Interview with Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias by Teresa Numerico
The critical discussion about data power and politics is now mainstream. There are a lot of doubts about the rhetoric that Big Data could represent human preferences, habits, and behaviours without a subjective situated gaze on social phenomena. One of the most interesting texts that proposes a convincing perspective in this debate is The Cost of Connection (Stanford University Press, 2019), written by Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias. The book was recently translated into Italian and the authors were invited to Italy for a book launch in Rome at John Cabot University and in Turin for the Biennale Tecnologia.
The solid and credible thesis of the book is that data colonialism is colonialism’s Plan B to keep on the appropriation process of available spaces and lands. The enclosure process in the 17th century allowed the original accumulation that privatized English pastures. The lands appropriation created an economic surplus, which was at the origin of Capital production and of the First industrial revolution. Land grabbing was not confined to the UK, but it expatriated during the conquer of colonies, considered as new spaces of expansion of capital gains and abstractions.
The expropriation of commons – considered free of proprietary titles – did not stop since then. At present we are facing a critical stage of Capital. It is desperately in need of new appropriation spaces, in order to obtain sources of extraction and abstraction. There are various possible solutions for this mad run toward infinite growth, the unique way for a capitalistic system to reproduce itself and survive: the Space Conquest, the appropriation of the future, such as in financial tools and bets, the value acquisition of informal work and the value extraction of people personal data. The planet has been almost completely exploited, global warming is scaringly growing, work exploitation has already reached the maximal level, and Capital needs other areas for confirming its progressive strength.
Data exploitation is a new version of colonialism that can be as rude as classical colonialism. There is a subtle connection between the two methods of exploitation that preserve a lot of similar characteristics. The book’s aim and desire is to stop the most dangerous consequences of such a method of repressing and governing people’s habits and preferences. The first step is describing the context in which data colonialism was born and the second step is the explicit discussion of all the different consequences of these interpretative perspectives, on the potential negative effects of the exploitation of data, the third and final step is the definition of possible resistance actions in order to transform the digital environment avoiding the perpetuation of the colonization power imposition on other areas of influence.
The interview has the scope to discuss all the different elements of data colonialism with respect to appropriation, expropriation and above all abstraction of information regarding people’s lives, habits, preferences, and behaviours. Abstraction is a crucial issue here because Capital is an abstraction tool that produces value out of live workforce. The abstracting character of capital can extract value from informal work and even from life itself, by constructing an intangible ideal representation that is immutable, solid, stable, and, above all, which is not subject to the contingencies that are common in living beings’ events. The idea behind the appropriation is the transformation of uncountable assets into countable ones, in order to measure, quantify and trade them for the benefit of digital entrepreneurs. According to the authors, moreover, it is not necessary that data should be true to allow the expropriation of value because it works even if it creates a false representation of states of things and states of mind. The power of discourse can create value also from the rhetorical definition of the trustworthiness of its assertions and consequently, it can produce an increase in stock exchange value.
The interview is a collective effort of Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias for explicating as clearly as possible the core of ideas behind their successful book, including some suggestions for possible solutions to the data colonialism problem, such as resistance strategies, practices, and policies.
Teresa Numerico: Can you explain to us the difference between historical colonialism and data colonialism? Why do you think the new form of colonialism can reproduce some new brutal forms of exploitation?
Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias: Data colonialism, as we define it, is a new emerging social order based on a new attempt to seize the world’s resources for the benefit of elites. Like historical colonialism, it is based on the extraction and appropriation of a valuable resource. The old colonialism grabbed land, resources, and human labour. The new one grabs us, the daily flow of our lives, in the abstract form of digital data. And, crucially, this new colonialism does not replace the old colonialism, which very much continues in its effects. Instead, it adds to the historically enduring process of colonialism a new toolkit, a toolkit that involves collecting, processing, and applying data.
This is not an argument against data per se. What we are specifically critiquing is a form of data extractivism that has one main purpose only: the generation of value in a profoundly unequal and asymmetrical way whose negative impacts are more acutely felt by the traditional victims of colonialism, whether we define them in terms of race, class, and gender, or the intersectional of those categories.
