What’s in a name?

On my way to Brussels to chair a discussion on Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism I fell to reading Leo Marx’s celebrated essay, ”Technology: The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept”, in which he ponders when — and why — the term ‘technology’ emerged. The term — in its modern sense of “the mechanical arts generally” did not enter public discourse until around 1900 “when a few influential writers, notably Thorstein Veblen and Charles Beard, responding to German usage in the social sciences, accorded technology a pivotal role in shaping modern industrial society.”

Marx thinks that, to a cultural historian, some new terms, when they emerge, serve “as markers, or chronological signposts, of subtle, virtually unremarked, yet ultimately far-reaching changes in culture and society.”

His assumption, he writes,

”is that those changes, whatever they were, created a semantic—indeed, a conceptual—void, which is to say, an awareness of certain novel developments in society and culture for which no adequate name had yet become available. It was this void, presumably, that the word technology, in its new and extended meaning, eventually would fill.”

Which brought me back to musing about Zuboff’s new book and why it (and the two or three major essays of hers that preceded it) came as a flash of illumination. Especially the title. What ‘void’ (to use Marx’s idea) does it fill?

On reflection I think the answer lies in the conceptual vacuity of the terms we have traditionally used to describe the phenomenon of digital technology — in particular the trope of “the Fourth Industrial Revolution” beloved of the Davos crowd, or “the digital era” (passim). For one thing these terms are drenched in technological determinism, implying as they do that it’s the technology and its innate affordances that are driving contemporary history. In that sense these cliches are the spiritual heirs of “the age of Machinery” — Thomas Carlyle’s coinage to describe the industrial revolution of his day.

That’s why ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ represents a conceptual breakthrough. It does not assume that our condition is inexorably determined by the innate affordances of digital technology, but by particular ways in which capitalism has morphed in order to exploit it for its own purposes.