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Globally Recognized Scholar Talks Rise of Surveillance Capitalism During Parlee Lecture

Drawing from her bestselling, landmark book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, author Shoshana Zuboff addressed questions surrounding our privacy and personal data in the digital age during a Parlee Center for Science and the Common Good event on February 5.

A capacity crowd in Olin Auditorium shouted out words like “fear,” “cynicism” and “mistrust” after Zuboff asked why the audience was interested in the topic. “The internet is now essentially owned and operated by surveillance capital,” she said. “And you are global anonymous users.”

Surveillance capitalism—a concept coined by Zuboff herself—defines the current age in which we’ve all opted into the commodification of our personal information. During her hour-long talk to students, faculty, staff and members of the neighboring community, Zuboff outlined the sobering reality that led “users” to so easily and willingly give up their privacy to companies like Google and Facebook.

Personal information, she said, is gathered by those companies and used to predict behaviors, and even influence it, blurring the lines on freedom and democracy.

“Their knowledge about us creates power,” she said. “It is best exemplified in the growing abyss between what we can know and what can be known about us. Who knows? Who decides who knows? And who decides who decides who knows?”

She said knowledge, authority and power define the social order of our time. Zuboff is, however, optimistic about a shifting tide. “I believe we are at a sea change of public awareness,” she said, advocating for “laws that say you cannot take away the human experience.”

Regulation, she says, is what tech companies fear most. Surveillance capitalism is only two decades old. “It is very young,” she said. “Democracy has been around for much longer.” —By Ed Moorhouse