When people hear the term ‘data colonialism’, they ask us: Where is the violence? Does using Facebook or TikTok make me the same as a slave on a plantation? Obviously not. We are not saying there is a one-to-one correspondence between the old colonialism and the new, expanded one. The contexts, the intensities, and the modalities of colonialism have always varied, even though the function has remained the same: to extract, to dispossess. And the violence continues to reverberate along the same inequalities created by colonialism. We personally may even benefit from the system. We might not mind giving up our data, because we are the ones using gig workers, not the gig workers themselves. We are the ones who don’t get to see violent videos on YouTube, because someone in the Philippines has done the traumatizing work of flagging and getting those videos removed (while working for very low wages). These are not the same kinds of colonial brutalities of yesterday, but there is still a lot of violence in these new forms of exploitation and the whole emerging social order of data colonialism is being built on force, rather than choice.
T.N.: Do you believe that the neocolonial plan of expropriation of new areas of human life will end up in a form of commodification? Do you believe that there is a space for protecting something from being included in the capitalistic production of quantified value?
N.C.&U.M.: If we think in traditional Marxist terms, we imagine exploitation and expropriation as something happening to workers in the workplace. In data colonialism, exploitation happens everywhere and all the time, because we don’t need to be working in order to contribute to this system. We can in fact be doing the opposite of working: relaxing and interacting with friends and family. But the extraction and the tracking are happening, nonetheless.
The reason why increasingly fewer areas of life are outside the reach of this kind of exploitation is that the colonial mindset tells us that data, like nature and labour before it, is a cheap resource. Data is said to be abundant, just there for the taking, and without a real owner. In order for it to be processed, it needs to be refined with advanced technologies, just like previous colonial resources. So, our role is merely to produce it and surrender it to corporations, whom we are told are the only ones who can transform it into something useful and productive. The more data we surrender, for instance, the smarter AI can become, and the more capable of solving our problems. This premise is of course deeply flawed, because it is based on an extractivist model, and because it results in an unequal order where few gain, and most of us lose. But it is a premise that is being installed increasingly into how the spaces of everyday life (from the home to the workplace, from education to agriculture) are being organized.
One point however needs clarification from the perspective of Marxist theory. We are not saying that all extracted data necessarily becomes a valuable commodity. Data markets are complex and still developing: much data retain greater value when kept and used inside corporations, rather than being sold between corporations. But value has been extracted all the same through the process of abstracting human life in the form of data. And here there is a deep, if surprising connection to Marxist theory, at least as interpreted by Moishe Postone (1942-2018) who – underlying Marx’s theory of how capitalism reproduces itself – argued that it is not the commodification of labour, or even commodification as such, but rather the process of abstraction that makes commodification even possible. But what is the creation of data other than a process of abstraction?
So, from this extended perspective on Marx, we are claiming that, unless we do something to stop its advances, the emerging social order will ensure that there is no living space that has not already been configured to optimize data extraction and the wider operation of business logistics. As such, it will be just the latest stage in the ever-closer relations between colonialism and capitalism.
T.N.: Can you describe the difference between the production of old mass media and the new media production of digital platforms, by explicating why the imaginary control in the digital environment is more violent, more intrusive and addictive?
N.C.&U.M.: When the internet was not yet controlled by a handful of corporations, we were told that it could be the ultimate tool for democratization, because it allowed the sharing of information from many to many. Today, what we have is a monopsony, a market structure characterized by a handful of ‘buyers’ (the platforms that ‘buy’ our data—or rather acquire it for free). So many-to-many communication cannot happen without first going through a many-to-one filter, concentrating power in a few hands.
In addition to this, the people who manage this system have become quite adept at fragmenting the public into communities that mistrust and hate each other (often called filter bubbles, or echo chambers, though some prefer to think in terms of wider forces of polarization). The original intent was to make it easier to market to these individual communities and to do so by targeting ever more personalized content which, because it is more personalized, is more likely to generate the response that advertisers desire. But the system has spiralled out of control because it rewards the circulation of sensationalist misinformation that appeals to base emotions and promotes an us-vs-them parochialism, all while also encouraging addiction and increasing time spent on the platforms.
Governments, it also needs to be said, have done almost nothing to prevent or even regulate this. Partly because it took them a long time to understand what was going on, but also because most governments have pursued policies of media deregulation, interfering less and less in the ‘free market’ and giving corporations more power to act unhindered. Let’s not forget that governments are often very happy to get access to the vast datasets that commercial corporations are amassing, as for example, Edward Snowden revealed a decade ago.
