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.



Islamic Counter-Racist Thought Food #71

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.

Consider this:

When we eliminate uncertainty, we forfeit the human replenishment that attaches to the challenge of asserting predictability in the face of an always-unknown future in favor of the blankness of perpetual compliance with someone else’s plan.

Extract taken from “The Secrets of Surveillance Capitalism” (2016) by Shoshana Zuboff.


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]


COMMENT: (Internet) Tubes, or Strands Braided into a Rope That Binds?

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.


A few days ago I finished reading a work entitled Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up (2015).

According to the entry on Wikipedia, the author Philip N. Howard is a sociologist and communication researcher who studies the impact of information technologies on democracy and social inequality. Howard assumed a professorship in Internet Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oxford Internet Institute on 1 July 2016.

In a brief description given on the website for the project, pax technica refers to what Howard sees as:

a future of global stability built upon device networks with immense potential for empowering citizens, making government transparent, and broadening information access.

I plan to write a detailed decolonial / counter-racist analysis and critique of this work in due course, drawing attention to what I perceive as

  1. the author’s framing of his argument against a tacit backdrop of ostensibly colour-blind (un-raced, race-less, de-raced etc.) liberal political commitments – what critical race philosopher Charles W. Mills refers to as the ‘ideal (social) contract’ masking the ‘racial contract’ associated with Racial Liberalism, and
  2. the mobilization of Orientalist logics in constructing a binary of ‘open and democratic’ vs. ‘closed and authoritarian’ societies, the latter of which is exemplified continuously by China (but also Iran, Turkey, Russia etc). (In this connection, I should like to refer interested readers to the following essay: Sayyid, S. (2005) Mirror, mirror: Western democrats, oriental despots? Ethnicities 5(1): 30-50.)

Howard contrasts the internet of the pax technica with China’s attempt to create its own rival, alternative internet and extend it to other parts of the world, rhetorically suggesting that the internet of the pax technica is somehow a poly-centric / non-centric / de-centred global technological force for good insofar as it is open and democratic (sic) in contrast to the provincial, closed and authoritarian internet being created by the Chinese. Yet what is completely missing – or rather, elided (obscured, concealed etc.) – from his argument is the fact that the internet of the pax technica is, in fact, highly centric, i.e. it is structured in terms of a core and periphery; moreover, this centrism is specific, viz. Eurocentric / West-centric.

What is further elided is that the internet historically-emerged in the US in the context of the Cold War as a project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. While conceding that the historical origin of a thing does not necessarily determine what that thing might become, I want to suggest that we should not fall into the trap of ‘liquidating the historical’, and that at least in the case of the internet, its origins in Western military concerns is embedded through historically-sedimentation. One only needs to ask Who Controls The Internet? to gain some clarity on this point. For this reason, and notwithstanding decolonial (as contrasted with white / Western liberal) concerns about freedom, autonomy, censorship, surveillance, equality etc., I think it is interesting to consider China’s attempt to create a rival internet as a resistant intervention against US / Euro-American hegemony in the terrain of network technologies; in short a veritable ‘clash of (internet) civilizations’.

However, more on this in due course, God-Willing (insha’Allah).

For now, I want to turn attention to another work that I have just started reading:

Tubes - Andrew Blum I was particularly struck by the following extracts which appear on pages 6-9 in the Prologue which I reproduce here (with emphases added):

Thinking of the Internet as a physical thing has fallen so far out of fashion that we’re more likely to view it as an extension of our own minds than a machine. (p.6)

We seem to have exchanged thousands of years of mental cartography, a collective ordering of the earth going back to Homer, for a smooth, placeless world. The network’s physical reality is less than real—it’s irrelevant … [T]he Internet is a landscape of the mind. (p.7)

The Internet may seem to be everywhere—and in many ways it is—but it is also very clearly in some places more than others. The single whole is an illusion. The Internet has crossroads and superhighways, large monuments and quiet chapels. Our everyday experience of the Internet obscures that geography, flattening it and speeding it up beyond any recognition.  (p.8)

The Internet has a seemingly infinite number of edges, but a shockingly small number of centers. (p.9)

For all the breathless talk of the supreme placelessness of our new digital age, when you pull back the curtain, the networks of the Internet are as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was. (p.9)

I’m extremely interested to explore the physicality (materiality, corporeality, embodiment etc.) of the internet – and the internet of things (IoT) – from a decolonial perspective in terms of geo-politics (where) and body-politics (who) of knowing and being. I then want to explore such materiality of internet connections – or ‘tubes’ – in terms of how such connections might be used to maintain, expand and refine global systemic White Supremacy (Racism) under late colonial modernity, thereby binding ‘the Other’ (the non-West, the Rest etc.) into a technological dependency complex.

In the meantime, I invite interested viewers to watch the following short video which graphically illustrates the where of the internet:

I should also like to draw viewers’ attentions to the following talks by Blum:


TALK: Decolonising Information

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.

Interested readers are invited to check out the slides accompanying a short invited presentation entitled ‘Decolonising Computing’ given by Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University, UK.

The talk was delivered as part of a workshop on diversity and inclusion in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teaching at the 6th eSTEeM Annual Conference: STEM FuturesSupporting Students to Succeed which took place on 25-26 April 2017 at The Open University.

The slides (PDF format) are available for viewing / download from here.

Interested readers are invited to check out the following related materials:


TALK: The Decolonial Question Concerning Computing

Peace Be Unto Those Who Follow Right Guidance.

DRSMADr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), delivered a talk entitled “The Decolonial Question Concerning Computing” at the Can Science Be Decolonised? conference which was organised by KCL WiSTEM (Women in STEM), KCL IFemSoc (Intersectional Feminism Society) & KCL BSA (Bioscience Students’ Association), and held at the Waterloo Campus of Kings College London (KCL) on 18-19 March 2017.

  • Interested viewers with FB access can access a video recording of the talk from here.
  • Interested readers can view / download a copy (PDF format) of the slides from here.
  • Recordings of presentations by all conference speakers are available from here.