations are not to be employed and served. Instead, they are to be harvested for behavioral data.” The information economy, “artificial intelligence,” big data—pick your euphemism. In a data-driven world, all roads lead here: Corporations plundering personal information for profit.
It’s a point that many stars of the techie-literati have been making of late. See the public apostasy of Roger McNamee, a Facebook investor and onetime Mark Zuckerberg mentor who has become one of the media giant’s most vociferous critics. As the Zucked author recently put it to Fortune: “The problem today is that…the people are not the customers; the people are the fuel.” To extend the analogy, the erosion of democracy is, one might suppose, equivalent to the existential threat of climate change.
While I have not yet read Zuboff’s book (I’m in the middle of an older hair-prickler, In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson), I did catch this excellent interview she gave to Recode’s Kara Swisher. The chat is well-worth a listen; as Zuboff explains, the data-exploitative business models of Silicon Valley’s scions were forged in the fires of the dot-com bust. In the scramble to find revenues, data-fed advertising materialized as the industry’s savior. Since users tended to opt out when asked to fork over information, the tinkerers in tech-land got good at acquiring this precious commodity surreptitiously. And so here we are.
(Bonus: Swisher drops a reference to a Fortune classic, “Chaos by Design,” about Google’s adolescence, a portentous feature penned in 2006 by this newsletter’s regular, weekday author.)
I’m looking forward to devouring Zuboff’s book. And I’m certain, given my search history, that I’ll be seeing more than a few advertisements around the web for it.
Longtime readers of this newsletter will recall my aversion to DNA testing. As I wrote last year, my stance was “informed by the chilling possibility—however slight—that a political regime could ever use this information against me and my loved ones.” Now a report by the New York Times has alleged that Chinese authorities have been collecting citizens’ genetic and biometric information, under the guise of free medical checkups, for the purposes of surveillance and oppression. The Communist Party has supposedly been using these data in its crackdown on the country’s ethnic Uighur population. This is exactly the kind of dystopian scenario my paranoiac mind feared…
Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach Robert Hackett via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber (see OTR fingerprint on my about.me), PGP encrypted email (see public key on my Keybase.io), Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.