Book: Globalization and Surveillance

Back of book blurb:

“This book offers a lively, accessible, and informative introduction to surveillance through the lens of globalization, and globalization through the lens of surveillance. The story that unfolds is wide-ranging, taking a thoroughly multidimensional and transdisciplinary approach that brings clarity to complex subjects. Drawing a long historical arc, and freely crisscrossing the Global North/South and subjective/material divides, Timothy Erik Ström convincingly shows how surveillance and capitalism are inextricably linked, illustrating this through in-depth studies on colonial land surveys, the military-industrial complex, Google, and China’s Social Credit System. Drawing on a wealth of empirical examples and theoretically informed reflections, his book is an accessible example of engaged scholarship that provides a provocative and critical examination of the uneven and contradictory meanings and consequences of surveillance and globalization.”


“With a breathtakingly wide brush—both historical and geographical—Tim Ström paints a compelling picture of surveillance as a crucial companion of colonization, capitalism, and war in the modern world. Thankfully, he also offers clues as to how things could be otherwise.”

—David Lyon, Queen’s University, Canada

“In an important and timely intervention, Timothy Ström has crafted an invaluable conceptual roadmap for understanding the global surveillance economy. This engagingly written and elegantly conceived book locates contemporary surveillance in its broader social contexts with the goal of imagining, against all odds, how these might be different—and better.”

—Mark Andrejevic, Monash University

“Upgrading critiques of surveillance for the twenty-first century, Tim Ström reveals its governing paradox of absolute control and utter powerlessness. Governmental and corporate surveillance technologies are locked into the logic of a system that cannot function if its bosses are not themselves completely submissive. In meticulous detail, Strom shows how the smallest engineering decision rests on histories of colonialism and perpetuates a global system of injustice and inequality and how globalization, as a system of exploitation and oppression, shapes and is shaped by the software we so often see as helpful and at worst neutral. A wake-up call for citizens, consumers, students, and activists.”

Sean Cubitt, University of Melbourne

Buying Options

Globalization and Surveillance can be purchased through the publisher’s official website: Rowman and Littlefield.

Otherwise, it is available through all the dominant avenues, including: Amazon; the Book Depository (owned by Amazon), AbeBooks (owned by Amazon), or it can discussed on GoodReads (again, owned by Amazon).

Alternatively, order it through a local independent bookshop.

Contents Page:

Prelude: “You’re in Control”

1. Surveying Surveillance: Overseers, Enclosures and Colonization

2. The Atom and the Watchtower: Cybernetic, War and the Reorganization of the World

3. Welcome to the Machine: Google’s Commodification-Engines and the Web of Power

4. The Overlords of Automated Debt: China, Usury, and the Financialization of the South

Conclusion: The Limits of Control: Accumulation, Solidarity and Possibilities

Sneak Preview:

“C by GE Sol”.

Prelude: “You’re in Control”

This narrative begins with a commodity: a package arrives in the mail, a cardboard box with Amazon’s smiling arrow logo emblazoned on it. Within this box lies another box, the inner one with a sleek design and stylistic photographs. Out from this second box wafts a strong smell of plastic, artificial cleanliness, a strange perfume that consumers associate with the “newness” of an electronic gadget. Lying there snugly in nonbiodegradable Styrofoam lies the commodity. It is a starkly designed silver cylinder with a ring emerging from its top, a ring embedded with light-emitting diodes (LEDs). It’s a lamp, but not only a lamp; rather it is a networked computing-machine with lamp-like qualities, a condition referred to by marketers through attaching the prefix “smart.” It goes by the strangely minimalistic name: “C by GE Sol.”

This smart-lamp can be seen as an embodiment of early twenty-first-century globalization. It was designed by General Electric (GE), an American conglomerate founded by Thomas Edison—the famed “inventor” of the lightbulb in 1889. GE has consistently been one of the world’s most powerful corporations, with its operations spreading from electrical devices, to oil, to weapons to finance. GE collaborated with other companies on the lamp, with the physical stuff of the device being assembled in a series of factories neatly obscured behind the three little, ubiquitous words: “Made in China.” As China is currently by far the world’s largest exporter, many goods bear this stamp, yet it often conceals more than it reveals. The factories of China’s export zones are rife with dubious and degrading labor practices, including exceedingly long hours, forced overtime, unpaid work, grueling productivity quotas, child labor, dangerous working conditions, and authoritarian management. None of this makes it to the foreground in the construction of these devices that consumers “just can’t live without.” Likewise, it conceals the processes whereby minerals are mined around the world, plastics synthesized from oil, and brought together via polluting logistical chains, processes with immense and thoughtless ecological implications. Likewise, it also conceals complex long-term stories of world-historic transformations, great power struggles, and contested legacies of empire. All of this lurks behind the commodity and its apparent arrival from nowhere (*1).

