Data, the New Cotton

Just Tech: Social Science Research Council (May 25, 2022)

U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2022-07

10 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2022 Last revised: 4 Nov 2022

See all articles by Chaz Arnett

Chaz Arnett

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law

Date Written: June 6, 2022


The early transformation of the United States into an industrial power is often attributed to our innovative capitalist system. “Capitalism” is a convenient abstraction that we often neglect to concretize because when we do, it becomes clear that the economic success of the nation was, in truth, extracted from, and built upon the enslavement and exploitation of black bodies in the cotton industry. This enslavement and exploitation was popularly justified through calculated feedback loops of racial subjugation, demonization, and dehumanization. Even after the end of non-carceral slavery, the capitalist economic system continued to actively incentivize the maintenance of these feedback loops. The products changed, but the system essentially remained the same. In the present day, the United States’ wealth is largely built and maintained by a “data economy” involving the extraction, processing, and sale of human data. The products and processes may seem benign as abstractions, but once concretized, we see the same patterns of racialized subjugation and exploitation in the data economy as we did in the cotton industry. This essay is intended to ground some of these abstract processes in reality, and demonstrate how plantation logics are currently alive and well in the modern data economy. The reader is encouraged to use this essay as an entry point into exploring and understanding how the interplay of race, capitalism, big data, and surveillance incentivizes and maintains the subjugation and exploitation of African Americans in the modern United States.

Keywords: racial capitalism, surveillance capitalism, surveillance technology, racial subordination, criminal law, criminal procedure, policing, corrections, Prisons, Mass incarceration, Social Justice, Racial Justice, Civil Rights, Data, digital technology, law and technology, data science

Suggested Citation

Arnett, Chaz, Data, the New Cotton (June 6, 2022). Just Tech: Social Science Research Council (May 25, 2022), U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2022-07, Available at SSRN:

Chaz Arnett (Contact Author)

University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law ( email )

500 West Baltimore Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-1786
United States

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