Colonized by Data: The Capitalization of Life without Limit — A forthcoming book by Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias

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 But because we assume that colonialism has been replaced by advanced capitalism, we often miss the connection.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.

Table of Contents

Colonized by Data
The Capitalization of Life without Limit

 

Preface: Data Through the Lens of Colonial History

Chapter One: The Costs of Connection

Chapter Two: Cloud Empire

Chapter Three: The Hollowing Out of the Social

Chapter Four: Salvaging the Self

Chapter Five: The Coloniality of Data Relations

Chapter Six: Decolonizing Data

About the Authors

Nick Couldry
London School of Economics and Political Science

Ulises A. Mejías
State University of New York at Oswego

 

Nick Couldry is Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is a sociologist of media and culture, who has also written widely on the ethics and philosophical implications of media. His work has extended these concerns into areas such as social media platforms and ‘real social analytics’. His most recent article is ‘Deconstructing Datafication’s Brave New World’ (with Jun Yu, LSE), published by New Media & Society in May 2018, which draws on their recent ‘Price of Connection’ funded research project. His last book The Mediated Construction of Reality (with Andreas Hepp, Polity, October 2016) won the German Communication Association’s biannual ‘theory’ prize. He is the author or editor of 12 books and more than 100 journals and book chapters, including Media Society World: Social Theory and Digital Media Practice (Polity 2012), Why Voice Matters (Sage 2010), Media Rituals: A Critical Approach(Routledge) and Inside Culture (Sage 2000). He is the joint Coordinating Lead Author of the chapter on Media and Communications for the International Panel on Social Progress (www.ipsp.org). He was Chair of the Department of Media and Communications at LSE from 2014-2017 and joint Head of the Department of Media and Communciatinos at Goldsmiths, University of London, 2010-2013.

Ulises Alí Mejías is associate professor of Communication Studies and director of the Institute for Global Engagement at the State University of New York, College at Oswego. He is a media scholar whose work encompasses critical internet studies, network theory and science, philosophy and sociology of technology, and political economy of digital media. He is author of Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). In it, he develops his theories of nodocentrism (the exclusionary network logic that cannot render anything except nodes) and paranodality (the peripheral space, both inside and outside the network, which makes disidentification possible). Together, these concepts prepare the ground for decolonizing the internet by reframing ways of belonging to and differentiating the self and the collective from the network. He has also published various articles in top journals, including ‘Disinformation and the Media: The case of Russia and Ukraine’ in Media, Culture and Society (2017, with N. Vokuev), ‘Liberation Technology and the Arab Spring: From Utopia to Atopia and Beyond’ in Fibreculture (2012), The Limits of Networks as Models for Organizing the Social’ in New Media and Society (2010), and ‘Sustainable Communicational Realities in the Age of Virtuality’ in Critical Studies in Media Communications (2001). He is the principal investigator in the Algorithm Observatory project.

 

Blog

AoIR October 2018

We will be presenting our work at The 19th Annual Conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, Montréal, Canada / 10-13 October 2018. Here is the abstract of our talk: CAN DATA BE DECOLONIZED? DATA RELATIONS AND THE EMERGING SOCIAL ORDER OF CAPITALISM This presentation will argue that the ‘material turn’ in internet research must …