Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.
Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), presented a paper in the panel on ‘Colonising and Decolonising Data’ at Data Justice 2018, an international conference hosted by the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University May 21-22 2018.
Here is the title and abstract:
Decolonizing ‘Datafication’ Discourse
It has been claimed that the ‘datafication’ of society has resulted in the emergence of a new set of power dynamics requiring investigation and critique. While conceding that the paradigm of ‘Big Data’, coupled with other developments such as the Internet of Things, data mining and deep learning, indeed gives rise to changed sociotechnical formations, building on arguments made in connection with the proposal for a ‘decolonial computing’ (Ali 2014, 2016, 2017), I suggest that this claim needs to be interrogated with a view to exploring the continuity through change of power relationships between different groups in the world system. Adopting a critical race theoretical and decolonial perspective, I want to draw attention to certain ‘silences’ / ‘erasures’ in discourses associated with the ‘critical’ literature on algorithm/data studies which tend to be framed, tacitly or explicitly, against the backdrop of a world system understood as capitalist / neoliberal, thereby obscuring its origins in racialized colonialism, a long durée project that continues into the post-colonial era through the persistence of ‘coloniality’ – that is, structuring colonial logics. Notwithstanding a certain rhetorical overkill of the ‘datafication’ discourse by its proponents – a form of deception that arguably affords rhetorical power to hegemonic coloniality – such developments can – and do – contribute to maintaining, expanding and refining modern/colonial domination. For this reason, I argue for the need to consider both the rhetoric and the techno-scientific socio-material reality and affordances of ‘Big Data’ and associated developments engaged by both its proponents and critics alike.
For example, there has been a tendency within critical data/algorithm studies to focus on methods obscuring issues of ‘positionality’ – that is, racialized location within the world system – and resulting in such discourses being framed in tacit Eurocentric-universalist terms. For this reason, such discourses must be complemented with a decolonial ‘meta-critique’ disclosing the abstract, homogenizing biases informing such narratives. Similar problems arise in connection with discourses involving ideas such as the ‘Big Data divide’, ‘data colonialism’ and ‘surveillance capitalism’, the latter referring to an ‘emergent logic of accumulation in the networked sphere’. In this connection, I want to suggest that if the analytic frame is shifted from capitalism to racialized-coloniality, it is more useful to think about such developments in terms of ‘surveillance colonialism’ and an emergent logic of domination in the networked sphere, such logic standing in a (re-)productive relation vis-à-vis historically prior yet persistent logics of coloniality and affecting differently-marked bodies located in different geo-political locations differently. I further maintain that a shift in frame from ‘surveillance capitalism’ to ‘surveillance colonialism’ provides the means by which to decolonially-interrogate developments associated with the Internet of Things (IoT) and their mobilization in ICT4D discourses; on this view, the IoT needs to be understood in terms of a refinement of the logics of domination, an ‘iterative’ shift away from overtly political strategies of control embedded in ‘participatory’ ‘aid’ projects, to one involving domination through the dissemination and embedding of standards and closed-source platforms along with what might be described as ‘data settler colonialism’ via non-human technological proxy, viz. sensor devices as ‘digital settlers’ originating in ‘the core’ of the modern/colonial world system and embedded in ‘the periphery’ – a case of ‘from boots on the ground to bits in the ground’.
Finally, I want to argue for the need to interrogate how justice is framed in calls for ‘data justice’, and the nature of the relationship, if any, between such calls and related calls for compensation / reparations vis-à-vis the ongoing ‘legacy effects’ of European colonialism.
Ali, S.M. (2017) Decolonizing Information Narratives: Entangled Apocalyptics, Algorithmic Racism and the Myths of History. DTMD 2017: 6th International Conference. In: IS4IS Summit Gothenburg 2017 – Digitalisation for a Sustainable Society, 12-16 June, Gothenburg, Sweden.
Ali, S.M. (2016) A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing. XRDS, Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students – Cultures of Computing 22(4): 16-21.
Ali, S.M. (2014) Towards a Decolonial Computing. In Ambiguous Technologies: Philosophical issues, Practical Solutions, Human Nature: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Computer Ethics –Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE 2013). Edited by Elizabeth A. Buchanan, Paul B, de Laat, Herman T. Tavani and Jenny Klucarich. Portugal: International Society of Ethics and Information Technology, pp.28-35.