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Data colonization to reshape social and economic order

WANG YOURAN | 2019-09-05
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
 
The cover of the new book by Couldry and Mejias Photo: AMAZON
 

 

WASHINGTON—The explosion of data and pervasive datafication are bringing about dramatic economic and social changes. The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, a new book by Nick Couldry, a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, and Ulises A. Mejias, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at SUNY Oswego, uncovers how data is controlling human life. Various apps and digital platforms capture and translate people’s lives into data, which is then fed into capitalist enterprises and sold back to consumers. The authors argue that this development foreshadows the creation of a new social order that is emerging globally and toxic for human life.
 
The increasingly wide extraction of data from human life today is causing significant economic and social changes, representing a similarity to historical colonialism, the authors argue. But the centers of data colonization are no longer limited to Western countries. The exact shape of the emerging colonial class (the “colonists”) of data colonization in each place is still emerging, though it is already clear that a crucial role is played by large tech companies who run digital platforms. The “colonized” will, in one way, be almost everyone, since it is human experience as such that becomes the target resource for exploitation. However, the consequences of that exploitation will be very different in each country, depending on people’s existing status, socially and economically.
 
In her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, Shoshana Zuboff, a retired professor from the Harvard Business School, proposes the concept of “surveillance capitalism,” where predictions about human behavior are bought and sold, while vast wealth and power, marked by extreme concentrations of knowledge and freedom from democratic oversight, are accumulated quickly. 
 
But data colonization encompasses wider areas, Couldry and Mejias argue. First, corporate marketing is extending its reach into customers’ lives via the internet of things and digital personal assistants. Second, there is huge growth in corporate surveillance of people’s working lives, through various forms of continuous computer-based monitoring. Third, other sectors that were until now not organized around data at all, are increasingly being reorganized around data extraction. For example, more and more people depend on algorithms to find romantic matches, employers use algorithms to sift applications, and even farming is becoming a data business. Fourth, the relations between the state and corporate sectors are changing fundamentally, resulting in a transformation of the knowledge through which people know and govern the world.
 
In data colonization there is nothing comparable to the terrible brute violence used by historical colonialism, and there is not yet the equivalent of the whole culture of racism that proved a key tool in the governing of colonial empires, the authors argue. However, there is much evidence to suggest that algorithmic power reproduces and may even amplify existing forms of social discrimination, including on racial grounds. Violence and racism may become associated with data colonization in the future, if it becomes established as a social order. 
 
In any case, data colonization is driving fundamental changes in the nature of resources appropriated for economic profit, which according to the authors have three negative consequences for society.
 
First, the collection, storing and use of data on such a vast scale will create new power imbalances economically and socially between digital platforms and users, employers and employees, service providers and customers, and governments and citizens. Major risks flowing from this include the possible misuse of data in decisions that affect people’s lives, and the distortions that may be built into algorithmic decision-making based on data. Second, the continuous tracking of human behavior on a historically unprecedented scale disrupts the very basis of freedom. It disrupts the “space of the self,” which is the reference-point for all ideas of privacy in both Western and Eastern cultures. Third, because data is a source not just of economic profit, but of information and knowledge too, data colonization changes the very basis of how societies are understood and governed and how the relations between societies are managed.
 
Data can certainly be of benefit, provided it is collected and used on the basis of the explicit and continued consent of those affected by the data, the authors explain. Scientific research is one of the key areas for positive uses of data. However, what the book is warning against is not data collection in general, but the social and economic order that currently is being built on the basis of exploiting and governing through data.
 
As data colonialism is a society-wide transformation, all organizations are involved in it and have a responsibility for changing its harmful direction. And because data colonization affects so many aspects of society and the economy, partial solutions—for example, an individual’s withdrawing from a digital platform or policy tweaks—can do little to solve the problem. Change will only come from collective and large-scale efforts, the form of which is hard to predict at the moment. The point of the book is to encourage readers to participate in the designing and building of new forms of connection that preserve fundamental human values and that do not carry the heavy costs of colonialism, Couldry and Mejias argue.
 
Data colonization is not inevitable. It is just the latest attempt to impose a way of ordering the world to suit particular interests, but people must no longer stay silent about the exploitation being forced on them, they suggest. Human beings must engage in a multifaceted project of common research and discovery, stretching far beyond the walls of the academy, to understand the impact of data colonialism upon the world and imagine a different one. This new world should respect diversity and the right of humans to make their own decisions about what data is collected about them and why. For now, at least, the authors believe it is still possible to find more constructive ways to collect, use and manage data.
 
edited by JIANG HONG