According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism emerged due to the "coupling of the vast powers of the digital with the radical indifference and intrinsic narcissism of the financial capitalism and its neoliberal vision that have dominated commerce for at least three decades, especially in the Anglo economies" and depends on the global architecture of computer mediation which produces a distributed and largely uncontested new expression of power she calls 'Big Other'.
She states it was first discovered and consolidated at Google, being to surveillance capitalism what Ford and General Motors were to mass-production and managerial capitalism a century ago, and later adopted by Facebook and others and that it uses illegible mechanisms of extraction, commodification, and control of behavior to produce new markets of behavioral prediction and modification.
Zuboff states that "the online world, which used to be kind of our world, is now where capitalism is developing in new ways" by data extraction rather than the production of new goods, thus generating intense concentrations of power over extraction and threatening core values such as freedom and privacy.
Economic pressures of capitalism are driving the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action. Relevantly Turow writes that "centrality of corporate power is a direct reality at the very heart of the digital age". Capitalism has become focused on expanding the proportion of social life that is open to data collection and data processing. This may come with significant implications for vulnerability and control of society as well as for privacy. However, increased data collection may also have various advantages for individuals and society such as self-optimization (Quantified Self), societal optimizations (such as by smart cities) and new or optimized services (such as various Google applications). Still, collecting and processing data in the context of capitalism's core profit-making motive might present an inherent danger.
Zuboff contrasts mass production of industrial capitalism with surveillance capitalism with the former being interdependent with its populations who were its consumers and employees and the latter preying on dependent populations who are neither its consumers nor its employees and largely ignorant of its procedures.
She notes that surveillance capitalism reaches beyond the conventional institutional terrain of the private firm and accumulates not only surveillance assets and capital, but also rights and operates without meaningful mechanisms of consent. Surveillance is changing power structures in the information economy. This might present a further power shift beyond the nation-state and towards a form of corporatocracy.
In 2014 Vincent Mosco referred to the marketing of information about customers and subscribers to advertisers surveillance capitalism and makes note of the surveillance state alongside it. Christian Fuchs found that the surveillance state fuses with surveillance capitalism. Similarly Zuboff informs that the issue is further complicated by highly invisible collaborative arrangements with state security apparatuses. According to Trebor Scholz companies recruit people as informants for this type of capitalism.
Numerous organizations have been struggling for free speech and privacy rights in the new surveillance capitalism and various national governments have enacted privacy laws. It is also conceivable that new capabilities and usages for mass-surveillance require structural changes towards a new system to occur to prevent misuse.
Zuboff compares demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists or lobbying for an end to commercial surveillance on the Internet to asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand and states that such demands are existential threats that violate the basic mechanisms of the entity's survival.
Zuboff warns that principles of self-determination might forfeit due to "ignorance, learned helplessness, inattention, inconvenience, habituation, or drift" and states that "we tend to rely on mental models, vocabularies, and tools distilled from past catastrophes", referring to the twentieth century's totalitarian nightmares or the monopolistic predations of Gilded Age capitalism with countermeasures that have been developed to fight those earlier threats not being sufficient or even appropriate for the novel challenges.
She also poses the question: "will we be the masters of information, or will we be its slaves?" and states that "if the digital future is to be our home, then it is we who must make it so".