T.N.: Do you consider that data extraction is a way to access intimate information of people? Or do you think that the information created in the datification process can orient people’s behaviours more than understand them? Don’t you think that at the end of this complex procedure of datification and data extraction it is possible that there is not enough value, particularly if consumers are completely expropriated of their will and maybe also of their resources?
N.C.&U.M.: Data colonialism is a system for making people easier to use by machines. Of course, all the data extracted by platforms cannot capture the complexity of a single human being. And yes, there are some who are sceptical about whether hyper-targeted advertising actually works to buy people’s online attention consistently. But that does not matter. What matters is that corporations have, in many cases, managed to monetize that data by using it to influence our commercial and political decisions, and by selling our lives back to us (the platform can ‘organize’ your life for you and even track and predict your health and emotions). And even where data cannot be directly monetized, accumulated, or anticipated data still generates value in terms of speculative investments that build stock market value.
This is not a system that sets itself any limits. Has either colonialism or capitalism ever said, ‘we have accumulated enough? So, you are right that the system is always looking for new ‘territories’ or ‘frontiers’ from which to extract value. That is why Lenin said something to the effect that imperialism is the most advanced form of capitalism: once you run out of people to exploit at home, you must colonize new zones of extraction that also become new markets for what you are selling. That is the strategy behind data colonialism, seen as the latest land grab in a very long series of resource appropriations.
T.N.: Do you think that there is any space left for the old-style social sciences, or are you suggesting that the potential make sense of social behaviours will be completely hacked by economic sciences and neurosciences? Is there any space for a critical attitude in these fields?
N.C.&U.M.: Those who take a Darwinist approach to academic disciplines tell us that we must accept the march of evolution: STEM and those social sciences based on empirical data have emerged as the fittest, while the humanities, arts, and ‘old style’ social sciences must accept their secondary, unimportant role. Data, some writers such as Chris Anderson claim, has made theory unnecessary. The thing is: a critique of data colonialism is not emerging from the STEM fields. What we have found as we present our work is that people are inspired by a framework that allows them to formulate and give voice to a critique. This space for a critical attitude is proving to be not only necessary but potentially lifesaving. But its possibility depends on using the inherited resources of the humanities and social sciences (rigorous listening to human voices, the formulation of theoretical frameworks such as Marxism, decolonial studies and critical data studies) that still allow us to imagine a different world, a world which has not been wholly captured by the forces of capital and colonial power.
T.N.: You often cite Agamben in your work. Do you think that there is some sort of universality of human beings that needs to be regained after it was cancelled by digital technology? This is a peculiar vision of technology in opposition to human nature. Are you prepared to back up that theory?
N.C.& U.M.: Not sure that we often cite Agamben: at most we cite him in passing for offering through the idea of ‘bare life’ something a little similar to how we formulate the challenges of data colonialism for human agency and human subjects. What we talk about is something different: the need to protect what we call ‘the space of the self’. This is the separate material reality, based on the separateness of our bodies, that is the starting point for any notion of freedom or autonomy. But we insist – ad this is very different from any notion of freedom celebrated by business thinkers or platform owners – on understanding autonomy not in an individual but in a relational way, with my possibilities of freedom only emerging out of the network of relations I have with others. This is not something Agamben talks about, but it is essential. In our book, we develop this by drawing not just on a Western philosopher like Hegel who in many ways is a very compromised figure in relation to colonialism, but also the Mexican/Argentinian philosopher Enrique Dussel who developed a concept of ‘liberation’ against the domination of Western frameworks. But what both have in common is the idea that each of us has a space of being, that must be protected from external interference, without which we have no possibility of freedom. But in fact, when you look across many philosophical traditions, for example, the idea of ‘ubuntu’ from Southern Africa, you find similar relational views of freedom. It is that sort of more inclusive rather than individualist value that we use as our reference points in thinking about how human beings relate to technology.
T.N.: Can you tell us something more about the strategy for a decolonial vision of data? How can we transform the new exploitation system in structural ways? How can we cultivate the ‘seamfulness’ principle for data connections?
