[BigDataSur] Some thoughts on decolonizing data

By Ulises Mejias

Would it be too far-fetched to call the variety of today’s data collection practices a new form of colonialism, given the violence and historical specificity of European colonialism? In our work, Nick Couldry and I try to make a careful argument that yes, we should call it colonialism. We focus not so much on the form or content of European colonialism, but on the historical function, which was to dispossess. Instead of natural resources or human labor, what this new form of colonialism expropriates is human life, through the medium of digital data. We therefore define “data colonialism” as an emerging order for the appropriation of human life so that data can be continuously extracted from it for profit. This form of extractivism comes with its own forms of rationalization and violence, although the modes, intensities, and scales are different from those we saw during European colonialism.

It should then be possible to decolonize data in the same way we have decolonized history, knowledge, and culture. I can think of at least three initial approaches.

First, by questioning the universalism behind this new form of appropriation. During European colonialism, the colonized were presented with a justification for dispossession that revolved around grand narratives such as Progress, Development, and the Supremacy of European culture and history—indeed about the supremacy of the White race. These narratives were universalizing in that they sought to obliterate any challenges to them (European values were the *only* standards to be recognized). Today, the narratives which justify data extraction are equally universalizing and totalizing. We are told the dispossession of human life through data represents progress, that it is done for the benefit of humanity; that it brings human connection, new knowledge, distributed wealth, etc. Furthermore we are told that even though it is *our* data, we don’t have the knowledge and means to make use of this resource, so we better get out of the way and let the corporations do it for us, as they did during colonialism. The first step to decolonize data is to realize that this is the same ruse the powerful have played on us for 500 years. There is nothing natural, normal, or universally valid about the way human life is becoming a mere factor in capitalist production, and we must reject the new narratives deployed to justify this form of dispossession.

The second way in which data can be decolonized is by reclaiming the very resources that have been stolen from us. In other words, we need to rescue colonized space and time: the space that has become populated by devices that monitor our every move; the time (usually in front of a screen) that we devote to the production of data that is used to generate profit for corporations. Our spaces and times are not empty, passively available for extraction. We need to re-invest them with value, as a way to protect them from appropriation by corporations. Yes, at a basic level this might mean simply opting-out of certain platforms. But I think it goes deeper than that. To decolonize our space and our time means to re-conceptualize our role within capitalism, which extends beyond data relations. It extends to the environment, to the workplace… I am inspired to see that the environmental movement, the labor movement, the social justice movement, the peace movement, and the critical science & technology movement are converging, and are being reconfigured in the process. Yes, huge challenges remain—especially in the face of populist movements like the ones we are seeing around Trump, Balsonaro and Modi—but at least we are developing the awareness that individual and disjointed action (like, say, quitting Facebook) is meaningless if it doesn’t happen in connection with other struggles.

Speaking of which, we have to remain vigilant and sceptical of “solutions” that legitimize the status quo. Recently, the New York Times published a glossy proposal for “saving” the internet by making sure we get paid for the data we generate. Is this a viable solution? Imagine one day you discover hidden cameras have been installed to track your every move, invading your privacy in order to generate profit for a company. Would you be satisfied if, instead of removing the cameras and addressing the injustice, the company promised to pay you to continue to record your life? If you are facing economic hardship, you might accept, but that still wouldn’t make it right. The only thing that would be accomplished would be the continuation—the normalization, in fact—of a massive system of dispossession. To redirect a small portion of the accumulated wealth generated through data extraction to the people who actually generate it while leaving the rest of the system intact is not a return to dignity but the equivalent of putting a seal of approval on a system that has inequality at its core.

The last suggestion for decolonizing data is to learn from other decolonization struggles of the past and the present. It might seem like capitalism and data colonialism are all-encompassing regimes which we are incapable of resisting. But people have always found ways of resisting—whether through physical action or, when that is not possible, through intellectual work. The colonized employ their culture, their history, and even the technologies and languages of the colonizer to resist, to reject. I’m not saying this is as simple as declaring that we are all now as oppressed as native peoples in this new system. If anything, the legacy of colonial oppression continues to exact a heavier cost on vulnerable populations, which continue to be disproportionately discriminated against and abused under the new data colonialism. But I am saying that even privileged subjects can learn some lessons from people who have been resisting colonialism for centuries. More importantly, we need to develop new forms of solidarity that incorporate the fight against the appropriation of human life through data as part of the struggle for a better world.


About Ulises Mejias

Ulises A. Mejias is an associate professor in the Communication Studies department and the director of the Institute for Global Engagement at the State University of New York at Oswego. His research interests include critical internet studies, philosophy and sociology of technology, and political economy of digital media. His most recent book, co-authored with Nick Couldry, is The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism (2019, Stanford University Press). He is also the author of Off the Network: Disrupting the Online World (2013, University of Minnesota Press), as well as various journal articles. For more info, see ulisesmejias.com.