The Unprecedented Present

On the Self-Consciousness of the 21st Century

what follows is an excerpt from Shoshana’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, section 4 of the first chapter where the unprecedented nature of the current system is reflected:

IV. The Unprecedented

Illustration by Colin Anderson

One explanation for surveillance capitalism’s many triumphs floats above them all: it is unprecedented. The unprecedented is necessarily unrecognizable. When we encounter something unprecedented, we automatically interpret it through the lenses of familiar categories, thereby rendering invisible precisely that which is unprecedented. A classic example is the notion of the “horseless carriage” to which people reverted when confronted with the unprecedented facts of the automobile. A tragic illustration is the encounter between indigenous people and the first Spanish conquerors. When the Taínos of the pre-Columbian Caribbean islands first laid eyes on the sweating, bearded Spanish soldiers trudging across the sand in their brocade and armor, how could they possibly have recognized the meaning and portent of that moment? Unable to imagine their own destruction, they reckoned that those strange creatures were gods and welcomed them with intricate rituals of hospitality. This is how the unprecedented reliably confounds understanding; existing lenses illuminate the familiar, thus obscuring the original by turning the unprecedented into an extension of the past. This contributes to the normalization of the abnormal, which makes fighting the unprecedented even more of an uphill climb.

On a stormy night some years ago, our home was struck by lightning, and I learned a powerful lesson in the comprehension-defying power of the unprecedented. Within moments of the strike, thick black smoke drifted up the staircase from the lower level of the house and toward the living room. As we mobilized and called the fire department, I believed that I had just a minute or two to do something useful before rushing out to join my family. First, I ran upstairs and closed all the bedroom doors to protect them from smoke damage. Next, I tore back downstairs to the living room, where I gathered up as many of our family photo albums as I could carry and set them outside on a covered porch for safety. The smoke was just about to reach me when the fire marshal arrived to grab me by the shoulder and yank me out the door. We stood in the driving rain, where, to our astonishment, we watched the house explode in flames. I learned many things from the fire, but among the most important was the unrecognizability of the unprecedented. In that early phase of crisis, I could imagine our home scarred by smoke damage, but I could not imagine its disappearance. I grasped what was happening through the lens of past experience, envisioning a distressing but ultimately manageable detour that would lead back to the status quo. Unable to distinguish the unprecedented, all I could do was to close doors to rooms that would no longer exist and seek safety on a porch that was fated to vanish. I was blind to conditions that were unprecedented in my experience. I began to study the emergence of what I would eventually call surveillance capitalism in 2006, interviewing entrepreneurs and staff in a range of tech companies in the US and the UK. For several years I thought that the unexpected and disturbing practices that I documented were detours from the main road: management oversights or failures of judgment and contextual understanding.

My field data were destroyed in the fire that night, and by the time I picked up the thread again early in 2011, it was clear to me that my old horseless-carriage lenses could not explain or excuse what was taking shape. I had lost many details hidden in the brush, but the profiles of the trees stood out more clearly than before: information capitalism had taken a decisive turn toward a new logic of accumulation, with its own original operational mechanisms, economic imperatives, and markets. I could see that this new form had broken away from the norms and practices that define the history of capitalism and in that process something startling and unprecedented had emerged.

Of course, the emergence of the unprecedented in economic history cannot be compared to a house fire. The portents of a catastrophic fire were unprecedented in my experience, but they were not original. In contrast, surveillance capitalism is a new actor in history, both original and sui generis. It is of its own kind and unlike anything else: a distinct new planet with its own physics of time and space, its sixty-seven-hour days, emerald sky, inverted mountain ranges, and dry water.

Nonetheless, the danger of closing doors to rooms that will no longer exist is very real. The unprecedented nature of surveillance capitalism has enabled it to elude systematic contest because it cannot be adequately grasped with our existing concepts. We rely on categories such as “monopoly” or “privacy” to contest surveillance capitalist practices. And although these issues are vital, and even when surveillance capitalist operations are also monopolistic and a threat to privacy, the existing categories nevertheless fall short in identifying and contesting the most crucial and unprecedented facts of this new regime. Will surveillance capitalism continue on its current trajectory to become the dominant logic of accumulation of our age, or, in the fullness of time, will we judge it to have been a toothed bird: A fearsome but ultimately doomed dead end in capitalism’s longer journey? If it is to be doomed, then what will make it so? What will an effective vaccine entail? Every vaccine begins in careful knowledge of the enemy disease.

Will surveillance capitalism continue on its current trajectory to become the dominant logic of accumulation of our age, or, in the fullness of time, will we judge it to have been a toothed bird: A fearsome but ultimately doomed dead end in capitalism’s longer journey? If it is to be doomed, then what will make it so? What will an effective vaccine entail? Every vaccine begins in careful knowledge of the enemy disease. This book is a journey to encounter what is strange, original, and even unimaginable in surveillance capitalism. It is animated by the conviction that fresh observation, analysis, and new naming are required if we are to grasp the unprecedented as a necessary prelude to effective contest. The chapters that follow will examine the specific conditions that allowed surveillance capitalism to root and flourish as well as the “laws of motion” that drive the action and expansion of this market form: its foundational mechanisms, economic imperatives, economies of supply, construction of power, and principles of social ordering. Let’s close doors, but let’s make sure that they are the right ones. 

Works Cited

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.

Karl Marx

I was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary.

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