N.C.&U.M.: We don’t think that piecemeal actions will work, precisely because it is a whole interlocking social and economic order that is being built. There is no doubt a role for regulation, but it is unlikely ever to be enough because it does not think in terms of changing how we live, as decolonial thinking does. An illustration of that is that one of the boldest ideas from critical regulation scholars is that data should not be connected, that is, data extraction should be not ‘seamless’, but ‘seamful’, preventing for example data gathered by educational or social media platforms from ever being used by prospective employers or insurers. But this idea of seamfulness, though radical and powerful, has not been adopted by regulators. In fact, the new EU data legislation goes in exactly the opposite direction, of ensuring the freest possible flow of data between corporations.
So, we cannot rely on regulators to advance a decolonial vision of data. And a decolonial vision of data must be able to encompass not one answer, but many. It must be able to formulate solutions that are not only technological but social, political, regulatory, cultural, scientific, and educational. And it must be able to connect itself to struggles that seemingly have nothing to do with data, but that are part of the same struggles for justice and dignity. That is why many creative responses to data colonialism are coming from feminist groups, from anti-racist groups, from indigenous groups, etc… We can and must learn from these rich responses. And with the Mexican feminist scholar Paola Ricaurte we have set up a network, the Tierra Comun network (tierracomun.net) that aims to do just that.
T.N.: In your book, you argue convincingly, with the support of many decolonial thinkers, that there is a continuity between colonialism and ‘western’ rationality. How can we preserve reason, and protect pluralism, difference, and human autonomy?
N.C.&U.M.: The first step is to recognize that reason, pluralism, and autonomy are not constructs that should be associated only with the west. In fact, western rationality ‘borrowed’ (to put it mildly) many of these concepts from non-western traditions. So, it’s not a question of doing away with rationality; it’s a question of doing away with the western claim of exclusivity over rationality.
We argue that decolonizing data is first and foremost an exercise in creativity and imagination and that we can learn a lot from non-western models about how to resist colonial rationality. Sometimes this resistance can only begin with the mind if resisting with the body is not possible. But once it starts, it cannot be stopped. We are beginning to see communities take control over their data, and take control of the process of asking what data is and what it should be used for. They ask: can AI be decolonized, or is there something intrinsically colonial about it? We are all in the process of trying to figure it out, but the conversations have started. And they are oriented to values precisely such as autonomy, community, and reason, but conceived not in a narrow way that feeds power and domination, but instead in an inclusive and pluralistic way, just as the Zapatistas imagined ‘a world in which many worlds fit’.
T.N.: Don’t you think that epistemology and politics are strictly intertwined and that for the decolonial practices to be successful, we need to elaborate new ways of thinking and of knowing?
N.C.&U.M.: Everyday politics, however crude, always rely on certain ways of framing the world. So, any attempt at a political challenge or positive political transformation relies on challenging those frames, via alternative epistemologies.
But this is particularly true when the politics that needs to be challenged is a politics that wants to go on benefiting from the profound inequalities of the colonial order. Challenging that involves challenging not just particular narratives, for example about the origins of a particular nation or about the origins of poverty but challenging the very idea that the world’s resources are ‘just there’ for the benefit of extractivist elites. Even more deeply, it involves challenging the approach to knowledge (much of science as we inherit it) that is based on an extractivist view of the world. So yes, doing this requires a new way of thinking about knowledge, resulting in new ways of knowing and new ways of living together.
T.N.: Decoloniality cannot rely on homesickness because there is no desirable past, no home where we want to go back to, but how can we build a common future that we dream of?
C.N.&U.M.: Yes, one trap of ‘decolonialism’ is to try to return to a ‘pure’ precolonial past. A more fruitful response would seem to be the creation of a policy for a new type of postcolonial human being. Actually, modern societies have tried both solutions, and both can create possibilities as well as challenges (parochialism in the first case; authoritarianism and the loss of individual freedom in the second).
The promise that we see in this kind of moment is that anti-colonialism, when applied to the technological domain, can become a signifier that unites us, where people can place different goals and desires and work towards common prosocial ends. But we should keep in mind that this signifier can also be abused and used to manipulate us. We would hope that decolonizing data can become not a movement that is co-opted by certain parties and individuals for political gain, but a larger, pluriversal, global movement of solidarity where we, regular human beings, can reclaim our digital data and transform it into a tool to act on the world, instead of a tool for corporations to act on us.
(An abridged version of this interview was published in Il Manifesto on 8th November 2022)