Ulises A. Mejias: Alternate Realities and the Logic of Data Colonialism

Remember Alternate Reality Games? As some observers have pointed out, QAnon definitely feels and functions like an ARG. It’s got open and collective storytelling, multiplatform content, puppet masters, die hard players, hidden clues… a blurry boundary between fiction and reality. Conservatives and progressives like to accuse each other of deficient skills when it comes to internet virology. But QAnon proves The Right Can Definitely Meme. It is one of the most addictive and ambitious media project of our times. A Brechtian double whammy, both hammer and mirror.

The aesthetics of the QAnon ARG herald a new (but old) political reality. In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote “Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves… The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” QAnon completes the (re)introduction into political life of a popular fascist aesthetic, reaching its apex in the ultimate ARG-cum-Flashmob: Jan 6, 2021 USA.

PlAy It BeFOre YoU LivE It!

I myself was engaged in exploring the pedagogical uses of Fake News. From 2009 to 2013, I ran a number of ARG’s at my college. The games covered everything from budget cuts to public education, to racism on campus, Islamophobia, and US-Mexico relations. The idea was that in order to fix reality, we first had to break it. There’s something very powerful about the idea that the breaking is the fixing, and I think we desperately need to reinvent ways of doing that. But as we found out, everyone can play that game, so we become entangled in a competition to see who can create the best “imagined communities,” as Benedict Anderson would call them.

Facebook and the Business of Bullshit

Under this new aesthetic regime, reality is whatever receives the most Likes, Shares, and Re-Tweets. If I tweet that the sky is green, or that global warming is not real, and I can get you to retweet my post more times than the opposition, my reality wins. We have gone from communication as the sharing of meaning, to communication as the gamefication of meaning.

Taking a page from Harry Frankfurt, this looks a lot like bullshit; it’s not just about spreading lies, but about creating the social architectures and spaces where the lies are treated as the Real. Big Tech has found a way to monetize the psychometric targeting of this bullshit and is laughing all the way to the bank.

But the problem is not just Facebook’s shameless opportunism. It is the emergence of a whole new social order that Nick Couldry and I call “data colonialism” (see our book or our article). Data colonialism entails the appropriation of human life so that data can be continuously extracted from it for profit and control. Simply put, whereas historic colonialism grabbed land and bodies, data colonialism grabs our lives, through the abstracting and extracting medium of data. Our point is not that there is a perfect correspondence between historic and data colonialism. We don’t want to trivialize 500 years of brutality. But while there are important differences in terms of the form and the content of both forms of colonialism, the function is the same. And that function is to extract and to dispossess.

The bad news is that data colonialism is a global phenomenon, re-organizing the world along two centers of power: the US and China. But the good news is that, while accounting for local nuances, strategies developed to resist data colonialism can also be global.

Non-alignment as Alternate Reality

In collaboration with others, particularly Juan Ortiz Freuler, I have been engaged in trying to launch a Non-Aligned Technologies Movement, or NATM (see this, and this). It’s very much a work in progress, and we don’t have much to show for it yet. Our inspiration is the original Non-Aligned Movement, a consortium of nations that during the Cold War attempted to forge a path beyond the equally unattractive choices of capitalism and communism. Today, we need options to navigate between the profit-motivated Scylla of Silicon Valley and the control-motivated Charybdis of the Chinese Communist Party.

While the group hasn’t agreed on specific goals, I am proposing that they can be framed in terms of the divestment and boycott strategies that have already been employed to resist other forms of colonialism. But those tactics need to be supplemented by initiatives in education, culture and solidarity.

In short, this is not about opting out of GAFA and BATX (although it’s great if you can!). This is about finding ways of engaging in open and decolonial research to study and articulate the dangers of extractivist technologies, and how to resist them (education). This is about finding ways to participate in a process of re-imagining a world without extractivist technologies by creating a space that incorporates diverse voices and perspectives (culture). And it’s about linking to other people engaged in the same struggle, and using the power of collective action (solidarity).

Maybe we need an ARG for that!

Ulises A. Mejias is professor of Communication Studies and director of the Institute for Global Engagement at SUNY Oswego. He is the author of Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World (2013, University of Minnesota Press), and, with Nick Couldry, of The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism (2019, Stanford University Press).

This posting is based on an earlier contribution to the Empyre list.