Describe your book
Our book The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism is an attempt to see the big picture of what is going on with data in contemporary societies. Data is being collected, combined, analysed and stored on an unprecedented scale, and we know this is making a difference to our lives, but what is the framework that holds all these many changes together? Our answer is colonialism. Historic colonialism was the move, around 500 years ago, that grabbed the earth’s resources – land, minerals and agriculture, and the bodies to work the land – for the benefit of a small fraction of the world’s population. The legacy of that historic colonialism is still with us today, even if most forms of colonial rule have faded. But what if there is a new landgrab going right now that targets a new type of resource: human life itself, the richness and depth of human experience, extracted for value in the form of data every time we are connected with each other? This new data colonialism is the subject of our book. It is working hand in hand with capitalism, and paving the way for a new stage of capitalism whose outlines we can barely see yet. And it is transforming all forms of social life and private life, with devastating implications for human freedom in general and for the intensification of inherited forms of inequality in particular. Our book uses the historical lens of colonialism to reinterpret our present and provide us with the tools to imagine a different future, and so renegotiate the costs of connection.
Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?
Our book is an attempt to get an entirely new perspective on a large and complex area – the growth of data collection and processing in society across the world. We wanted our book to be responsive to the great deal of excellent academic work already out there on Big Data, so the best form for our book was a research monograph, but one written in a style that is very much open to the general reader. That’s why we chose a US university press as the best way to reach both our specialist and general audience.
Do you enjoy the writing process?
We loved it! We had never worked together before we decided to collaborate on this book. We were convinced we shared an important idea, but we had to find out about each other’s styles and rhythms of writing. They are certainly different, but luckily, we found, quite compatible! We started by sounding each other out on very broad ideas, until we clarified the main idea we shared. And then we divided up the chapter writing, but on the basis that each of us should be willing to respond to, and work with, the tough criticism of the other! And this worked well, because our main priority was always to get our main idea clear – when ego gets in the way, that obscures your thinking. And the process of working and thinking together has very much continued in the 20 months since we actually finished the book, as we’ve talked about it to audiences around the world.
What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?
There are many ways and methods for approaching academic life, but these are unusually challenging times for all of them. No one yet has clear advice about how to navigate the extreme uncertainty of the current job market and university sector, so we won’t pretend to be in a position to advise on that either. The only advice that we can give is to remember the core reason for being an academic (which, as it happens, was also the motive for our book): you should become an academic when you have a sense that there is just no way to live except by working on certain ideas and trying to express and share them with others. However tough the current moment, we must try not to lose that joy, the joy of forging new ideas that are each academic’s attempt to make more satisfying sense of an extremely complex and challenging world.
Who inspires you?
We have been inspired by a vast numbers of scholars in many disciplines from law to computing, cultural studies to social theory) that have tried to get into view the extraordinary social changes going on today through the medium of data. We particularly admire two types of scholars: those in critical data science (for example danah boyd and Kate Crawford) who have identified with great precision the many dangers from the irresponsible use of automated algorithmic processes and the much longer tradition of postcolonial and decolonial thinkers (for the example the Peruvian sociologist Anibal Quijano who died in 2017) who have, in many forms, challenged the dominance of ‘the West’ over science, history and all forms of rational thought.
We continue, in spite of today’s difficulties, to speak about our book to audiences around the world, even if only virtually. We are working on connecting our ideas with critical policymakers concerned with the same issues, for example in the areas of health and education. And we are working on some new articles about data’s new colonial class and about the role of Big Tech corporations in redesigning social knowledge and welfare across the world in both the Global South and the Global North. We see our book as just the start of reflecting on these issues!
Nick Couldry is Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Ulises A. Mejias is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Institute for Global Engagement at the State University of New York, College at Oswego. Their book, The Costs of Connection, was published by Stanford University Press in 2019