On SUNY Oswego Week: Colonialism has taken a different form in the modern world.
Ulises Mejias, professor of communication studies, looks at a digital version.
Ulises A. Mejias is professor and director of the Institute for Global Engagement at SUNY Oswego. His research interests include critical data studies, philosophy and sociology of technology, and political economy of digital media. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Couldry, is “The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism” (2019, Stanford University Press.)
Brazil, mid 19th century. Imagine the fateful day in which 3 things arrive all at once to a village of the indigenous Bororo people. Those 3 things are: the rifle, the cross, and the telegraph pole [insert corresponding sound effects].
This historical anecdote can help illustrate the focus of my current research project on data colonialism, co-authored with Nick Couldry. The point is that communication and information technologies, like the telegraph (or the internet, for that matter) don’t arrive in a vacuum. They are accompanied by world views, philosophies, infrastructures and power relations that transform societies profoundly.
I argue that with the internet, what has arrived is a new form of colonialism: Data colonialism. Whereas the colonialism the Bororo experienced grabbed land and bodies, the new one grabs us, and the most intimate details about our social lives. This is happening right now, as we use social media, or as we ask Alexa to order more popcorn. Data is said to be the “new oil.” Like oil, it is presumably abundant, cheap and just there for the taking. It is a source of great wealth. But wealth gained through extraction, as colonialism proved, is never distributed equitably.
My point is not that there is a perfect correspondence between historic and data colonialism. We don’t want to trivialize 500 years of brutality. But while there are important differences in the form and the content, the function is the same. And that function is to extract and to dispossess. In order to resist, we are going to have to figure out ways to decolonize our data.