Colloquium on The Age of Surveillance Capitalism attracts sell-out audience to debate "darkening of the digital dream"

26 February 2020

A Book Colloquium on Shoshana Zuboff's groundbreaking The Age of Surveillance Capitalism drew a sell-out audience to Wolfson College this week, as part of an events programme by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society that continues to attract record attendances.

Prof Zuboff’s influential account of the challenges to humanity posed by the digital future has become an international bestseller, and Professor Emeritus Denis Galligan opened the discussion by describing the “darkening of the digital dream” of the book’s thesis – that the commodification of personal information threatens our core values of freedom, democracy, and privacy.

He praised the book for raising awareness of a rogue force driven by economic imperatives that undermine democratic norms, before arguing for a less pessimistic outlook given the historic examples of successful overthrows of capitalist power structures.

Dr Christopher Decker, an Oxford economist who specializes in Law and Economics and economic regulation, focused on the efforts of surveillance capitalists – huge companies like Google, Amazon, Micrososft, Facebook, and Apple – to predict, manipulate, and control people’s behaviour for commercial gain through their access to unprecedented asymmetries of knowledge and power.

He found that the work would have benefited from a theory of submission to explain the ‘Faustian pact’ by which surveillance capitalists can act as puppetmasters, dominating our behaviour with our consent.

He posed the question: “Have we really lost our agency?”, and argued that there are efforts to restrain the power of these corporations, through antitrust legislation, privacy laws such as the recently implemented GDPR legislation, and efforts by consumers in Germany to reclaim their personal data from the surveillance capitalists.

Once the panellists had given their opening assessments of the book’s argument, the discussion was opened to the floor for a lively audience Q&A.

The final events of Hilary Term will be held next week, when former President of the British Academy Professor Sir Adam Roberts will deliver a lecture on the decline of the liberal order, followed by a workshop to scrutinize the issues raised on 3rd March.

Over 100 people have already registered for the lecture on Monday 2nd March, but a few places remain for this and the workshop, both of which are free and open to all.

To register, follow the links from our Events page, and subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter @OxfordFLJS to receive news and invitations to all our forthcoming events.