Society

Collidoscope: Of Colonialism, Big Data and Porn Panic

This week’s selection from the world of social science research.

Credit: Trina Shankar

Credit: Trina Shankar

Collidoscope is The Wire’s weekly newsletter on social science research, bringing together different views and ways of understanding and analysing society from across the world. You can subscribe to the Collidoscope newsletter here. If you missed the previous editions and would like to catch up, you can find them here.

This week’s issue looks at ideas around colonialism: why some people are still so happy with it and the different ways in which it manifests today.

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‘The case for colonialism’

Painting depicting the French army attacking Nam Định, 1883. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Painting depicting the French army attacking Nam Định, 1883. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What would make nearly half of an editorial board of a journal resign?

Publishing an article that not only justifies colonialism, but argues that the world would be a better place if we all went back to it. The article in question, written by Bruce Gilley and published by Third World Quarterly, caused so much uproar that both the author and the publisher had to issue statements defending themselves – though both chose to stand by their decisions.

Some reports say the author issues a public apology for the “pain and anger” he caused and asked the journal to take down the article from its website. “I hope that this action will allow a more civil and caring discussion on this important issue to take place,” Gilley reportedly continued. That statement, however, is no longer available on his personal website.

Gilley, in his paper, says that the world should go back to a colonial governance agenda because of the “grave human toll of a century of anti-colonial regimes and policies”. What the world needs, he says, is “reaffirming the primacy of human lives, universal values, and shared responsibilities – the civilising mission without scare quotes – that led to improvements in living conditions for most Third World peoples during most episodes of Western colonialism”.

His solution? Three things, applicable in different parts of the world:

  1. Go from ‘good governance’, which “contains too many assumptions about the self-governing capacity of poor countries” to ‘colonial governance’,
  2. Recolonise certain areas, and call it colonialism rather than anything else, and
  3. Build new Western colonies from scratch.

It’s not surprising that Gilley’s article, and the fact that a well-known journal published it, made many people very angry – he goes as far as to say that anti-colonialism is the most serious threat to human rights in the world. His claims are also made without any evidence – he says, for instance, that colonialism almost always existed due to backing from the local population. (“Any colonial relationship requires a high degree of acceptance from the local population.”) He also fails to discuss any previous material that looks at the impact of colonialism – both during and after – on former colonies.

A change.org petition asking the journal to revoke the article has more than 10,000 signatures. “We do not call for the curtailing of the writer’s freedom of speech. We instead hold ourselves and our colleagues in academia to higher standards than this. We expect academic journals to do the same,” the petition says.

In their resignation letter, 15 members of the 34-member editorial board said that the article had been rejected during the peer-review process, despite what the journal’s editor, Shahid Qadir, said to the contrary. It is not true that the journal put the article through a double-blind peer review process, the former board members state, and several reviewers have told them that the article was rejected at the first stage. “We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate. However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigour and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offence and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech,” board members including Ilan Kapoor, Stefan Ponte, Ayesha Jalal, Vijay Prashad, Walden Bello and Mahmood Mamdani say in their letter.

Gilley’s clickbait-titled article and the rate of its circulation – far more than most academic articles, thanks to the controversy it has created – do mean that rebutting his arguments is important, especially in a world where the “glory” of colonialism is often remembered rather nostalgically. A 2014 YouGov poll in the UK, for instance, showed that 59% of British people view the British Empire as “something to be proud of” and 49% believe that former colonies benefitted overall from colonialism. If you’re looking for rebuttals to Gilley’s arguments (though ‘claims’ may be a better word than ‘arguments’ here), this one in Quartz and this one in Current Affairs are both worth reading.

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Data colonialism

Who does big data benefit? Credit: Reuters

Who does big data benefit? Credit: Reuters

How much data are we producing every day and, more importantly, who is it going to?

Every time we use an internet-enabled device, we are telling it something, giving it some personal information. But “it is only when millions and billions of individual pieces of data are linked together algorithmically that the commodity known as big data emerges”. That’s Jim Thatcher, David O’Sullivan and Dillon Mahmoudi’s fascinating article in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, where they try to highlight how capitalism is using technology to dispossess individuals of their personal information and commodify it into ‘big data’ – a process they call data colonialism.

Big data, for the authors, is only one more example of processes of accumulation by dispossession and colonisation of an individual’s lifeworld, done through the commodification and and extraction of personal information. Their aim is not only to highlight the power asymmetries behind big data, but also explain the processes that allow that, using David Harvey’s concepts.

Of course it’s not something we think about regularly, the kind of information we’re making available – though the moments when we’re creeped out by just how much our phone/laptop knows about us are on the rise (at least for me). But what we think about even less, probably, are the systems that in place to collect such data from everyone everywhere, to bring together, aggregate and sell to the highest bidder, if not use for the profit of the company that’s doing it in the first place. Why is that something we should think about? “As algorithms select, link, and analyze ever larger sets of data, they seek to transform previously private, unquantified moments of everyday life into sources of profit.”

