Data Colonialism Through Accumulation by Dispossession: New Metaphors for Daily Data

Environment and Planning D, Forthcoming

27 Pages Posted: 3 Jan 2016

See all articles by Jim Thatcher

Jim Thatcher

University of Washington, Tacoma

David O'Sullivan

University of California, Berkeley

Dillon Mahmoudi

Portland State University - School of Urban Studies and Planning

Date Written: December 30, 2015


In recent years, much has been written on ‘big data’ in both the popular and academic press. After the hubristic declaration of the “end of theory” more nuanced arguments have emerged, suggesting that increasingly pervasive data collection and quantification may have significant implications for the social sciences, even if the social, scientific, political and economic agendas behind big data are less new than they are often portrayed. Compared to the boosterish tone of much of its press, academic critiques of big data have been relatively muted, often focusing on the continued importance of more traditional forms of domain knowledge and expertise. Indeed, many academic responses to big data enthusiastically celebrate the availability of new data sources, and the potential for new insights and perspectives they may enable. Undermining many of these critiques is a lack of attention to the role of technology in society, particularly with respect to the labor process, the continued extension of labor relations into previously private times and places, and the commoditization of more and more aspects of everyday life.

In this article, we parse a variety of big data definitions to argue that it is only when individual datums by the million, billion or more, are linked together algorithmically that ‘big data’ emerges as a commodity. Such decisions do not occur in a vacuum but as part of an asymmetric power relationship in which individuals are dispossessed of the data they generate in their day-to-day lives. We argue that the asymmetry of this data capture process is a means of capitalist “accumulation by dispossession” that colonizes and commodifies everyday life in ways previously impossible. Situating the promises of ‘big data’ within the utopian imaginaries of digital frontierism, we suggest processes of data colonialism are actually unfolding behind these utopic promises. Amidst private corporate and academic excitement over new forms of data analysis and visualization, situating big data as a form of capitalist expropriation and dispossession stresses the urgent need for critical, theoretical understandings of data and society.

Keywords: data colonialism, big data, everyday life, accumulation by dispossession, commodification, critical data studies

Suggested Citation

Thatcher, Jim and O'Sullivan, David and Mahmoudi, Dillon, Data Colonialism Through Accumulation by Dispossession: New Metaphors for Daily Data (December 30, 2015). Environment and Planning D, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Jim Thatcher (Contact Author)

University of Washington, Tacoma ( email )

1900 Commerce Street
Tacoma, WA 98402-3100
United States

David O'Sullivan

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Dillon Mahmoudi

Portland State University - School of Urban Studies and Planning ( email )

United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics