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Datafication and Colonialism: A Short Review by Dennis Jansen

Review of “The Emerging Social Order of Data Colonialism: Why Critical Social Theory still Matters!” by prof. dr. Nick Couldry at Utrecht University, 12 June 2019

It is undeniable that the increasing datafication of both Western and non-Western societies involves profound changes in our political and socioeconomic structures, but how should we understand those changes? In a recent lecture at Utrecht University, professor Nick Couldry (LSE) seeks to grapple with this complexity actively and warns that simply describing these changes as they occur is not enough; “description is not analysis,” he says. In order to tackle the complex nature of technological phenomena like the internet and its related socioeconomic infrastructures, Couldry proposes we attend specifically to the various connections that these infrastructures create and, crucially, to the actual human beings ‘entangled’ within them. From this very humanist stance, it becomes possible to theorize an ethics of the datafied society—one which responds to such issues as the increasing dependence of human beings on the social infrastructure that digital platforms provide and the extraction of economic value from human life through data relations by corporate and governmental actors.

Drawing from his upcoming book The Costs of Connection (2019), co-authored with Ulises A. Mejias, Couldry conceives of this ever-increasing encroachment of data upon every aspect of human life as a next step in the relations between capitalism and colonialism that they term data colonialism. He differentiates this term from ‘historical’ colonialism, which appropriated territory, resources, and social relations, contributed to the rise of capitalism as we know it today, and justified many of its most unjustifiable aspects through narratives like the ‘white man’s burden’. Instead, data colonialism appropriates the human body itself, transforms social relations into ‘data relations’ for the sake of maximizing profit from data extraction, creates new colonial corporate empires which operate in cyberspace as much as in meatspace, and subsequently naturalizes itself by claiming that connectedness is inherently good and that the unbounded quantification of society is somehow inevitable. Global corporations like Facebook and Alphabet seem to embody this concept perfectly, evident in Alphabet’s Project Loon and Mark Zuckerberg’s long-standing desire to create a device that facilitates telepathic communication. Such endeavors are marketed as unquestionably positive developments that consumers can only benefit from. The near-limitless possibilities for exploitative data extraction are barely mentioned or overlooked.

From this critical analysis follows the question: What do we do about it? One potential avenue for resistance explored during the lecture was the law. (Unsurprising, given that two of the respondents to the lecture were legal scholars.) Serious efforts like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation are already being made, but they are insufficient: not only in that they do not grant the legal protections and restrictions one might hope for, but also in the sense that historically the law has been better at upholding capitalist and colonial systems than at dismantling them. One might cynically note that even the relatively straightforward solution of making certain data extraction processes illegal would likely not be enough—where there is money to be made, there is a way. Different angles will be necessary then, in our analytical frameworks and our praxis alike. Towards the end of his talk, if somewhat briefly, Couldry rightly mentions decolonial movements (specifically the work of Aníbal Quijano) as a possible source of inspiration.

Finally, what seemed to be missing from this short lecture was a discussion of the ways in which historical colonialism—which many would in fact argue is not historical at all but very much ongoing—and data colonialism interact. Couldry states that data colonialism now directs its appropriative efforts at the ‘home populations’ of the West before it turns to the East and Global South. However, even when we operate under the assumption that this statement holds true, it remains unclear in his analysis how pre-existing inequalities influence the process of data extraction in non-Western regions. Are there not (material) conditions that make it unlikely for Facebook to behave the way it did in Myanmar, for instance? Would its CEO ever transport his virtual avatar to the earthquake-stricken town of Amatrice in Central Italy, instead of Puerto Rico? Moreover, to what extent is this new form of colonialism driven by China, a global power not so often considered in Western decolonial thought? Questions like these unfortunately fell beyond the scope of Couldry’s talk, but hopefully are included in the book or further thinking on this important matter.

Dennis Jansen, MA is a book review editor at Junctions: Graduate Journal of the Humanities and a student of the RMA Media, Art, and Performance Studies at Utrecht University.