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Everyday Data: a Workshop Report

By Becky Kazansky and Guillen Torres

Intro

On September 15th 2019, DATACTIVE held a one-day workshop following on the heels of the Data Power conference in Bremen, Germany. We were kindly hosted by the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKIi) of the University of Bremen. Over this day, we sought to create a space to explore and unpack the concept of the ‘everyday’ as it figures into studies of data practices and resistance to datafication. The workshop brought together a small group of interdisciplinary scholars working on issues related to the making and unmaking of datafication, to paraphrase Neal and Murji (2015). Participants came from sociology, anthropology, computer science, media studies, and informatics. Their topics of research include community activism, platform labor, feminist data practices, and the data-resistant practices of states, studying datafication through the respective participation of citizens, governments, corporations, and academia. In this blog post we explain our inspiration for this workshop, and highlight some of the discussions that resulted. We conclude with an invitation for further ideas and contributions. 

 

From data activism to everyday data

Since coming together in 2015, the DATACTIVE research group has been engaged in the empirical study of the ‘politics of data according to civil society’. During the past four years, we have interviewed over 200 civil society actors from all over the world, who ‘reactively’ or ‘proactively’ (see: Milan and Van der Velden, 2016) engage with datafication through a myriad of different projects (Check our output and blogs for some examples!).  Our approach to these data practices was initially guided by the category of data activism, which helped us foreground new types of political activity made possible by the availability of data. We have since observed that the data activist lens holds the potential to draw sharp boundaries between political and non-political engagements with data. Yet, as datafication has continued to become more pervasive, with responses (including tactics of resistance from different parts of society) to it ever more varied, it has become harder to pinpoint what practices qualify as activism per se —  and which ones do not. 

 

In our research we have encountered many ‘data practices’ that sit within an interzone that blurs hard distinctions between the ‘activist’ and the ‘everyday’. Furthermore, the big and small data-related controversies of the past years have made evident that what is regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ shifts with the diffusion of new technologies, forms of knowledge production, and sociopolitical instabilities (Amoore, 2013). Furthermore, we’ve noted that what is considered ‘everyday’ or ‘extraordinary’ fundamentally pivots around the perspective privileged in making this distinction. We have thus grown interested in exploring how the ordinary and everyday should be accounted for in the study of data practices and in our understanding of resistance to the harms of datafication. 

 

Much research on the relation between datafication and people’s agency has focused on highly- skilled proactive data activists (Gutierrez and Milan 2019), or on how human agency is overridden by algorithmic decision-making. Taking a slightly different road, we seek to explore how power asymmetries are constantly reproduced or challenged through people’s engagement with data in everyday life. In our view, investigating how datafication is “made and unmade” in everyday life implies foregrounding practices which may not be immediately recognized as data activism, but still consist of a response that can be understood as political, even if not necessarily classified as such. 

As part of our ongoing interest in locating spaces for human agency within datafication, we DATACTIVE project members have engaged in a number of lively internal discussions about how data activism fits with broader conceptualizations of ‘data practices’ (Fotoupoulo, 2019), emerging notions of ‘data politics’ (Ruppert et al., 2017), and the imperative to study the ‘everyday’ of dataficatication (Kennedy, 2018). With the goal of questioning the notion of the “ordinary” amidst continuous optimization (Gürses, et al, 2018), creeping surveillance (Monahan, 2010) and perpetually looming states of exception (McQuillan, 2015), we decided to organize a workshop to explore the role of the everyday as a locus of agency, resistance and political intervention. 

 

The workshop

We kept the format of the day a bit experimental: rather than requiring participants to produce an original piece for the workshop, we asked them to take their existing work around datafication and reflect upon it through the lens of several exploratory questions:

  • How do every-day acts come to be understood as spaces of political intervention?
  • What are the every-day and banal aspects of “acting on” and “through” data? 
  • How does agency evolve in relation to everyday engagement with data? 
  • Who determines what is considered the “everyday”?
  • What perspectives are privileged to build the ordinary/extraordinary distinction?
  • How does the ordinary change with the diffusion of new technologies and politics?
  • What happens between the extraordinary moments of political mobilisation that we hear about in the media?

