The Costs of Connection
How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism
Culture and Economic Life
Published by: Stanford University Press
352 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503609747
- Published: August 2019
Just about any social need is now met with an opportunity to "connect" through digital means. But this convenience is not free—it is purchased with vast amounts of personal data transferred through shadowy backchannels to corporations using it to generate profit. The Costs of Connection uncovers this process, this "data colonialism," and its designs for controlling our lives—our ways of knowing; our means of production; our political participation.
Colonialism might seem like a thing of the past, but this book shows that the historic appropriation of land, bodies, and natural resources is mirrored today in this new era of pervasive datafication. Apps, platforms, and smart objects capture and translate our lives into data, and then extract information that is fed into capitalist enterprises and sold back to us. The authors argue that this development foreshadows the creation of a new social order emerging globally—and it must be challenged. Confronting the alarming degree of surveillance already tolerated, they offer a stirring call to decolonize the internet and emancipate our desire for connection.
This chapter draws readers into the argument by asking: How can it be that there is something "colonial" about the everyday relations we have with apps and other devices that want our data? The basic feature of today's data colonialism is explained: the appropriation, not of physical territory but of human life itself, through data extraction. The double nature of the book's argument is laid out, an argument about a new and shocking colonialism, close to home, and the social and economic order that colonialism builds for capitalism. This double argument helps us see the true time scale of what is happening with data: less a new capitalism than a new phase in the five-hundred-year history of colonialism's intertwining with capitalism. Other key terms of the book's argument are introduced, including the dubbing of data corporations and platforms as the "social quantification sector."
The key moves on which the book's argument centers are explained in this chapter. Historic colonialism meant four things: (1) appropriation of resources, (2) unequal social relations, (3) unequal distribution of economic benefits, and (4) "colonial" ideologies that attempted to justify all this. These four features persist in data colonialism through the ideology of connection. But the emerging order has a distinctive geography, both external and internal and led by both the West and the East. New data relations commit human beings to continuous extraction, but the origin of this new order goes far beyond social media and can be traced to a principle already found in logistics and the management of supply chains. The book's differences from other prominent critiques of capitalism are also explained.
The focus of this chapter is the way the social quantification sector has organized an extractive infrastructure, and the way this infrastructure is being naturalized and extended across all social domains in a totalizing model referred to as the Cloud Empire. A discussion of how the Cloud Empire came to be and how it works is presented: apps, platforms, and smart technologies capture and translate our life into data; artificial intelligence algorithms then pore over the data to extract information that can be used to sell us our lives back, albeit in commodified form. The major and minor players that comprise the social quantification sector are analyzed in the context of the dual poles of the new empire: the United States and China. Finally, the chapter considers the implications for how the Cloud Empire is shaping the economy and the workplace.
For readers unfamiliar with the history of colonialism, this chapter provides a free-of-jargon overview of its political and economic development. The chapter begins by tracing the roots of colonialism to the arrival of Europeans in America, and it distinguishes between earlier forms of imperialism and European colonialism. Colonialism is described as a set of practices and ideologies that created violent systems for exploiting and oppressing colonized environments and peoples and that eventually made possible the emergence of industrial capitalism. These systems included modes of representing the colonizer and colonized and of organizing the production of knowledge. Postcolonialism and decoloniality are explained as the two key responses to that legacy. These responses, especially the more recent notion of decoloniality, not only question the "natural" colonial order but try to imagine alternative ways of life that reject capitalism and colonialism as universal and exclusive models for organizing humanity.
If data colonialism works by appropriating social resources, it can be fully understood only in a historical perspective that sees its parallel with earlier colonialism, a continuity that theorists call coloniality. By bringing historical research on colonialism into conversation with internet studies, this chapter explores the parallels between past and present in terms of the 4X's of colonialism throughout history: explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate. Specifically, this chapter argues that historical colonialism and data colonialism share some fundamental structures: the way the colonized subject is conceptualized and how colonialism shapes how the colonized think of themselves; the naturalization of certain ways of governing subjects and organizing life; and the legitimation of certain types of knowledge associated with powerful colonial centers. The result is a social and economic order in which subjects become estranged from their basic realities as living beings: truly, a new form of coloniality.
