The institutionalisation of behavioural surplus: a quick recap on The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

I’m slowly making my way through Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and I thought I’d benefit from a quick recap of where I’d got to so far. In essence the first part of the book is an account of behavioural surplus: data about user behaviour  left over after narrowly technical requirements that can be leveraged for commercial benefit. Transactional data is produced as a by-product of activity mediated through digital systems, including firms and actors who existed prior to the nascent tech giants. But Google as one of the early firms which had no relationship to users other than through that digital system began to realise the commercial significance of transactional data. They were far from unique in seeing technological and engineering value in this data, even early stage Yahoo was interested in ‘click trails’ as a way of optimising their directory and finding ideas for new services.

What made Google unique, argues Zuboff, arose from their capacity to build a sustained business model around the insights into future behaviour which could be inferred from past data. This is something which has to be understood against the background of the dot com crash and the institutional pressure which a nascent firm like Google was subject to. The take away point from this is not only that it’s a matter of business model rather than technology but the contingency of how this business model came about in the first place. It’s a story about the institutionalisation of behavioural surplus much more than one about the technology which made that institutionalisation possible.

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