Probing these unwieldy questions in our small pocket of space-time surfaced a number of shared concerns, which we briefly highlight below. 

 

Big P politics and the everyday

Subjacent to our interest in the everyday is the distinction between The Political (read in an egregious Carl Schmitt voice) and politics. During the workshop, this found expression in a collective concern about what we, as researchers, may leave out of sight if we only focus on what seems overtly political. One of the initial intuitions guiding the theme of the  workshop was that the distinction between activist and non-activist engagements with data hides a very Political decision that needs to be questioned, and during the discussion this proved to be a key topic. When focusing on everyday experiences of datafication, we, as researchers, are responsible for locating, highlighting and questioning the political consequences of our making (extra)ordinary of data practices. This requires a sensibility towards the context and discourses of the people enacting the practices we study, which means that their status as Political/activist depends more on their own lived experiences and less on our analytical categories. The relevance of people’s everyday lived experiences also means that we need to remain attentive to how race, gender, class and politics influence what practitioners, observers and powerful actors understand as Political or ordinary.

 

Marginalized, minoritized, colonized and exploited, but (re)gaining agency.

Slowly but surely, narratives about datafication in which human agency is missing are being challenged. All workshop presentations reflected around the ever-growing number of ways through which people can and already do gain agency through or in relation to data, overcoming governments or companies who, thanks to their privileged access to technology, have turned datafication into a tool particularly suitable for control, oppression, surveillance and exploitation. The examples of responses to this fatalist narrative of datafication are as diverse as the communities who put them forward. Inspired by Dr Seeta Peña Gangadharan’s keynote days earlier at the Data Power conference, we discussed calls to practice (and recognize) small acts of refusal in situations of data harm — as well as the long history of organizing that informs recent calls to abolish unjust data-driven systems. We looked at feminist data practices putting forward alternative versions of datafication to question privileges and oppression. We discussed contemporary modes of worker resistance to the unethical conditions of surveillance capitalism, as well as the forms of ‘resistance’ that can arise from people participating within oppressive structures themselves. The general feeling of the workshop was that the pervasiveness of datafication is making evident a plethora of other spaces and strategies for claiming agency beyond exceptional moments of collective mobilisation and existing categories of explicitly political action.

 

In all these examples, we notice the presence of actors who might not fit the label of data activists very visibly challenging the unjust consequences of datafication in their everyday lives. This is, however, hardly a new phenomenon. Minoritized, marginalized, colonized and exploited communities have always experienced everyday life as a space of political struggle. Workshop participants reflected on the experiences of people of color, rural dwellers attempting to benefit from the perks of digital citizenship, Latin American feminist activists, and data intermediaries working with marginalized city dwellers, amongst others.  From these reflections originated questions concerning research ethics and positionality: What role does the ‘agency’ of these communities play in making and unmaking datafication? Where does individual agency fit in relation to governance and accountability for data harms? Is it right to analyze the refusal of actors thought of as more ‘powerful’ through the same lens of resistance as marginalized or harmed communities? 

 

Acting on the everyday

Another one of our core interests in organizing the Everyday Data workshop was to reflect around the everyday as a space to foster resistance to the harmful consequences of datafication, and whether we, as academics, should open it up for examination or leave it alone to prevent its cooptation. During the discussion, this concern acquired two forms. The first was related to how to approach the everyday from our positionality as academics, which implies questioning how notions of ‘everyday’ are shaped not just by datafication but by the way ‘ life’ is ordered and categorized — for example, imagining what the everyday would mean without the implicit structuring of capitalist consumption or labor. The second concern was connected to the role that research on these issues may play in relation to advocacy. What do we want to see ‘happen’ with our research findings? How to best support groups seeking just conditions under datafication? These questions are particularly hard when we decide to join the work of the communities we are interested in on their own terms and honoring the specificities of their values and their epistemic contributions, rather than imposing academic frameworks around ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’.

