Decolonizing ‘Datafication’ Discourse

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.

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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.



BOOK: (White) Imaginary Futures

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.


I have almost finished reading the outstanding work Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to The Global Village (London: Pluto Press, 2007) by white Marxist male, Richard Barbrook. IMHO, the work makes for a veritable tour de force and is essential reading for those interested in decolonizing computing vis-a-vis understanding how (white) visions of the future repeatedly – or rather ‘algorithmically‘ – inform and inflect the present, not to mention for Barbrook’s useful, yet highly Eurocentric, account of the Cold War origins of computers, ICTs (information and communication technologies) and the Net. (For a brief discussion of the ‘algorithmic’ nature of White Supremacy / Racism, interested readers are invited to check out the following extended abstract by Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University: “Transhumanism and/as Whiteness“.)

Interested readers can download a copy (PDF format) of the book here.

A highly useful overview of the book was presented by Barbrook at Warwick University in 2011 and is available for viewing on YouTube:

One of the most interesting sequences of slides appearing towards the end of the presentation is the following:The Futures.JPG

From a Counter-Racist / decolonial perspective, I am immediately led to ask who is this we that Barbrook is inviting to invent new futures? I should also like to suggest that for non-white VoRs (Victims of Racism / White Supremacy), the wording of the first slide (on the left) should be replaced with the following:

Those who do not remember the [White Supremacist / Racist] future [that shapes the White Supremacist / Racist present] are condemned to [have the White Supremacist / Racist future] repeated [on them]


Copyright, Copyleft, Copy-White

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance


I’m currently studying a course on the Linux operating system and have just come across, once again, the notion of copyleft which the entry on Wikipedia defines as follows:

Copyleft is a play on the word copyright to describe the practice of using copyright law to offer the right to distribute copies and modified versions of a work and requiring that the same rights be preserved in modified versions of the work.

From a Counter-Racist perspective, it is important to understand what copyleft is and what it is not. As the Wikipedia entry goes on to state, “copyleft type licenses are a novel use of existing copyright law to ensure a work remains freely available.”

In short, copyleft works within the framework / context of copyright law, i.e. in the area of major people activity known as LAW within the globally operating system of Racism (White Supremacy). To the extent that it makes “use” of “existing” copyright law, copyleft can be understood as a refinement for purposes of maintaining and / orexpanding White Supremacy (Racism). The ‘left’ in copyleft also plays on connotations of ‘leftist’ / ‘left-leaning’ or oppositional / radical politics; however, copyleft is far from being radical insofar as principled opposition to Racism (White Supremacy) is concerned; consistent with the left-right (controlled) dialectic at work within White Supremacy (Racism), the copyleft-copyright dialectic maintains WS/R hegemony in the sphere of Politics, Economics and Law.

From a Counter-Racist perspective, and drawing on the ideas of critical race theoretical and decolonial scholars, it might be argued that copyleft, like copyright, is nothing other than copy-white. (For a brief Islamic Counter-Racist perspective on Copy-White, I refer interested readers to the Disclaimer on the Bandung2 website.)


COMMENT: “Color Monitors” by Martin Kevorkian

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.

Being both a computer scientist and an attempted-Muslim counter-Racist, I have occasionally been led to wonder whether the field of computing is itself ‘raced’. (Although, from a counter-Racist perspective, that should be ‘house’ of computing, not ‘field’ of computing since it’s “Massa” who has defined the ‘discipline’ – sic.)

In this connection, check out the blurb on the back-cover of Color Monitors: The Black Face of Technology in America (2006) by white Associate Professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, Martin Kevorkian, a cheap copy of which I managed to pick up today in a London academic remainders bookshop:

Following up on Ralph Ellison’s intimation that blacks serve as “the machines inside the machine,” Color Monitors examines the designation of black bodies as natural machines for the information age. Martin Kevorkian shows how African Americans are consistently depicted as highly skilled, intelligent, and technologically savvy as they work to solve complex computer problems in popular movies, corporate advertising, and contemporary fiction. But is this progress? Or do such seemingly positive depictions have more disturbing implications? Kevorkian provocatively asserts that whites’ historical “fear of a black planet” has in the age of microprocessing converged with a new fear of computers and the possibility that digital imperatives will engulf human creativity.

Analyzing escapist fantasies from Mission: Impossible to Minority Report, Kevorkian argues that the placement of a black man in front of a computer screen doubly reassures audiences: he is nonthreatening, safely occupied — even imprisoned — by the very machine he attempts to control, an occupation that simultaneously frees the action heroes from any electronic headaches [emphasis added].

I’m sure it’s going to make for ‘interesting’ reading.