Drawing on parallels with how market societies emerged under industrial capitalism (for example, through new quantifications of social life), this chapter details how society is being rebuilt to generate continuous flows of data for profitable extraction. Older forms of social knowledge based on public investment that compensated for the horrors of industrial capitalism are overridden, replaced by new social "knowledge" that is entirely under corporate control and gathered much less transparently than previous knowledge. Our data is "cached" everywhere and aggregated to generate hidden social discriminations that, in turn, generate profit. Corporations' view of the social world is not accountable to citizens or governments, yet it reshapes the language of social description. In the emerging world, social governance gets delegated to proxies that pay little attention to human voices. Social science, in love with data and disenchanted with human rationality, is complicit in this hollowing out of the social world.
This chapter examines the general threat to human subjects that data colonialism poses when the very bases of human autonomy are undermined by endless monitoring and tracking. Surveillance has always been incompatible with human freedom; even if the information gathered is not used against us, we know it might be. That chilling effect is exceeded by the realization that installing external systems of monitoring into everyday life, at ever deeper levels of penetration, violates one's idea that one is a self, a being securely marked off from external power. The "quantified self" movement turns a blind eye to this damage. European and Latin American philosophy can help us see the incompatibility between data colonialism's surveillance practices and human autonomy. Privacy law's challenges to this threat in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere are examined but are likely to be insufficient.
Today's vision of continuous data collection is just the latest attempt to impose a way of ordering the world to suit particular interests. Thus, data colonialism's social order must be resisted but not through tactical moves or policy tweaks. A whole social order must be challenged, since data colonialism is toxic for the ecology of human life. This chapter explores a different way of thinking about how human life can be ordered, a vision that respects diversity and the right of human beings to make their own decisions about what data is collected about them and why. 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 at both the particular and the global levels, and to build tools for understanding data's new world and imagining a different one.
This short chapter recalls how inevitable the forward direction of data colonialism is regularly presented to be, and it invites readers to imagine another way, a space to the side of data colonialism's road where another future can be built. How? Through new forms of connection that preserve rather than undermine fundamental human values and that do not carry the heavy costs of today's colonialist infrastructure. We must no longer stay silent about the choice being forced on us.
"A profound exploration of how the ceaseless extraction of information about our intimate lives is remaking both global markets and our very selves. The Costs of Connection represents an enormous step forward in our collective understanding of capitalism's current stage, a stage in which the final colonial input is the raw data of human life. Challenging, urgent, and bracingly original."—Naomi Klein, Gloria Steinem Chair of Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies, Rutgers University
"A provocative tour-de-force. A powerful interrogation of the power of data in our networked age. Through an enchanting critique of different aspects of our data soaked society, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias invite the reader to reconsider their assumptions about the moral, political, and economic order that makes data-driven technologies possible."—danah boyd, Microsoft Research and founder of Data & Society
"There's a land grab occurring right now, and it's for your data and your freedom: companies are not only surveilling you, they're increasingly influencing and controlling your behavior. This paradigm-shifting book explains the new colonialism at the heart of modern computing, and serves as a needed wake-up call to everyone who cares about our future relationship with technology."—Bruce Schneier, author of Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-Connected World
"Couldry and Mejias have written a profoundly important book, demonstrating the lasting value of social theory to the interpretation (and improvement) of our new digital reality. They deeply understand the nature of platform capitalism. They draw striking and rigorously reasoned parallels between modern tech giants and the firms and governments that exploited colonies in centuries past. And they advance an agenda for decolonizing data that promotes a healthier ecology of online interaction. This book is an essential guide to understanding the depths of the crises in data protection, privacy, and automation that we now face."—Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law, University of Maryland Carey School of Law
