The phrase 'the costs of connection' has abruptly taken on a new and more sinister meaning in the last couple of months, as international and domestic travel links -- vectors by which humans carried the novel coronavirus to seed it into open clusters of new hosts -- have been severed. In the first week of March, however, when Nick Couldry, a professor in media communications and social theory at the LSE, gave a public talk and attendees still could gingerly sit a mere four feet from each other, 'connection' seemed purely digital, and 'costs' an exercise in power rather than counted in human lives.
It is power that Couldry and his co-author Ulises A. Mejias, an associate professor at SUNY Oswego, consider in The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. In what seems to me an original approach, Couldry and Mejias place the data-driven world into which we're moving in the context of colonialism. You read that right: colonialism -- not, as so many others have it, colonisation.
Couldry and Mejias argue that we are living through the early stages of a new relationship between colonialism and capitalism -- early stages, because they imagine this is the beginning of a new 500-year era even while the effects of the previous one are still being felt. In their view, the rush to monetise and profit from data is the equivalent of an historic land grab to which the new colonial powers feel as entitled as any Elizabethan explorer to dictate terms to natives of foreign lands.
So Couldry and Mejias begin with this question: "What if new ways of appropriating human life, and the freedoms on which it depends, are emerging?" As a pairing to attempt this, Couldry and Mejias are perfectly complementary: Couldry is white and English; Mejias is Mexican; Couldry is descended from exploiters, Mejias from a country that was exploited. In our new era, each of us is a mine waiting to be dug open -- and we consent by outsourcing control of even simple actions of everyday life to apps that monitor water intake, exercise rates, and order food. Meanwhile, companies from airlines to taser manufacturer Axon make an increasing portion of their revenues from data, rather than the thing they purport to sell.
A larger landscape
Surveillance capitalism, in this view, is just one piece of a much larger landscape of power grabs: workplace monitoring that has AI removing every last bit of 'inefficiency' (the breath you catch between phone calls; the extra minute you spend in the privacy of the bathroom); the gig economy; logistics; the so-often forgotten internal corporate data; social media that intermediate our personal relationships; and soon the Internet of Things that will turn every detail of our home lives into the wholly-owned property of the company that made our appliances.
What's great about this construct is the sense that Couldry and Mejias are fitting the internet, in all its 'now-now-now' insistence, into a much broader sweep of history than other commentators on the digital era have attempted. Yet they end on a positive note: we still have a choice. Individually and collectively we can decide that the costs of connection are not worth paying and reclaim our human ability to connect. Ironically, while lockdowns push us online -- damn the data exploitation! -- they are also forcing us to connect more closely with our physical neighbours in ways that can't be so easily colonised.
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