Tag Archives: algorithms

Coloniality, masculinity and big data economies

This is the text of the paper I presented at the recent AAG conference in Chicago on spatialized information economies in a panel entitled ‘Where’s the Value? Emerging Digital Economies of Geolocation’ convened by Jeremy Crampton and Agnieszka Leszczynski and also including Elvin Wyly and Rob Kitchin. Jeremy has placed a link to the audio of the entire panel on his blog and you can find it here. The text of Rob’s talk can be found here.

So I’d like to make a few points about cultural studies, media convergence and some of the masculinizing and colonizing fantasies that I think accompany the digital economy. For the last few years, I’ve been working on a collaborative research project on the geographies of media convergence and in particular the expanding interactivity between media technologies, sites, users and production processes. The project aims to understand how changes in the media environment are facilitating new relationships between politics and popular culture, in the context of persistent but increasingly contested neoliberalism, intensified forms of securitization and heightened political effectivity of various decolonial and indigenous movements. So questions of spatialized information economies are pertinent to this project, although initially I thought of them as marginal. It’s apparent that we can’t explore the democratizing and decolonizing dimensions of the new media environment, without also exploring the potential dark side of media convergence, the convergences between online tracking and targeting, RFIDs, predictive analytics, geodemographics, VGI capture, video surveillance, the Internet of Things and urban sensor networks. Cultural studies has tended to resist a ‘what media do to people’ model to focus instead on what people do with media, an approach that has often revealed interesting forms of popular pleasure or oppositional cultural politics. New modes of algorithmic sorting, surveillance and tracking complicate to some extent that approach. Furthermore, I’ve also become increasingly interested in these questions in the context of the neoliberal university where a hierarchy has been created between so-called big data and other kinds of research data.

Westernized universities, academic funding agencies, neoliberal governments and for-profit corporations seem to be uncritically embracing concepts such as big data/smart cities in ways that potentially undermine the groundwork put in place by feminist scholarship. As a number of feminist GIS scholars have noted, it tends to be largely men who are the main contributors and legitimizers of geospatial information, but spatial media technologies are also embraced by and for women and progressive social movements in empowering ways (see for example Stephens 2013; Leszczynski and Elwood 2014). Research became less about extraction and more about working with and allowing participants to shift the focus of the research agenda. It’s quite likely that many big data scholars never engaged with those perspectives in the first place, but we do appear to be experiencing a masculinist revival of post-political positivism (see Merrifield 2014: 3). Not only do contemporary big data discourses replicate and indeed celebrate the presumed universality, “view from nowhere”, neutrality, stable ontology and no need for social theory position of much conventional GIS, they also mobilize a teleological sense of progress and inevitability and are accompanied in the words of Boyd and Crawford (2012:666) by a “sweeping dismissal of all other theories and disciplines” which as they note “reveals an arrogant undercurrent”. There is also something quite masculinist in the privileging as Nafus and Sherman (2014) write, of size over substance. The ‘big’ in big data doesn’t just refer to the size of the datasets used, big sometimes means big funding, big promotions, and big space in ways that rework the gendered hierarchies and old boy networks of the contemporary academy and that deny the same privileges to those working with theory or with ethnographic or qualitative data and furthermore often produce work that stigmatizes and simplifies far more than it explains. We could say that the mobilization of big data by scholars, corporations and governments is often underpinned by what Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2007) refers to abyssal thinking. For de Sousa Santos an abyssal line divides metropolitan societies from colonial territories, the human from the subhuman, and it is only in metropolitan societies where the regulation/emancipation dichotomy has any purchase, while the other side of the line is characterized by appropriation and violence. There is evidence that the data doubles of certain social groups are located on the wrong side of the abyssal line. The streets of Bilwi and Bluefields in Nicaragua, where I do much of my research, are filled with small businesses, places to eat, market stalls and shops that have no digital footprint. Yet young Afro-descended people from these cities deprived of adequate economic opportunities are often forced to migrate to the capital to work in call centres – to participate in the digital economy even as that participation is fuelled by poverty and racial exclusion. Geographic digital exclusions and inclusions often work together in simultaneously negative ways. For low-income and racialized populations around the world, surveillance is nothing new, but it now takes on insidious new dimensions as it becomes harder to prove that you are a victim of discrimination because an ad for predatory pay day loan has appeared on your social media site or that you were stopped and searched not because the police had reasonable evidence that you had committed a crime but as a result of a convergence between your geographical location and Facebook likes. Such outcomes produce a tension between our growing collective resistance to being secretly surveilled and counted, even among populations whose relative affluence has been able to buy them privacy, and the contrasting demand as articulated by Eric Swyngedouw (2015) “to be counted, named, and recognized, theatrically and publicly staged by those ‘that do not count’”.

What hope is there for challenging the colonizing, racializing and universalizing processes that accompany the digital economy? In the past, elites saw popular television as a threat to democracy, while cultural scholars documented how ordinary people consumed mass media in oppositional ways. As John Hartley (2003) noted, indeed the masses seen from the outside as amorphous were actually increasingly sovereign. They could act in politically consequential ways. To what extent do new data mining technologies undermine this state of affairs? To what extent does it matter that we/they don’t know how the algorithms that track and target us work? The economy used to criminalize and to sell us stuff is also used to foment revolution and to refuse capitalist exploitation, smart city technologies fail as often as they succeed and they are increasingly vulnerable to being hacked from below, datasets are fragmented by tactical and unruly resistant practices and by highly selective modes of online self-presentation. We are also constantly confronted with the failures of surveillance. Some of these failures are quite mundane, such as when Facebook describes my ex-husband to me “as someone you may know” or when Sainsbury’s keeps texting me in Costa Rica with concerns that I’m forgetting to swipe my loyalty card, while others are quite serious and sinister, from whole airplanes that disappear without trace to London schoolgirls who communicate with known jihadis on social media and then travel to Syria on false passports without detection or interception. Big data economies also produce the resurrection of guerrilla technologies, molecular activities, reverse surveillance, the rehabilitation of secrecy, WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden, Anonymous. So I don’t really have any conclusions except to say that I am both seriously worried and tentatively hopeful.


boyd d and Crawford K (2012) Critical questions for big data. Information, Communication and Society. 15:5, 662-679

de Souza Santos B (2007) Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges. Review 30(1): 45-89

Hartley J (2003) A Short History of Cultural Studies. London: Sage

Leszczynski A and Elwood S (2014) Feminist geographies of new spatial media. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 59(1): 12-28

Merrifield A (2014) The New Urban Question. London: Pluto Press

Nafus D and Sherman J (2014) This one does not go up to eleven: The Quantified Self Movement as an alternative big data practice. International Journal of Communication 8: 1784–1794

Stephens M (2013) Gender and the GeoWeb: divisions in the production of user-generated cartographic information. Geojournal 78:981–996

Swyngedouw E (2015) Insurgent urbanity and the political city. In M Moshen (ed) Ethics of the Urban: The City and the Spaces of the Political. Zurich: Lars Müller (in press)