We are often told that data are the new oil. But unlike oil, data are not a substance found in nature. Data must be appropriated, and much of the time this happens through a new type of social relation: data relations. We are living through a time when the organization of capital and the configurations of power are changing dramatically because of this contemporary form of social relation.
Capturing and processing social data is today handled by an emerging social quantification sector. We are familiar with its leading players, from Acxiom to Equifax, from Facebook to Uber. Data relations ensure the regular and seemingly natural conversion of daily life into a stream of data that can be appropriated for value. This stream is extracted from sensors embedded in bodies and objects, extracted from the traces left by human interaction online. The result is a new social order based on continuous tracking, and offering unprecedented new opportunities for social discrimination and behavioral influence. This order has disturbing consequences for freedom, justice and power — indeed, for the quality of human life.
The true violence of this order is best understood through the history of colonialism. But because we assume that colonialism has been replaced by advanced capitalism, we often miss the connection. The concept of data colonialism can be used 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. Data colonialism normalizes the appropriation of social data and the exploitation of human beings through data, just as historic colonialism appropriated territory and resources and ruled subjects for profit. Data colonialism justifies what it does as an advance in scientific knowledge, personalized marketing, or rational management, just as historic colonialism claimed a civilizing mission.
Where is data colonialism heading long term? Just as historical colonialism paved the way for industrial capitalism, data colonialism is paving the way for a new stage of capitalism whose outlines we only partly see: the capitalization of life without limit. There will be no part of human life, no layer of experience, that is not extractable for economic value. Human life will be there for mining by corporations without reserve as governments look on appreciatively. This process of capitalization will be the foundation for a highly unequal new social arrangement.
But resistance is still possible, drawing on past and present decolonial struggles, as well as the on the best of the humanities, philosophy, political economy, information and social science. The goal is to name what is happening and imagine better ways of living together.
We have written a book (forthcoming in 2019) devoted to analyzing these developments and exploring strategies for resistance.