Of the various companies that contribute to C by GE Sol, the one that makes it “smart”—and hence the one that forces its relevance to a book about surveillance—is the tech-giant Amazon. The lamp connects to Alexa, a piece of software, so-called artificial intelligence, developed by the firm in 2014 and currently the most popular “virtual assistant” on the market. The owner of a C by GE Sol can speak to Amazon’s software via their lamp’s microphone, issuing verbal communications and commands to the world-spanning computing-machine. One could say, “Alexa, lights on,” and the machine should automatically comply by illuminating the LEDs. Playing into illusions of godlike power, the biblical phrase “let there be light” echoes across the commodity’s advertisements and reviews. Alexa’s abilities extend far beyond the adjustment of lighting levels; one can ask the lamp for recipes, the news, and the weather; it can order more commodities, play music, and tell a joke, in addition to many other features. It is a part of the broader phenomena often grouped under the much-hyped heading “Internet of Things” (*2). To function, the lamp records every sound within range of its microphone, streaming it to Amazon’s cloud computers for processing. There, voice recognition algorithms go through Sure the audio files, extracting data and recording it in a searchable archive and, when relevant, actioning the request: placing an order, activating the light, and so on.

This is to say that the very function of a virtual assistant is constituted by surveillance (*3).

The surveillance recordings of voices are held digitized in Amazon’s cloud storage facilities, the locations of which the firm sought to protect via layers of subsidiaries, pseudonyms, and outsourcing. Nevertheless, a leaked list revealed the exact locations of the data centers as of 2015, showing them to be spread in fifteen cities across nine countries in a global geography of power and tax evasion: Australia (Sydney), Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo), China (Beijing, Nigxia), Germany (Frankfurt), Ireland (Dublin), Japan (Osaka, Tokyo), Luxemburg, Singapore, and the United States (Virginia, California, Oregon, Seattle) (*4). Amazon’s Alexa goes well beyond the smart-lamp market. It has been integrated into TVs built by Sony, refrigerators built by LG, speakers built by Marshall, and all 2018 cars produced by Ford, Toyota, and Volkswagen, among others. Furthermore, Amazon is not alone, it is joined by Apple’s “Siri,” Microsoft’s “Cortana,” and Alphabet’s “Google Assistant,” which populate an increasing range of smart-devices. They are united by the fact that all speak with female voices. Speaking only when spoken to, these feminized machines are programmed to be at their “little master’s” beck and call, engaging with a pleasing subservience, adopting a tone that is polite, no matter the tone or topic leveled at it. These pseudo-female machines employ emotional and sentiment analysis software that attempts to automatically detect irritation in a little master’s voice, hence prompting the cybernetic maidservant to offer an apology.

While a little master can, for a price, alter the lighting in their room, the “big masters” are busy reorganizing the universe. Take Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos as a shining example. As the richest person in human history, he earns—as of October 2018—$8,961,187 per hour. It would take an Amazon worker, being paid Washington State’s minimum wage of $11.50 per hour, ninety-one years of 24/7 work to make as much as their boss does in one hour (5). The wealth gap between Bezos and his workers is greater than between a Pharaoh and his slaves: he is well beyond the 1% popularized by Occupy, rather he is the 0.00000001%. Considering how readily money translates into power under conditions of capitalism, facts like this serve to illustrate the staggering inequality of the early twenty-first century (*6).

The smart-lamp records everything within range of its speakers. If it sits on a bedside table, the lamp is privy to every conversation that unfolds around it; all the pillow talk and other bedroom soundscapes. This unprecedented window into people’s private lives provides an extremely valuable resource, one facilitated in part by the flimsy and almost-never-read “privacy” policies. Corporations construct software to pore over this surveillance data, seeking to extract information that can be used to alter people’s practices. Through targeted advertising and default suggestions, these assistants work to encourage people to engage in more and more consumerism, promoting commercial solutions to everything, and seeking to add in as many opportunities to extract profit as possible. Virtual assistants exert a pressure toward consumerism that is pervasive and structural, which stems from the very foundations of corporations’ need to maximize profits for external shareholders. This will be discussed in greater depth in chapter 3, which looks at how surveillance and commodification are the secret to much of the power of the tech-titans.

