Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject

Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias in Television & New Media (TVNM): “...Data colonialism combines the predatory extractive practices of historical colonialism with the abstract quantification methods of computing. Understanding Big Data from the Global South means understanding capitalism’s current dependence on this new type of appropriation that works at every point in space where people or things are attached to today’s infrastructures of connection. The scale of this transformation means that it is premature to map the forms of capitalism that will emerge from it on a global scale. Just as historical colonialism over the long-run provided the essential preconditions for the emergence of industrial capitalism, so over time, we can expect that data colonialism will provide the preconditions for a new stage of capitalism that as yet we can barely imagine, but for which the appropriation of human life through data will be central.

Right now, the priority is not to speculate about that eventual stage of capitalism, but to resist the data colonialism that is under way. This is how we understand Big Data from the South. Through what we call ‘data relations’ (new types of human relations which enable the extraction of data for commodification), social life all over the globe becomes an ‘open’ resource for extraction that is somehow ‘just there’ for capital. These global flows of data are as expansive as historic colonialism’s appropriation of land, resources, and bodies, although the epicentre has somewhat shifted. Data colonialism involves not one pole of colonial power (‘the West’), but at least two: the USA and China. This complicates our notion of the geography of the Global South, a concept which until now helped situate resistance and disidentification along geographic divisions between former colonizers and colonized. Instead, the new data colonialism works both externally — on a global scale — and internally on its own home populations. The elites of data colonialism (think of Facebook) benefit from colonization in both dimensions, and North-South, East-West divisions no longer matter in the same way.

It is important to acknowledge both the apparent similarities and the significant differences between our argument and the many preceding critical arguments about Big Data…(More)”