Nick Couldry speaks in advance of the publication of his ‘Data Colonialism’ book in this podcast produced from the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG). The notion of data colonialism has already drawn some ire from people unhappy with the parallels with 500 years of (neo)colonialism. Yet Couldry makes a case for re-using the term to describe the scale of the new form of social order being made possible through the extraction of digital data from our everyday digital practices.
In the interview, Couldry argues that the use of the term ‘colonialism’ stresses the long-term historical relationship between colonialism and capitalism. So just as the ‘land grabs’ of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries paved the way for the emergence of industrial capitalism, the current ‘data grab’ seems to be ushering in a similarly new direction of capitalism – “a totally new relation to the resources of the world, and relation to power”.
Couldry contends that this current step-change of data capitalism is not a simple extension of conventional capitalism, but is taking place on an expanded scale that marks a huge step in the development of capitalism. Think, for example, how digital media are implicit in moving the exploitation of people through labor relations into the exploitation of their social relations and the extraction of value from all other parts of life that are not labour – “when we are hanging out, when we relax, when we do things that are not-labour”. Digital data marks a stage where all aspects of our lives are being appropriated and exploited by capitalism – a colonialism of the social, domestic, private and unconscious – all leading to “very new forms of power, very new forms of governing for the benefit of corporations and states”.
While the term might seem extreme, the connotations of colonialism are also intended to act as a spur for radical resistance and thinking of alternatives – rather than an implicit acquiescence through simply thinking of ways of regulating and shaping what is going on. Thus, Couldry urges us to reach conclusions that point to ways of ‘doing data differently’ rather than doing data ‘better’ or more ‘effeciently’:
“What if we are now at a new stage in history? … If we see our relations to data as relations that just need policy fixes, better laws, smarter regulation of large corporations – all of which is important and probably positive – then we miss the scale of change going on. We argue in our book that a whole new social and economic order is being built. Partly through our relations with data – what we call ‘data relations’. That’s the larger scale of what has to be challenged if it has the consequences for freedom and inequality that we believe it does. As a result the best starting point now is not to think up smart, practical measures … because they will not come close to addressing the scale of the problem. The key thing is to free up our imaginations, and ask ourselves a simple question which is: is the future of digital society that is being shaped through the forces we call data colonialism … is it the future that we want? And if not, how can we imagine a different future and then begin slowly to identify routes toward that different future”