Surveillance capitalism is a novel market form and a specific logic of capitalist accumulation that was first described in a 2014 essay by business theorist and social scientist Shoshana Zuboff. She characterized it as a "radically disembedded and extractive variant of information capitalism" based on the commodification of "reality" and its transformation into behavioral data for analysis and sales.
In a subsequent 2015 scholarly article Zuboff analyzed the societal implications of this mutation of capitalism. She differentiated "surveillance assets", "surveillance capital", and "surveillance capitalism" and their dependence on a global architecture of computer mediation that she calls "Big Other", a distributed and largely uncontested new expression of power which constitutes hidden mechanisms of extraction, commodification, and control that threatens core values such as freedom, democracy and privacy.
According to Zuboff, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.
In her Oxford University lecture published in 2016, Zuboff identified surveillance capitalism's mechanisms and practices, including the manufacture of "prediction products" for sale in new "behavioral futures markets". She introduced the concept "dispossession by surveillance" and argued that it challenges the psychological and political bases of self-determination as it concentrates rights in the surveillance regime. This is described as a "coup from above".
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". :17Capitalism 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 has been 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.
The term "surveillance capitalism" has also been used by political economists John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, though with a different meaning. In an article published in Monthly Review in 2014, they apply it to describe the manifestation of the "insatiable need for data" of financialization, which they explain is "the long-term growth speculation on financial assets relative to GDP" introduced in the United States by industry and government in the 1980s that evolved out of the military-industrial complex and the advertising industry.
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 uses for mass-surveillance require structural changes towards a new system 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".