Reflections on the Unprecedented

In the Age of Surveillance Capitalism

Illustration for Surveillance Capitalism by Colin Anderson

Surveillance Capitalism

Digital Illustration
by Colin Anderson Pty Ltd
Getty Images
© 2019

Turning our studies of culture to our own times, the intersection of myth and history becomes obvious enough. In an age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” far from being governed by soulless rationalism or skepticism, people will believe in anything with all their hearts and minds; no matter how absurd or outlandish, we’ll believe something as long as it fits our preferred ideological fantasy. In this respect, not much has changed since the Middle Ages or the time of the Ancients. We just have a different set of superstitions and anthropomorphic projections. Humanity continues to be led by the great mytho-historic forces that make up the symbolic fabric of our own times.

Without obscuring the line that separates myth from ideology, we should not assume that they are external or moral opposites. The two are rather complementary; they remain precise variations and demarcations of a certain metaphysical relation to the transcendent. As such a complementary pair, they are a twinship of double vision not external to each other, not absolutely alien or irreconcilable to one other. As a dialectical pair of opposites, myth and ideology are a dynamic interplay, two distinct perspectives into the metaphysical space of human values, such as love, beauty, and truth. At the crossway of myth and history, one is always found in the other and the other in the one. Myth and ideology need each other like sun and moon need the sky: one being the mutating source of light, the other, its changing reflections in time.

The mythic core that founds the partial “rationality” of any ism or system of belief, for example, is not hard to see from the start. The mythologem is often given in the very presentation of its brand or symbol, from the illuminati to the government of the United States, as with any traditional religion. To be sure, religion itself is but a crystallization of the fusion of myth and ideology on the side of a rigid belief system. On the other hand, Art crystallizes the fusion on the side of the mythic image.

The Mythic Dimension of Ideology is always staring us in the face.

Asking the fundamental question of being in our own times, we face the gaping existential blindspot of our absolute historicity which prevents us from properly knowing ourselves and our “place in history.” This is not simply a question of not knowing what we could be capable of given the right or wrong circumstances. It is about knowing ourselves precisely in our most banal every-day existence, our basic functioning and habits of mind, which drags into it the collective mind. As when Brutus is seduced by Cassius, we always stand in our own historical shadow:


Tell me, good Brutus, can you see your face?


No, Cassius; for the eye sees not itself,

But by reflection, by some other things.


‘Tis just:

And it is very much lamented, Brutus,

That you have no such mirrors as will turn

Your hidden worthiness into your eye,

That you might see your shadow.

Do we have such mirrors with which to reflect our own historical shadow? Let us ask about the mythico-ideological container of our own times—the overarching myth of globalization and accumulation we are living by. For what otherwise is our fundamental faith in Capital across systems of belief and cultural identities? 

Lacking the mirrors of true myth, however, we face a profound unconsciousness and lack of self-awareness, where we are as good as lost in the ideological forests of our times. This remarkable state of affairs is not only to be found among ordinary people or the poorly educated, it is evident in the confessions of our greatest minds. 

Even Carl Jung, renowned depth psychologist and student of Freud, had to admit to himself his bewilderment and utter lack of self-awareness—so crucial for the understanding of the plight of the soul in modern times. But when it came to question his own unconscious system of assumptions, Jung became uncomfortable and helpless, compelled to bring self-reflection to a stop. As he famously writes in Memories, Dreams, and Reflections:

I had explained the myths of peoples of the past; I had written a book about the hero, the myth in which man has always lived. But in what myth does man live nowadays? In the Christian myth, the answer might be, “Do you live in it?” I asked myself. To be honest, the answer was no. For me, it is not what I live by.” “Then do we no longer have any myth?” “No, evidently we no longer have any myth.” “But then what is your myth—the myth in which you do live?” At this point the dialogue with myself became uncomfortable, and I stopped thinking. I had reached a dead end.

(MDR 171) 

Is it because the fish have no way of knowing about the composition of the waters? Or is it because “evidently we no longer have any myth”? But if myth is always the carrier of meaning, how is mythlessness even a possibility for a creature that speaks and imagines? Does not mythlessness itself—a sense of metaphysical homelessness and none-identity—take on the unconscious identity of our own myth? Is this not, on point of fact, the oldest of myths, the myth of the death of gods—a myth so old and significant that it had to be inscribed at the heart of the Christian religion and its bleeding Christ? 

“Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

(Mathew 27:46).

Failing to venture too far away from our particular tree and totem of belief, however, it is extremely difficult to grapple with these questions; we cannot see our position among the trees nor make out a universal global framework as we cannot stand over our own shoulders nor see our own seeing eyes. So we are left without a sense of direction, profoundly unaware of what we take for granted: the larger framework of globalization—the logic or syntax—that interweaves our identity in and out of the mythic dimension of the 21st century.

With these questions in mind, Shoshana Zuboff’s description of “The Unprecedented” in the fourth section of Chapter 1 of her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism becomes particularly illuminating. It helps to set the ground for further discussion and self-reflection on what it means to be or not to be in our own times.

IV. The Unprecedented 

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. 

Norland Téllez is an artist and teacher with over two decades of experience in the entertainment industry. As a scholar of myth and history, he remains committed to critical thinking through the power of the mythic image.

Reflections on the Unprecedented


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

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.