What Sort of World is Data Colonialism Creating? JCU Welcomes Sociologist Nick Couldry
The JCU Department of Communications welcomed media and culture theorist Nick Couldry for the event “What Sort of World is Data Colonialism Creating?” on November 10, 2022. The discussion, which was part of the Digital Delights and Disturbances lecture series, focused on two of Couldry’s publications, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating Life for Capitalism (with Ulises Mejias: Stanford UP, 2019), and The Mediated Construction of Reality (with Andreas Hepp, Polity, 2016).
Couldry is a professor of Media Communications and Social Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science as well as a Faculty Associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. He has published various works related to social discourse on the internet and is co-founder of Tierra Común, a network of scholars and activists, and of the European Media Salon, an online initiative where groups of scholars from across Europe meet for short talks and dialogues.
Couldry discussed how social order in society is equivalent to the construction of social media platforms. He stated that most people tend to preserve the status quo, similarly to how users rarely question the ethics and companies behind social media. Nowadays, people also rely on internet platforms to work, like Zoom to host virtual meetings. Couldry pointed out that this phenomenon leaves a select group of businesses in control. “Because people rely on something outside, it creates tension when the company does something with the data that users don’t want, like selling it to an insurance company,” stated Couldry.
He explained that companies’ decisions to sell users’ data for money is a growing trend, known as “data colonialism.” By agreeing to the terms and conditions, and/or platform guidelines, users consent to the sale of their data, which represents a new level of societal order. Anyone who doesn’t abide cannot use the platforms, which Couldry compared to colonialism as a form of forceful acquiescence.
Social media corporations have created a system that profits from human life through data extraction, which Couldry defined as a new form of colonialism in the digital sphere. Users lack the ability to prevent companies from exploiting their data without forfeiting their social media accounts. Couldry admitted that there is no litigation protecting users from their data being sold or redistributed, because people could not predict that social media platforms would operate in such a way.
Couldry stated that social media is now utilized to produce “social as capital” beyond its functional purposes. Corporations depend on users’ data to interpret, analyze, and control what content is prevalent in daily life. He used the example of Amazon’s Alexa device, a virtual assistant “Smart Speaker,” often found in people’s homes. The device may tell its users the weather forecast, but it may also transmit audio from the user’s home to the Amazon corporation, which according to Couldry is a new level of digital surveillance. “We’re living in a new era of history with a new type of power that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Software engineers have the power to build the world we act in because we use the software that they create to control society,” Couldry said.
The discussion concluded with a Q&A session. Various questions pertaining to digital surveillance, exploitation, and possible solutions were presented. “We need data. The question is on what terms, and who controls the data? Data is about the knowledge of our lives together. Data represents social order,” said Couldry.