 

Contribute to the discussion

Following the rich discussion of our workshop, we are looking into ways to grow our brainstorm further. To that end, we invite those interested in reflecting upon the everyday dimension of datafication to write for our blog or propose another contribution. Please get in touch directly with Guillen & Becky. 

 

References and further reading

Amoore, L. (2013). The politics of possibility: Risk and security beyond probability. Durham: Duke University Press.

Datafication and Community Activism Workshop Participants (2019), What We Mean When We Say #AbolishBigData2019. In: Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@rncrooks/what-we-mean-when-we-say-abolishbigdata2019-d030799ab22e.

D’Ignazio, Catherine. K., Lauren, F. (2020). Data Feminism. S.I.: MIT Press.

Fotopoulou, A. (2019). Understanding citizen data practices from a feminist perspective. Embodiment and the ethics of care. In H. Stephansen & E. Trere (Eds.), Citizen Media and Practice. Oxford: Routledge.

Gutiérrez, M., & Milan, S. (2019). Playing with data and its consequences. First Monday, 24(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i1.9554

Gurses, Seda, Rebekah Overdorf, and Ero Balsa. (2018). POTs: The revolution will not be optimized? 11th Hot Topics in Privacy Enhancing Technologies (HotPETs).

Kennedy, H. (n.d.). Living With Data: Aligning Data Studies and Data Activism Through a Focus on Everyday Experiences of Datafication. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 1, 18–30.

Milan, S., & van der Velden, L. (2018). Reversing Data Politics: An Introduction to the Special Issue. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 2018(1), 1–3.

Milan, S., & Velden, L. van der. (2016). The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.14361/dcs-2016-0205

Neal, Sarah and Karim Murji. (2015). “Sociologies of everyday life: editors’ introduction to the special issue.” Sociology 49 (5): 811-819.

Ruppert, E., Isin, E., & Bigo, D. (2017). Data politics. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 205395171771774. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717717749

Photo Credit: Telmo32

 

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Niels at ECREA: Infrastructures and Inequalities: Media industries, digital cultures and politics

The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) organized a workshop about Infrastructures and Inequalities. Here Niels presented his recent work on an experiment to inscribe legal and ethical norms into the Internet routing infrastructure. The conference helped to further concept of infrastructure, that continues to gaining traction in the fields of geography, media studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies.

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Niels at Kyiv Biennial on architecture, protocols, routing, power, and control

The topic of the Kyiv Biennial this year is ‘the Black Cloud’. The title reminiscences the contaminated cloud that traveled over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster and invites us to reflect on the role of technology. At the Kyiv Biennial, the critical media scholar Svitlana Matviyenko organized a two-day symposium with the title ‘communicative militarism‘. Here Niels spoke about the evolution of power and control in the Internet architecture, the political economy that shapes it, and the threats and opportunities that lie ahead. Other speakers at the symposium were Geert Lovink, Clemens Apprich, Svitlana Matviyenko, and Asia BazdyrievaIMG_20191018_201112

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DATACTIVE at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia

On April 5-7, Stefania will attend the International Journalism Festival in Perugia. She will speak in the panel ‘Facing the challenges of a datafied society’, on Saturday at 5pm. She will join on stage Philip Di Salvo (Institute of Media and Journalism USI), Colin Porlezza (Department of Journalism City University, London), and Adrienne Russell (University of Washington).

Facing the challenges of a datafied society: how journalist, activists and hackers can make sense of datafication

The contemporary datafied society is hybrid in nature: information technology, policy makers, activists and participatory publics all converge in shaping today’s mediated landscape. Making sense and interpreting these elements comes with new challenges for journalists whose role it is to help citizens understand the mechanisms of today’s democracy and its potential abuses. The Snowden revelations and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, among others, have deeply impacted our understanding of the contemporary digital area, such as mass surveillance, the role of algorithms, and the perils of the data economy. These cases, among others, also exhibit some of the complex hybridization processes journalism is going through, both on a practical and on a cultural level. New players like hackers and activists entered the journalism field either through collaboration with journalists or by creating new tools, strategies and standards. In both cases they introduce new themes and debates into the news agenda. This panel, composed of academics and practitioners, will explore the role of journalism in shaping debates and issues about the datafied society and highlight some of the most successful examples of today’s hybrid journalism.

