The word “data” has been slowly moving farther away from its philosophical origins and has become more entwined with technology. In today’s high-tech, information-at-your-fingertips world, data has become a commodity more precious than black gold.
Governments and big corporations all over the world are more likely to make decisions based on numbers, analytics, and algorithms than in the recent past. By the same token, individuals are more inclined to follow trends, not only in consumer habits but also in thought patterns and actions.
With more mass media corporations merging (Facebook buying Instagram or Disney buying Fox), it leaves open the possibility that such powerful corporations could control the public square and monopolize civil and political discourse. When corrupt governments and greedy corporations ally against people, this scenario is no longer just a possibility, it becomes a certainty.
Put simply, the corporate-state alliance, through the manipulation of data, can influence people to unknowingly act against their interests and morals.
Traditionally, before the advent of computers and smartphones, data had always been synonymous with information. Indigenous people passed down information through oral traditions (storytelling, customs, rituals) while literate societies, compiled information into books.
This passing down of generational knowledge is what eventually led to the intellectual movement that spawned the “Enlightenment” in Western societies. If knowledge is power (as Francis Bacon asserted), then information must be knowledge.
Intelligence is another more archaic synonym for the word data, although it is more commonly associated with the gathering of information or having a high IQ.
Using military intelligence and cybersecurity as a modern-day example: if two nations were building up to war, and one of them successfully attacks the other’s cyber infrastructure with a crippling virus, that nation will, in all likelihood, win the war effort before a single bullet has even been fired.
In this scenario, the winning side exploits useful intelligence to harm the losing side. Information becomes a double-edged sword. Depending on who wields it, it can be disseminated or withheld to collapse a nation from within.
Political campaigns are where the corporate-state marriage is made. According to the New York Times, all the races in this year’s election cycle could combine for “nearly 14 billion” dollars.
The writer, Shane Goldmacher, discloses in the article that 1.8 billion dollars were used on television ads alone, which almost equaled the total amount spent in the 2016 presidential campaign.
The October 28 article further reveals that only 22 percent of the record-breaking donations were made by small donors, while the majority of it came from Wall Street, super PACs, and “so-called dark money … entities like nonprofits.”
If the majority of the population is comprised of small donors, but less than a quarter of the donations are from them, who is funding these winning candidates? Who are these elected officials beholden to, their major donors or the general electorate?
The fact that campaign spending has historically translated to campaign victories is worrying, to say the least.
Although it is arguable where politicians’ loyalties lie, there is no question that corporations are all about their bottom line. Many corporations and their interests have been guilty of ruthless tactics in the name of profits.
Take the Dole Food Company, for example. Founded in Hawaii by James Dole in 1851, it is now the largest fruit and vegetable producer in the world. Ironically, Sanford Dole, James’s once-removed cousin, became Hawaii’s first president after Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in an American coup. He later became the annexed territory’s first governor.
It is no big secret that corporations have, throughout history, put profits over people. Before the Dole family exploited the land and native people of Hawaii, a different group here on the “mainland”, was caught in the throes of a ruthless form of corporate capitalism.
Many African Americans today can trace their lineage to the hundreds of thousands of slaves brought here against their will. Since the Civil War, the argument for 40 acres and a mule has been made in American civil and political discourse.
In an article by Sheila Flemming-Hunter entitled “Project 1619 revisited: Black Children, Racism, and Reparations,” she makes the case by citing President Thomas Jefferson’s initial suggestion for land reparations as well as General William T. Sherman’s famous field order in 1865 (84).
Flemming-Hunter argues that other groups have been compensated by governments for injustices committed against them. Those descended from the Jewish Holocaust victims received almost 2 billion dollars from Swiss banks and the German Government. Similarly, Japanese Americans interned during World War II received “a formal apology” and 1.2 billion dollars from the US Government (86).
Reparations, whether land, monetary, or otherwise, should always be repaid whenever atrocities and injustices have been committed against a people, a group, or an individual. It should not be any different for African Americans descended from slaves.
It is important to remember, however, that on these lands where we can freely express ourselves, join whatever protest we choose to, and even just be a tourist and enjoy a luau on the beach, Native Indigenous people have been forcibly displaced to give us these rights.
Similar to how Native Hawaiians lost their lands to fruit tycoons, it could be argued that Native Americans lost theirs to tobacco tycoons. Tobacco was the first profitable crop to emerge from the colonies.
Those colonies would later expand in a series of land grabs and would become the United States of America we know today.
In the book “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans (Myths Made in America), by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker, it is explained how Native Americans have been systematically erased through overt violence, displacement, and information warfare.
They reveal how little the general population actually knows about Native Americans.
The idea of a “master narrative” is also presented by the authors. They describe how in multicultural nations, “the narratives reinforce a contrived sense of unity.” This sense of unity is accomplished through patriotic displays (playing of the national anthem and military flybys during sporting events) and national holidays (Thanksgiving, Halloween).
Dunbar-Ortiz and Gilio-Whitaker write that Native Americans have not only been pushed to the margins of society—even farther than legal immigrants in this country—but “have been disappearing from the collective imagination” for over 500 years.
A person needs only to look up a map of the US with Indian reservation boundaries to see just how far they have been pushed.
Moreover, the authors note a 2015 study to assess “Indigenous curriculum” that found overwhelmingly that in the US, Indigenous people “are largely portrayed as extinct,” or “pre-1900.”
On election night 2020, CNN had a live graphic that labeled Native voters “SOMETHING ELSE.” The irony of the graphic was that Asian American voters, who make up three percent, were clearly labeled, while Native American voters, who make up a larger demographic at six percent, were not represented accordingly.
Was this a simple error by a new intern, or was it something more nefarious? Given the millions of dollars paid to their writers, editors, and production crews, it is hard to believe that this mistake made it onto live national television.
Has hyper-partisanship and identity politics made us blind to the continual erosion of Native Americans in the public consciousness?
Gone are the days when an anchor could sit behind a desk and selectively spoon-feed curated news to the masses. Outdated information about Indigenous people from non-Indigenous perspectives should be not be allowed to dominate academia.
In this age of free-flowing information, it is the first time in history that any individual—regardless of race, class, or ethnicity—can have access to knowledge that had only previously been available to the academic and political elites. The only excuses for not being able to critically examine a news story or any piece of information, for that matter, are illiteracy, laziness, or just willful ignorance.
As long as we don’t control how our data is gathered and interpreted, we have no say in how our stories are told #DecolonizeDataTweet This
The cliché “history is written by the victors” is a cliché for a reason. The good news is that the war is far from over. We can begin to fight back with the decolonization of data. As long as we don’t control how our data is gathered and interpreted, we have no say in how our stories are told.
Check out the links below for more about the movement to decolonize data: