Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias uncover the invisible process of “data colonialism,” and its designs for controlling our lives—our ways of knowing; our means of production; our political participation. According to them just about any social need is now met with an opportunity to “connect” through digital means. But this convenience is not free—it is purchased with vast amounts of personal data transferred through shadowy backchannels to corporations using it to generate profit.
Colonialism might seem like a thing of the past, but this book shows that the historic appropriation of land, bodies, and natural resources is mirrored today in this new era of pervasive datafication. Apps, platforms, and smart objects capture and translate our lives into data, and then extract information that is fed into capitalist enterprises and sold back to us. The authors argue that this development foreshadows the creation of a new social order emerging globally—and it must be challenged. Confronting the alarming degree of surveillance already tolerated, they offer a stirring call to decolonize the internet and emancipate our desire for connection. ( uncovers this process, this “data colonialism,” and its designs for controlling our lives—our ways of knowing; our means of production; our political participation.
About the authors: Nick Couldry is Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science.Ulises A. Mejias is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Institute for Global Engagement at the State University of New York, College at Oswego.
Here are the excerpts from “The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism”
If historical colonialism annexed territories, their resources, and the bodies that worked on them, data colonialism’s power grab is both simpler and deeper: the capture and control of human life itself through appropriating the data that can be extracted from it for profit. If that is right, then just as historical colonialism created the fuel for industrial capitalism’s eventual rise, so too is data colonialism paving the way for a capitalism based on the exploitation of data. Human life is quite literally being annexed to capital.
This book’s argument will therefore be a double one. Our first assertion is that our everyday relations with data are becoming colonial in nature; that is, they cannot be understood except as an appropriation on a form and scale that bears comparison with the appropriations of historical colonialism. Our second argument is that this new colonialism does not just happen by itself but is driven by the imperatives of capitalism. Whereas the relations between historical colonialism and what emerged as industrial capitalism became clear only after centuries, the new data colonialism occurs against the background of centuries of capitalism, and it promises to take familiar aspects of the capitalist social and economic order to a new and more integrated stage, a stage as yet too new to reliably name.
Three further aspects of our argument about data colonialism and its relation to capitalism’s evolution must be noted at the start. One is that none of this would be possible without radical changes over the past thirty years in communication infrastructures, specifically the embedding of computer systems in human life at many levels. This book’s analysis of data colonialism and capitalism’s evolution takes very seriously the transformative role of information technologies and the resulting new infrastructures of connection. The second point is that such technological transformation does not change human life by merely existing. Technologies work, and have consequences for human life, only by being woven into what people do, where they find meaning, and how their lives are interdependent. Data colonialism requires the creation of a new social and economic order that is potentially as enduring as the order that enabled capitalist market societies from the nineteenth century onward. The third point concerns how the power relations generated by this emerging order work: data colonialism appropriates not only physical resources but also our very resources for knowing the world. This means that economic power (the power to make value) and cognitive power (the power over knowledge) converge as never before. Therefore, what is happening with data can be fully understood only against the background not just of capitalism but of the longer interrelations between capitalism and colonialism. The exploitation of human life for profit through data is the climax of five centuries’ worth of attempts to know, exploit, and rule the world from particular centers of power. We are entering the age not so much of a new capitalism as of a new interlocking of capitalism’s and colonialism’s twinned histories, and the interlocking force is data.8
What do we mean by data? If a shopping list is scribbled on a piece of paper, we don’t mean that. But if the list is entered on a mobile phone, perhaps on Google’s Keep app, then we do mean that. Furthermore, if we consider the algorithms that collect information across all users of Keep to see what people are making lists of, we definitely mean that. For our very specific purposes, the concept of data cannot be separated from two essential elements: the external infrastructure in which it is stored and the profit generation for which it is destined. In short, by data we mean information flows that pass from human life in all its forms to infrastructures for collection and processing. This is the starting point for generating profit from data. In this sense, data abstracts life by converting it into information that can be stored and processed by computers and appropriates life by converting it into value for a third party.
This book introduces quite a few other concepts and neologisms, which are explained in detail as the chapters unfold. It might be useful, however, to provide some basic definitions and explain their relationships right at the beginning. Data colonialism is, in essence, an emerging order for the appropriation of human life so that data can be continuously extracted from it for profit. This extraction is operationalized via data relations, ways of interacting with each other and with the world facilitated by digital tools. Through data relations, human life is not only annexed to capitalism but also becomes subject to continuous monitoring and surveillance. The result is to undermine the autonomy of human life in a fundamental way that threatens the very basis of freedom, which is exactly the value that advocates of capitalism extol. These fundamental transformations of human life have dramatic consequences for the social world too. They enable what we call social caching, a new form of knowledge about the social world based on the capture of personal data and its storage for later profitable use. As social relations are thus transformed, we see the emergence of the Cloud Empire, a totalizing vision and organization of business in which the dispossession of data colonialism has been naturalized and extended across all social domains. The Cloud Empire is being implemented and extended by many players but primarily by the social quantification sector, the industry sector devoted to the development of the infrastructure required for the extraction of profit from human life through data.
For now, the good news is that these transformations are in their early stages. That is why an awareness of the historical roots of today’s transformations is so vital. We must respect the uniqueness of the struggles of historically colonized peoples, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them. Today’s attempt to extract economic value from human lives through data has a systematic integration and depth that we argue is, in some respects, without historical precedent. But we see its features most clearly through their continuity with past relations between colonialism and capitalism. We fail to learn from that history at our peril.
(The book is available at https://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=28816 and all other major digital e-commerce platforms including Google Books as well as Amazon)