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DATACTIVE at the 5th Internet Freedom Festival

DATACTIVE, and Becky Kazansky (@pondswimmer) and Stefania Milan (@annliffey) in particular, is in Valencia on April 1-5 to take part in the 5th edition of the Internet Freedom Festival. In particular, Stefania will join a session entitled “The IFF in context: The transnational social movement for digital rights“, organised by Nathalie Marechal (Ranking Digital Rights) and Efrat Daskal (Northeaster University), injecting some history into the present digital rights struggles.

Come say hello!

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Becky responding to Jamie Susskind @SPUI25

On February 21, Becky Kazansky will be responding to Jamie Susskind during an event for the presentation of his book Future Politics. Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech. During the evening, the author will present his insights on how digital technology is and will further transform our society and political system. Becky will comment on Susskind’s book based on her experience as researcher on topics related to technology and social justice.

 

21 February 2019, 8pm @SPUI25

http://www.spui25.nl/spui25-en/events/events/2019/02/future-politics.html

 

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Good Data Book launch on January 24

For the past few months we worked in a new collective DATACTIVE publication: Data for the Social Good: Toward a data-activist research agenda. It will be one of the chapters in the forthcoming Good Data book, edited by Angela Daly, Kate Devitt and Monique Mann, and published by the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam within their “Theory on Demand” series.

Our text builds upon the Data for the Social Good two-day focused encounter we organised in November 2017 (read the report here). During the first day of that event last year we discussed with Charlotte Ryan, Lorenzo Pezanni, Jeff Deutsch and Nico Para about the ways in which research and activism intersect in projects which rely on data. On the second day, we were joined by a diverse group of researchers and activists for a workshop exploring what a data-activist agenda would look like (seriously, read the report here!).

In Data for the Social Good: Toward a data-activist research agenda, we took that conversation and expanded it two fronts. First, we grounded theoretically our take on what it means to be a (data) activist, which implied clarifying what data activism means in the first place, as well as briefly revising the origin and evolution of engaged research. Secondly,  we reflected more deeply upon the ethics of collaborative investigations, paying particular attention to the power relations between the actors involved throughout the process.

The Good Data book will be launched in Amsterdam at 5pm of the 24th of January, at the cultural centre Spui25. It includes 20 different chapters exploring what good data practices are, from manifestos to smart city reflections (and nope, not a single reference to blockchain).  Both the editors and DATACTIVE will be around to discuss more about how to use data for good rather than evil, so join us if you’re interested in knowing more (or getting the book)!

Cheers!

DATACTIVE

 

 

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Workshop ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, Amsterdam, December 4-5

How would datafication look like seen… ‘upside down’? What questions would we ask? What concepts, theories and methods would we embrace or have to devise? These questions are at the core of the two-day research seminar ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, scheduled to take place at the University of Amsterdam on December 4-5, 2018. The event is the third gathering of the Big Data from the South Initiative, launched in 2017 by Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré (Cardiff University). It interrogates ‘Big Data from the South’, moving beyond the Western centrism and ‘digital universalism’ (Say Chan, 2013) of much of the critical scholarship on datafication and digitalization. It allows the Initiative to advance with charting its field of inquiry, including in the conversation practitioners from various corners of the globe and scholars from media studies, development studies, law, globalization studies, philosophy, science and technology studies, critical data studies (and counting).

Watch the event here.

The event is made possible by the generous funding of the Amsterdam Center for Globalization Studies, the Amsterdam Center for European Studies, the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, and the European Research Council. With the participation of SPUI25 and Terre Lente.

Rationale

The workshop builds on the work of DATACTIVE and the Data Justice Lab in thinking the relation between data, citizenship and participation, but goes beyond engaging with a much needed debate at the intersection of feminist theory, critical theory, and decolonial thinking, which, ‘thinking in radical exteriority’ (Vallega, 2015, p. x), interrogates the coloniality of power. It intends to contribute also to the ongoing epistemological repositioning of the humanities and the social sciences in light of the raising inequality. We depart from the observation that, ‘while the majority of the world’s population resides outside the West, we continue to frame key debates on democracy and surveillance—and the associated demands for alternative models and practices—by means of Western concerns, contexts, user behavior patterns, and theories’  (Milan and Treré, 2017) . If on the one hand, ‘we need concerted and sustained scholarship on the role and impact of big data on the Global South’ (Arora, 2015, p. 1693), on the other ‘new’ theory and ‘new’ understandings are key, as ‘if the injustices of the past continue into the present and are in need of repair (and reparation), that reparative work must also be extended to the disciplinary structure that obscure as much as illuminate the path ahead’ (Bhambra & De Sousa Santos, 2017, p. 9). Thus, this event will be a stepping stone towards rethinking the sociotechnical dynamics of datafication in light of ‘the historical processes of dispossession, enslavement, appropriation and extraction […] central to the emergence of the modern world’ (Ibid.).

But what South are we referring to? First, our definition of ‘South’ is a flexible and expansive one, inspired to the writings of globalization sociologist Boaventura De Sousa Santos (2014) who is at the forefront of the reflection on the emergence and the urgency of epistemologies from the South against the ‘epistemicide’ of neoliberalism. Including but also going beyond the geographical South and emphasising the plurality of the South(s), our South is a place for and a metaphor of resistance, subversion, and creativity . Secondly, our notion emerges in dialectic interaction with the continuous critical interrogating and situating of our privilege as Western academics vs. the imperative to do ‘nothing about them without them’ (see Milan and Treré, 2017).

Participants (in alphabetical order)

Carla Alvial (NUMIES, Chile), Payal Arora (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Sérgio Barbosa (University of Coimbra), Davide Beraldo (UvA), Enrico Calandro (Research ICT Africa), Bernardo Caycedo (UvA), Fabien Cante (University of Birmingham), Alberto Cossu (UvA), Nick Couldry (LSE), Álvaro Crovo (ISUR, Colombia), Monika Halkort (American University of Lebanon), Becky Kazansky (UvA), Anja Kovacs (The Internet Democracy Project), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University), Joan Lopez (Fundacion Karisma), Aaron Martin (Tilburg University), Silvia Masiero (Loughborough University), Ulises Mejias (SUNY Oswego), Stefania Milan (UvA), Hellen Mukiri-Smith (Tilburg University), Nelli Piattoeva (University of Tampere), Anita Say Chan (Illinois, Urbana-Champagne), Gabriela Sued (Tecnologico de Monterrey), Anna Suman (Tilburg University), Linnet Taylor (Tilburg University), Gunes Tavmen (Birbeck College), Niels ten Oever (UvA), Emiliano Treré (Cardiff University), Guillen Torres (UvA), Etienne von Bertrab (UCL), Norbert Wildermuth (Roskilde University), Kersti Wissenbach (UvA)

Schedule 

DAY 1, December 4th
15.00-16.30

@UvA library, Singel 425, room ‘Belle van Zuylen’

Open session: Can Data be Decolonized? Data Relations and the Emerging Social Order of Capitalism, with Nick Couldry (London School of Economics and Political Science) & Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York at Oswego)

This talk (which draws on the author’s forthcoming book from Stanford University Press, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism) examines how contemporary practices of data extraction and processing replicate colonial modes of exploitation. Couldry and Mejias present the concept of “data colonialism” as a tool to analyze emerging forms of political control and economic dispossession. To that effect, their analysis engages the disciplines of critical political economy, sociology of media, and postcolonial science and technology studies to trace continuities from colonialism’s historic appropriation of territories and material resources to the datafication of everyday life today. While the modes, intensities, scales and contexts of dispossession have changed, the underlying function remains the same: to acquire resources from which economic value can be extracted. Just as historic colonialism paved the way for industrial capitalism, this phase of colonialism prepares the way for a new economic order. In this context, the authors analyze the ideologies and rationalities through which “data relations” (social relations conducted and organized via data processes) contribute to the capitalization of human life. Their findings hold important implications for how we study the internet, and how we may advocate for the decolonization of data in the future.

