What we’re reading: The costs of connection— How data is colonizing human life and appropriating it for capitalism

By Martina Barbero, Policy Manager, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

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Read: Nick Couldry & Ulises A. Mejias, The costs of connection: How data is colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism.

Who said that Marxist theory is outdated and should be left to gather dust in university libraries? In this book published in 2019, unorthodox Marxist theories find a new and revitalized application to the data-driven economy.

Couldry and Mejas argue that we are assisting with the foundations of a new form of colonialism — Data Colonialism. This emerged following the discovery of an additional resource that can be extracted by capitalists, “human life itself in the form of social data.” ‘Data Colonialism’ represents a continuation of ongoing capitalist resource extraction, but one which eventually results in a new form of production.

Starting from this premise, the book attempts to update Marx for a Big Data world, characterizing the emerging form of production and the societal transformation which accompanies it. Parallels are drawn between the 18th- and 19thcentury colonial expansion of the Global North and the current expansion of what they call the ‘Cloud Empire.’ The Cloud Empire encompasses all organizations working in the social quantification sector — the industry devoted to the development of infrastructure required for the extraction of profit from human life through data.

Four main components of historical colonialism are present in the relations established today between the Cloud Empire and its data subjects:

  1. Appropriation of resources
  2. Evolution of highly unequal social and economic relations
  3. Massively unequal distribution of benefits
  4. Spread of ideologies to make sense of the system of exploitation.

In their book, Couldry and Mejas first describe the actors involved in data colonialism and illustrate their modes of functioning and ambitions before turning to the analysis of the new colonialist relationships established under the Cloud Empire. These relations are characterized by a highly unbalanced distribution of economic and structural power combined with extractive rationalities (in other words, commonly accepted narratives) that further justify the exploitation. They identify for instance cultural rationalities (promoting sharing of data while lowering the value of privacy), legal rationalities (framing data as ownerless, redefining notions of privacy and property), and developmental rationalities (presenting data colonialism as a civilization project).

The authors also argue that data colonialist dynamics follow the same four phases of historical colonialism: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. The Cloud Empire first realized that there were new resources available (cheap social data on human lives) which could be appropriated as nobody’s land (terra nullius), and then established the necessary digital and social infrastructures for extracting them. The extraction of more and more social data turns into an exploitation of the data subjects who do not reap the benefits of these practices. Ultimately, thanks to the widespread uptake of the Internet of Things (IoT) and sensors, no aspect of human life will escape the data extraction. This is what the authors consider the extermination phase.

By drawing on this colonialist parallel and building on Marxist concepts, this book offers a simple framework for interpreting the relations between the powerful social quantification sector and the individual citizens. It fits into the current literature stream on the risks of surveillance and echoes many of the arguments raised by Shoshana Zuboff in her famous work on Surveillance Capitalism.

One criticism is that, while they rightly identify the establishment of data infrastructures as an enabler for data colonization, they do not offer a detailed analysis of the inequities of the data infrastructure of today, in terms of geographical distribution of Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), data storage centres and data processing facilities. According to recent literature, the availability of local data infrastructures and IXPs is correlated with the development of more local contents and businesses, which could help the emancipation of communities from the larger platforms and the Cloud Empire. In geographies where local data infrastructures are lacking, risks of overdependence from the international social quantification sector are higher.

Despite this possible criticism, this lively book proves that many Marxist concepts are still alive, and can offer a crude interpretation of our data-driven present. The interesting references to post-colonial and decolonial literature makes this a recommended reading for all those who want to learn more about the data relations that are crystallizing around the world and how these can affect the data for development community.

Better data. Better decisions. Better lives. Join the #DataRevolution at data4sdgs.org.

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