The Foundations of Surveillance Capitalism: Google's Discovery of Behavioral Surplus

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The Foundations of Surveillance Capitalism: Google's Discovery of Behavioral Surplus


How Google pioneered capitalistic exploitation of its consumers and their data.


In her book, "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism," Shoshana Zuboff examines the capitalistic impetus of corporations' increasing online presence. Through a case study of Google--not only an exemplar of the industry but, as she alleges, a pioneer of it--she charts the marked change in corporate and legal internet dogmatisms. Similar to the Ford-assembly-line-revolution in 1913 Detroit, the advent of the internet--specifically, the relationship with its money-making capacity--and the subsequent marketability of "behavioral surplus" was a direct precipitate of increasingly demanding shareholders.

To define the crucial term "behavioral surplus"--the true commodity of surveillance capitalism--the nature of of the tech conglomerate and its relationship to the consumer must first be framed:

It must be stated that, though Google nominally has always functioned as a search engine (though its more pluralistic functions were restructured as facets of the corporation Alphabet Inc.) its profit base has shifted drastically since its inception. Google began as a tech company: the company would create software, patent it, and sell it; it profited off the creation of commodity, its profits were inextricably linked to the competitiveness of its product. Google's product viability was thus of primary concern, but the refinement of a search engine is predicated on the use of its consumer. Thus a reciprocal relationship was reached: Google used user information (behavioral value) to improve its product, and the user benefitted from the reinvestment of their behavioral data (i.e. by the refinement of the search engine). Advertisers on Google, too, found a reciprocal place in the system--demographic data allowed ads to reach target audiences and thus users would be exposed to more pertinent products--but the innate profitability of this relationship corrupted it as a direct response to investor's anxieties. The user data collected--that which did not directly benefit the consumer, those from whom the data was sourced--for the purpose of advertising, as excess profit, is dubbed "behavioral surplus," the superfluous behavioral data that surveillance capitalism surveils, commodifies, and profits from. What started as a mutually beneficial venture, Google's AdWords and then AdSense, became lucrative: from 2001, where it yielded $86 million in profits, it annually yielded $10 billion by 2010.

Though Google, its founders, began with the intent of an academically unbiased search engine--believing that economically-inclined search results (or ads) would skew their product away from objectivity towards corruptibility--the capitalistic interest of Google's shareholders guided the company's trajectory. As the majority of Google's revenue no longer was sourced from its generation of technology, the company shifted its focus to its new, more lucrative market: advertisers. This shift began with the commodification of behavioral data, here, the generation of behavioral surplus, and by the exploitative motions of capitalism, perverted Google's consumers into the very object of consumption.

So, in some economic-ouroboros, the user becomes the generative source of a novel commodity--its profits they will never see--and that data becomes the fodder for the economic system which incepted the exploitative phenomenon initially. In the novelty of a burgeoning technological age, this exploitation of the layperson--a hallmark of late-stage capitalism--weasels through uncertain legality. The methods and mechanisms of this surveillance capitalism have only recently come under scrutiny, though its effects are familiar. The advent of the cookie (the internet's categorizing datum) mongered consumer fear--stemming from an uneasiness with the permanence of one's "consumer profile"--but also impelled more corporate secrecy. Thus the data collection became more overt (with website cookies mandatorily needing user consent) while the ways that data was manipulated and manufactured became more subversive.

Emblematic of an unchecked free-market capitalism, the advent of surveillance capitalism is not an inevitable product of market-driven trends but an actively generated and preserved phenomenon. This case indicates the necessity for proactive legal policy--especially in the novel tech sphere--and the ease with which the consumer is abused. In a broader sense, even holistically "advancing" technology must be examined and refined in its capacity for abuse. Though often straw-manned as over-present government, legal procedure must provide framework for technological advancement, it must codify ethical, classist considerations or risk complicity in their abuse.


Shoshana Zuboff






Thaddeus Scott


Hachette Book Group



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