Digital Colonialism?

The pandemic has made clear that big data about individuals and populations is one of the most important resources we have today for understanding our societies, and for communicating and taking decisions. Data visualizations about the exponential spread of the virus (“the curve”) in cities, countries and the world have been used by governments, scientists, economists, journalists, and citizens with various purposes. From enforcing lock-downs to reporting news, and from making economic policies to telling stories, data is at the core of the pandemic responses and narratives. Likewise, technology corporations like Google, Facebook and Apple, as some of the most powerful gatherers of data about people, have also showed up their capacity to track, analyze, model and predict the contagion with sophisticated data visualizations and maps, and have partnered with governments and other companies to offer solutions to the health crisis. Hundreds of mobile applications based on the tracing of social contact and the analysis of personal data have been developed around the world and installed on the smartphones of millions of citizens in order to monitor and control the spread of the virus.

The reliance on data, and particularly big data, during the pandemic allows us to think about the power asymmetries and relationships that exist in a world mediated and interconnected by digital technology, and characterized by an increasing process of datification. Today, the majority of social, economic, cultural, and other dimensions of human life are being measured and transformed into quantifiable data that can be collected, stored, processed, and analyzed using computers, data centers and sophisticated algorithms. Who has the capacity to track, storage, aggregate and analyze personal and social data today? What kind of relationships exist in the process of data collection that digital technology allows? How is the data of individuals and entire populations being used and with which purposes? How does the use of personal and social data by technology corporations limits the autonomy and freedom of citizens, communities and countries? How does data extraction and exploitation by a small number of private and public actors impact the stability of democratic societies?

Reflecting on these and other related questions, several scholars and activists have criticized the development of the global information and knowledge societies, the new phase of capitalism, and the coming of the digital and networked era. One of the concepts that has been used to analyze and criticize the current state of societies, capitalism, and a global world driven by technology is “digital colonialism.” Renata Avila, Nick Couldry, and Ulises Mejias, for instance, have written and spoken about it, pointing out the exploitative relationships that have existed and continue to exist with the development of a global digital infrastructure based on for-profit business models, surveillance, and data extractivism. The term “digital colonialism” re-introduces the historical process of colonialism and builds upon its legacy to explain the relations and practices of domination that rely on the extraction and exploitation of personal, community and social data. Taking distance from the optimistic narratives of a digital world that is more participatory, democratic and where more people has access to knowledge, proponents of “data colonialism” have criticized the uneven development of digital infrastructures, the reproduction of structural inequalities, the rise of big tech monopolies, and call attention to the unfair, and unethical relationships between citizens/users and digital platforms.

Colonialism, historically, is based on the domination of territories, nature, people. It is a practice of political, cultural and economic control that has different impacts over humans and societies according to people´s race, gender and other demographic and socio-cultural characteristics. It reproduces social inequalities and power imbalances, for instance the asymmetries between the Global Souths and Norths. The term colonialism carries strong meanings associated with historical processes from the past based on violence, domination, and subjugation. Can we talk about colonialism today? Why does it matter? According to Ulises Mejias and Nick Couldry, the focus is not on violence. Instead the term “data colonialism” is useful for thinking about the extractivist logic, appropriation practices, and business models that technology companies develop when they capture, store, and analyze the personal and social data.

Colonial relations are unfair, asymmetrical, and unethical. As the discussions about data justice and ethics that has emerged in recent years has shown, particularly in relation to artificial intelligence, the reliance on big data, algorithms, and mathematical models for decision making is problematic and has deep implications for human rights, discrimination, and democracy. Although the use of the term “colonialism” is certainly controversial given its association with historical processes that have relied on violence and domination, it can also be productive for criticizing and reflecting about contemporary capitalist societies driven by technology and data. The term it is certainly controversial and motivates our thinking and imagination.

Tomorrow I will join a conversation with some of the researchers, activists, and scholars who have been thinking about the problem of data colonialism in the digital era. This is the first event of Tierra Común, a resource and a network of hope intended to foster dialogue, thinking and imagination about fairer and more even futures. The event is hosted and organized by the Communication, Languages and Information doctoral program at the Facultad de Comunicación y Lenguajes of Universidad Javeriana. I look forward to discussing this problem and to talk about the opportunities and possible ways of building fairer and more even futures.

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