(AP) — A year ago, Shoshana Zuboff dropped an intellectual bomb on the technology industry. She hasn't stood still since.
In a 700-page book, the Harvard scholar skewered tech giants like Facebook and Google with a damning phrase: "surveillance capitalism." The unflattering term evokes how these companies vacuum up the details of our lives, make billions of dollars from that data and use what they've learned to glue our attention more firmly to their platforms.
A bestseller in Canada and Britain, "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" was published in the United States in January, is being translated into 17 languages and has inspired two small theater productions. Zuboff has spoken to audiences from Los Angeles to Rome and counseled politicians across Europe and North America.
She has offered input on several pending U.S. privacy bills and wrote a 34-page policy paper for the House Judiciary Committee, whose antitrust panel is looking into Big Tech's abuse of its market dominance. In early November, she received the Axel Springer award, a four-year-old honor for technology luminaries offered by the eponymous German publisher. (Its first recipient was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg; last year Amazon's Jeff Bezos got it.)
Zuboff has "put the language of economics around the experience that we all know we're having," says Beeban Kidron, a film director and U.K. House of Lords member who spearheaded child-protection rules limiting how apps gather data and tempt children to linger online. "She's a rock star."
Early on, Zuboff realized that researchers had missed the importance of the data that digital services collect — where we use them, for how long, what we like, what we linger on and with whom we associate. They were calling it "digital exhaust."
Zuboff saw that this data was not just an unexpected byproduct of online services, says Chris Hoofnagle, a University of California-Berkeley privacy expert.
"It is the product."
Tech industry allies denounce Zuboff's thesis as conspiracy-minded hyperbole and claim that consumers willingly trade their personal data for access to virtually free services.
Google and Facebook declined to discuss Zuboff or her book.
But after more than a year of tech-related privacy scandals, malign election-interference and online platform-fueled extremism and the U.S. government's first tentative steps toward reining in its technology titans, it's become clear that Zuboff helped crystallize previously vague apprehensions about the tech industry.
In her slashing diagnosis, the bespectacled academic describes how Silicon Valley's once-utopian promises degenerated into the “like” button and advertisements that follows you around the internet.
In person, Zuboff is focused and precise. She speaks in composed paragraphs and brooks no interruption until she has unfurled a thought. The effect is of a highly structured thinker compelled to make complete arguments before she moves on to the next topic.
Her book can be a difficult read. Open to a random page and you're likely to confront phrases such as "behavioral surplus," "prediction markets" and "instrumentarianism."
Cut through the jargon, though, and Zuboff's indictment is straightforward: Tech companies put out new apps designed to suck up our data trails; companies then use those insights to steer us toward our next YouTube video or Facebook interaction or Amazon purchase — and to develop their next apps. Rinse and repeat.
Such manipulations are not unique to tech companies, although Zuboff says the industry has refined them to such a frightening degree that they are molding our behavior. Worse, she says, they're spreading.