The authors define the process of data colonialism like this:

…data are transformed into a commodity that, once produced, can be extracted from the producers to capture surplus value. We argue that this occurs through asymmetrical relations between data producers (end-users) and data collectors and owners (corporate entities) that mirror processes of primitive accumulation or accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003, 2004) that occur as capitalism colonizes previously noncommodified, private times and places.

With regards to big data, these processes privatize data into the hands of technology application creators, obfuscate the quantification and alienation of data from those who create it, and link these data into abstracted bundles of quantified consumers that may be purchased and sold in aggregate.

What’s happening to all of us on a daily basis is that we’re entering into constant tacit agreements – those small tick boxes that we never really bother to read in our hurry to get on with it, or sometimes not even that. We are effectively handing over the rights over the data we produce (which on its own, has little to no value). But taken with all the other data points collected by whoever we handed over those rights to, we are giving them the ability to know things about our (collective) personal lives: “Previously private experiences—such as the location of meals (Foursquare, Yelp) or arranging romantic encounters (Tindr, Grindr, OkCupid)—are quantified and become data points within privately owned systems.”

How does this big data help those who collect, analyse and/or buy it? “Each data point from an application is abstracted and valued at a specific level but, when linked together, those data points are transformed into buckets of consumers, abstracted aggregate individuals whose consumption patterns are predictable in ways that have value—for example, although prices fluctuate, it was possible to purchase 1000 followers for $5 in 2013.” This is important because “big data serves as a ‘fix’ for capitalism’s inherent tendencies toward overaccumulation, not through a spatial expansion outwards, but by a rendering smooth of the rough surfaces of individuals’ lives as they become knowable as commodified representations of self”.

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Panicking about porn

A signboard outside an area occupied by an aboriginal community in Australia. Courtesy: <em>Porn Studies</em>

A signboard outside an area occupied by an aboriginal community in Australia. Courtesy: Porn Studies

How does porn relate to colonised identities?

According to Monique Mulholland’s article in Porn Studies, anti-porn campaigns in Australia very much play off of colonial, racialised identities. She uses two different examples of what she calls “porn panics” to prove her point – the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) intervention by the government in 2007 which was imposed on 73 aboriginal communities, and fear over ‘pornification’ among young people in the rest of the country.

In both cases, Mulholland argues, the panic was created by bringing children into the mix – children who were apparently needed to be saved from the ravages of porn and sexualised identities. But the way these identities were defined very much played into existing distinctions, created by a colonial society. “…panics about porn – in whatever form – illuminate broader cultural fears and anxieties about good and bad sex, the respectable and the deviant,” she writes. Her argument is this:

(The) porn panics under examination are racialized in several key ways: the problem of porn is viewed through historically persistent racialized and colonizing discourses, and the dangers posed to young people and communities are differently conceived. The ways in which white European bodies were made respectable through their distance from their black and classed others plays out in contemporary panics and fears about porn – ‘porn, blackness and pathology’ sit side by side with the ‘good, white and middle class’. Furthermore, racialized discourses work to secure the goodness of the white middle-class girl through a pathologization of the black other. Throughout these cases, porn continues to function as a border marker, marking out the good, white and respectable from the deviant, barbaric and pathological.

Mulholland uses examples from different sections of the campaign to drive home her point. Her analysis is surprising (most probably because the primary subject of her research is porn) in a ‘why am I still surprised kind of way’.

One the areas in which the distinction between how the two panics is clear is how the problem itself is phrased, by both the government and the mainstream media, she argues. In the anti-pornification campaign, the problem is referred to as new and posed from the outside, coming in to disturb what was otherwise a pristine set up. And the normative child being disturbed here is a white, middle-class girl, who needs to be protected from the external bogey that is porn. “Fears are directed to a particular child, aimed at ensuring girls are ‘good’, respectable, and not too ‘over-the-top’ in terms of sexual expression.”

Anxieties about the aboriginal child as highlighted by the NTER campaign though, Mulholland argues, are quite starkly different. Here, the threat is talked about by the state and other campaigners as not external but internal, and not contemporary but eternal. “What we have got to do is confront the fact that these communities have broken down. The basic elements of a civilised society don’t exist,” then Australian Prime Minister John Winston Howard said in a TV interview in 2007. Others also made similar statements, leading to what?

Constant reference to an inherent dysfunction has colonizing effects: the communities themselves become the problem. In contrast to pornification anxieties, in which this ‘new’ problem enters from outside (outside ‘our community’ to corrupt ‘our good white children/girls’), through the NTER special measures, Indigenous people were targeted as the problem. The problem of porn was attached to the entirety of a very specific population, spatially located ‘outside’ the Australian national imaginary, and framed by colonial discourses of the timeless, backward, primitive other… For Aboriginal children, the problem is not porn per se, but a community viewed as inherently sick, degenerate and pathological.


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If you have any comments or suggestions on what could be carried in this column, write to me at [email protected]