In the 1970s, when Shoshana Zuboff was a graduate student in Harvard’s psychology department, she met the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner. Skinner, who had perhaps the largest forehead you’ll ever see on an adult, is best remembered for putting pigeons in boxes (so-called Skinner boxes) and inducing them to peck at buttons for rewards. Less well remembered is the fact that he constructed a larger box, with a glass window, for his infant daughter, though this was revealing of his broader ambitions.
Zuboff writes in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that her conversations with Skinner “left me with an indelible sense of fascination with a way of construing human life that was—and is—fundamentally different from my own.” Skinner believed that humans could be conditioned like any other animal, and that behavioral psychology could and should be used to build a technological utopia where citizens were trained from birth to be altruistic and community-oriented. He published a novel, Walden Two (1948), that depicted what just such a society would look like—a kind of Brave New World played straight.
It would risk grave understatement to say that Zuboff does not share Skinner’s enthusiasm for the mass engineering of behavior. Zuboff, a professor at Harvard Business School since 1981, has made a career of criticizing the lofty ambitions of technoprophets, making her something of a cousin to the mass media critic Neil Postman, author of Technopoly (1992). Her intimate understanding of Skinner gives her an advantage that other technoskeptics lack. For as she posits in her latest book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, we seem to have wandered into a dystopian version of Skinner’s future, thanks mainly to Google, Facebook, and their peers in the attention economy. Silicon Valley has invented, if not yet perfected, the technology that completes Skinner’s vision, and so, she believes, the behavioral engineering of humanity is now within reach.
In case you’ve been living in blissful ignorance, it works like this. As you go through life, phone in hand, Google, Facebook, and other apps on your device are constantly collecting as much information as possible about you, so as to build a profile of who you are and what you like. Google, for its part, keeps a record of all your searches; it reads your e-mail (if you use Gmail) and follows where you go with Maps and Android. Facebook has an unparalleled network of trackers installed around the Web that are constantly figuring out what you are looking at online. Nor is this the end of it: any appliance labeled “smart” would more truthfully be labeled “surveillance-enhanced,” like our smart TVs, which detect what we are watching and report back to the mothership. An alien might someday ask how the entire population was bugged.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.