"Couldry and Mejias show that data colonialism is not a metaphor. It is a process that expands many dark chapters of the past into our shiny new world of smartphones, smart TVs, and smart stores. This book rewards the reader with important historical context, fascinating examples, clear writing, and unexpected insights scattered throughout."—Joseph Turow, University of Pennsylvania
"This book is a must-read for those grappling with how the global data economy reproduces long-standing social injustice, and what must be done to counter this phenomenon. With a feast of insights embedded in visceral historical and contemporary illustrations, the authors brilliantly push the reader to rethink the relations between technology, power, and inequality."—Payal Arora, author of The Next Billion Users: Digital Life beyond the West
"This is a deeply critical engagement with the systems that enable 'data colonialism' to extend its reach into the past, present and future of human life itself. Couldry and Mejias provide a comprehensive and well-considered challenge to the seeming inevitability of this transformative development in capitalism. Theirs is a giant step forward along the path toward rediscovering the meaning and possibility of self-determination. It is not too late to join in!"—Oscar H. Gandy, Jr., Emeritus Professor, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania
"This book is among the most insightful and important contributions to our understanding of the political economy of data and the 'internet of things.' It brings together historical analysis, critical theory, and a trenchant sense of urgency to reveal what's really at stake as we choose to send information through everything and connect our bodies and minds to streams of data."—Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy
"Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias go digging deeply into the digital: its spaces, its layers, its deployments. One of their guiding efforts concerns what it actually takes to have this digital capacity in play. It is not an innocent event: it is in some ways closer to an extractive sector, and this means there is a price we pay for its existence."—Saskia Sassen, author of Expulsions
"The authors effectively blend their particular skills: Couldry applies critical theory to the transformation of media, and Mejias concentrates on the failings of social media to affect political change. Those studying political science, information technology, and communications at the undergraduate level will grapple with the authors' arguments about whether data can be colonized and exploited in the same way labor and resources were under traditional forms of colonialism. Highly recommended."—H. L. Katz, CHOICE
"In contrast to other recent authors who see this collection of data for profit as a new type of capitalism...Couldry and Mejias argue that what is taking place under data colonialism is merely the extension of capitalism as it has developed over the last two centuries....Where the book shines is in using the theory underpinning the idea of data colonialism to articulate sites of resistance."—Laura Carter, LSE Review of Books
"The process of data colonialism is a highly useful analytical framework for understanding the ever-growing role of data in modern life. Couldry and Mejias consider this framework within a truly global scope and provide a highly approachable text that synthesizes economics, history, and media studies scholarship."—Ben Pettis, Critical Studies in Media Communication
"In this provocative, consequential book, Couldry and Mejias theorize the dynamics of change in contemporary capitalism as grounded in a new form of data colonialism....[The authors] delineate intriguing parallels between historical processes of colonial expansion by taking over land and other natural resources and contemporary processes of mining personal data as inputs for capitalism."—Sara Schoonmaker, Social Forces
"Couldry and Mejias are fitting the internet, in all its 'now-now-now' insistence, into a much broader sweep of history than other commentators on the digital era have attempted."—Wendy M. Grossman, ZDNet
"the book shares the core ambition of . . . Shoshana Zuboff's (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Yet, arguably, by advancing the lens of data colonialism and drawing heavily on Marxist social theory, Couldry and Mejias have a more radical critique of capitalism in mind, one that historically ties it to colonialist efforts an appropriating, exploiting and controlling resources, redistributing benefits and spreading specific ideologies. . . . What is instead at stake, argue Couldry and Mejias, is a shift in the raw material that capitalism is appropriating and controlling: it is human life itself. . . . the major strength of the argument lies in a rich theoretically driven narrative that weaves together multiple strands of classic social theory – from Marx and Foucault to decolonial theory – and connects them with contemporary analyses of data justice and the legal-commercial complex regarding personal data."—Stine Lomborg, European Journal of Communication
"[O]ne of the foundational textx that first proposed a 'data colonialism.'"—Karen Hao, MIT Techology Review