Chair: Stefania Milan (DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam)

17.00-19.30 @Terre Lente, Westerstraat 55 Informal research session with light dinner & drinks (for subscribed participants only)
20-21.30 @SPUI25, Spui 25 Public event: Big Data from the South: Decolonization, Resistance and Creativity, Payal Arora (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Nick Couldry (London School of Economics), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University) and Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York, College at Oswego).

Datafication has dramatically altered the way we understand the world around us. Understanding the so-called ‘big data’ means to explore the profound consequences of the computational turn, as well as the limitations, errors and biases that affect the gathering, interpretation and access to information on such a large scale. However, much of this critical scholarship has emerged along a Western axis ideally connecting Silicon Valley, Cambridge, MA and Northern Europe. What does it mean to think datafication from a Southern perspective? This roundtable interrogates the mythology and universalism of datafication and big data, moving beyond the Western centrism and ‘digital universalism’ (Say Chan, 2013) of the critical scholarship on datafication and digitalization. It asks how would datafication look like seen… ‘upside down’? What problems should we address? What questions would we ask? We will explore these questions in conversation with four engaged academics: Payal Arora (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Nick Couldry (London School of Economics), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University), and Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York, Oswego).

Chair: Stefania Milan (DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam)
Moderator: Emiliano Treré (Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University)

Drinks will follow!

DAY 2, December 5th @e-lab, UvA Media Studies, Turfdraagsterpad 9 (for subscribed participants only)
10.00-10.15 Welcome by Stefania Milan (coffee & tea in the room!)
10.15-11.00 Setting the scene by Stefania and Emiliano Treré
11.00-11.45 Workgroup slot 1
11.45-12.30 Workgroup slot 2
12.30-13.40 Short presentation by Tecnológico de Monterrey(Mexico)
12.40-13.30 Lunch served in the room (by Terre Lente)
13.30-14.15 Workgroup slot 3
14.15-15.00 Workgroup slot 4
15.00-15.45 Workgroup slot 5
15.45-16.00 Stretching break
16.00-17.00 Plenary session: Reporting back and next steps

Follow the conversation online with the hashtag #BigDataSur

Check out the blog and subscribe to the mailing list!

 

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DATACTIVE Speaker Series: Can Data be Decolonized?, December 4

DATACTIVE is proud to announce a talk by Nick Couldry (London School of Economics and Political Science) and Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York at Oswego) in the framework of the DATACTIVE Speaker Series and in occasion of the Big Data from the South workshop. The talk, entitled “Can Data be Decolonized? Data Relations and the Emerging Social Order of Capitalism”, will take place on December the 4th at 3pm, at the University Library (Potgieterzaal). Below you find the blurb.

Can Data be Decolonized? Data Relations and the Emerging Social Order of Capitalism
A talk by Nick Couldry (London School of Economics and Political Science) and Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York at Oswego)

This talk (which draws on the author’s forthcoming book from Stanford University Press, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism) examines how contemporary practices of data extraction and processing replicate colonial modes of exploitation. Couldry and Mejias present the concept of “data colonialism” as a tool to analyze emerging forms of political control and economic dispossession. To that effect, their analysis engages the disciplines of critical political economy, sociology of media, and postcolonial science and technology studies to trace continuities from colonialism’s historic appropriation of territories and material resources to the datafication of everyday life today. While the modes, intensities, scales and contexts of dispossession have changed, the underlying function remains the same: to acquire resources from which economic value can be extracted. Just as historic colonialism paved the way for industrial capitalism, this phase of colonialism prepares the way for a new economic order. In this context, the authors analyze the ideologies and rationalities through which “data relations” (social relations conducted and organized via data processes) contribute to the capitalization of human life. Their findings hold important implications for how we study the internet, and how we may advocate for the decolonization of data in the future.