In addition to the corporations, government spy agencies have backdoor access to this information, allowing the state to pry deep into people’s private lives. As Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed back in 2013, the tech-titans all actively collaborated with the shadowy National Security Agency (NSA) in allowing them access to their surveillance data (*7). This is unsurprising when one considers the long militaristic history of computing technology (chapter 2), and the fact that these firms remain major players in the increasingly lucrative business of military contracting. So much data is produced by these surveillance operations, that storing it has become a lucrative subsector of military contracting. The Washington Post—which is incidentally entirely owned by Bezos—reported that Amazon had opened a vast cloud-computing platform for the Pentagon, specifically designed to hold classified information obtained by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). For its work, Amazon is paid a tidy US$600 million of U.S. taxpayer dollars (*8).

The depth and breadth of the state’s ability to pry into people’s private spheres is unprecedented, with even the most malicious examples from history paling in comparison. For example, one of the most invasive, repressive, and effective surveillance states was East Germany (1949–1990). The formidable reach of its powerful secret police agency, known as the Stasi, paled in comparison to the potential for snooping (*9). Technology like C by GE Sol makes the Stasi’s cigarette-box cameras and hidden tape recorders look like quaint relics. Indeed, the most ambitious Stasi agent likely could not imagine a world where people paid money to have their every private conversation recorded by powerful and distant forces.

Despite all of this, the marketing rhetoric of C by GE Sol seeks to shore up the little masters’ positions by reminding them: “You’re in control.” This conclusion only holds if one prioritizes “convenience” above and beyond any other consideration, pondering the matter in deeper and more critical ways shows this to be dubious in the extreme. Rather than flipping a mechanical switch with one’s finger to turn a light on or off, the new smart-lamps use automated, real-time surveillance that runs through an extremely energy-intensive and wasteful global system of privatized, networked computing-machines, processing layers and layers of algorithms and programs, serving the profit-maximizing interests of one of history’s most powerful corporations, with backdoors built in for potentially/actually repressive state agencies to hack their way in. In this world of vast inequalities and massively uneven distributions of power, the concept of control is central, but its locus is not the little masters.

Questions of control are riddled with contradictions—one can both gain and lose it at the same time, with it being simultaneously concentrated and undermined. To analyze these contradictions, this book examines some of the practices, subjectivities, structures, and historical dynamics that have led us to this strange moment. As the next chapter explores, these developments have long historic roots. Curiously, the word “control” came into English at the beginning of capitalist modernity half a millennium ago, with it first referring to a bureaucratic mechanism for overseeing and verifying accounts—a “counter-roll”—which was used in the exercise of power and governance. Emerging at this pivotal moment in world history, and spreading intensively and extensively around the globe, control has long been intimately involved as a technique and technology of power. The smart-lamp serves as an entry point into these discussions on globalization and surveillance, for commodities such as the C by GE Sol are both increasingly common everyday objects and deeply complex and problematic apparatuses: how did we get to this point?


  1. Giovanni Arrighi, Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century (London: Verso, 2007); Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).
  2. Adam Greenfield, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2017), 31–62.
  3. Emily West, “Amazon: Surveillance as a Service,” Surveillance & Society 17, no. 1/2 (2019).
  4. WikiLeaks, “Amazon Atlas,”
  5. Hillary Hoffower, “We Did the Maths to Calculate How Much Money Jeff Bezos Makes in a Year, Month, Week, Day, Hour, Minute, and Second,” Business Insider (Australia), January 10, 2019,
  6. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2014).
  7. David Lyon, “Surveillance, Snowden, and Big Data: Capacities, Consequences, Critique,” Big Data & Society (2014); Surveillance after Snowden (London: Polity, 2015).
  8. Aaron Gregg, “Amazon Launches New Cloud Storage Service for U.S. Spy Agencies,” Washington Post, November 20, 2017,
  9. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, The Lives of Others (Buena Vista International, 2006); Anna Funding, Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

…for more, please buy the book!