Datafication, Power and Control in Development: A Historical Perspective on the Perils and Longevity of Data
The collection, processing, storage and circulation of data is a fundamental element of contemporary societies. While the positivistic literature on ‘data revolution’ finds it essential for improving development delivery, critical data studies stresses the threats of datafication. In this paper, we demonstrate that datafication has been happening continuously through history, driven by political and economic pressures. We use historical examples to show how resource and personal data were extracted, accumulated and commodified by colonial empires, national governments and trade organizations, and argue that similar extractive processes are a present-day threat in the Global South. We argue that the decoupling of earlier and current datafication processes obscures the underlying, complex power dynamics of datafication. Our historical perspective shows how, once aggregated, data may become imperishable and can be appropriated for problematic purposes in the long run by both public and private entities. Using historical case studies, we challenge the current regulatory approaches that view data as a commodity and frame it instead as a mobile, non-perishable, yet ideally inalienable right of people.