Alistair Fraser is a lecturer at the Department of Geography, Maynooth University. He describes himself as a human geographer whose work cuts across economic, political, and cultural geography. His work focuses on digital life and how it intersects with food systems. Fraser has also looked specifically at the digitalization of food systems. In a conversation with the DataSyn team, he discusses his work on data grabs in the domain of agriculture, his thoughts on alternatives, and the idea of Slow Computing.
Recently, you’ve been looking at the notion of data grabs as a central tenet of Big Tech. Can you speak about what’s unfolding within this phenomenon?
It’s been widely demonstrated that Big Tech – Meta, Alphabet, Apple, and Microsoft – collects data about users extensively. This is done partly for the sake of selling ads, and also for product development. We’ve known about this for years and it is an obvious move for these firms. They invite users by offering free services with a trade-off – the users essentially become workers for those firms via their clicks, swipes, and taps. So, the digital economy, or what we might call “digital life”, is bound up with this widespread practice.
I think it (this practice) is a data grab. Others refer to it in their own way – one of the more popular interpretations is Shoshana Zuboff’s idea of surveillance capitalism. Clearly, there is a surveillance component. It’s a business model or a regime that requires the data of users so that new products and market positions can be developed. In terms of the food and agricultural sectors, there are quite a few examples that point to the same type of practice and a significant investment in digitalization. So, there are lots of controversies over companies such as Amazon moving into the food systems space, as well as with established companies like John Deere, Bayer, and Nestle.
In my recent work, I’ve tried to grapple with the implications of research on things like the Internet of People and the ‘Smart Village’ concept, which has been used in Andhra Pradesh in India, and so on. I think the bigger point to make here is that data has been accumulated, particularly data about markets, crops, and climate. New sensors and technologies such as drones are being integrated into farming systems. It’s quite like the rush to gather data for ads, but this time, it really is about product development or intellectual property, about privatizing knowledge and power. The farm is not the only site to consider: places downstream, beyond the farm, these companies are looking at food supply, logistics, and food consumption, and are using what they learn to create new products. There’s a data grab affecting food producers all over the world. I think there’s a need for research on what it will mean and how it can be resisted.
In your work, you’ve mentioned that there is an interplay between data grab and land grab. Could you speak on that? You have also indicated how data grabs function differently in the Global North vis-à-vis the Global South. What are the factors that affect that and do you think colonialism plays a role?
There are a lot of overlaps in the way that companies operate in India, or in Ireland. They have a similar logic. Not to say there won’t be any specificity. But the issue that is going on is that companies in the Global North and the South, now, have opportunities to develop new products and services for the food and agricultural sectors in their home countries and beyond.
New sensors and technologies such as drones are being integrated into farming systems. It’s quite like the rush to gather data for ads, but this time, it really is about product development or intellectual property, about privatizing knowledge and power.
The logic of neoliberalism says to governments that all companies do well and encourages them to export. But you’re not really exporting services, you’re reaching into another place and drawing value out of that place. The export of services is quite difficult to get your head around. This is against the backdrop of cheaper devices and digital devices. More and more food producers, from the owners of the biggest farms, to those who own half a hectare are in touch with digital devices, specifically phones. Internet coverage is expanding, albeit slowly and without always resulting in affordable access, but investors can see how digital life is emerging and they can tell that five-10 years from now, there will be even more integration of digital technologies within all walks of life, including production.
That’s one part of the story and at the same time, there are processes underway that reinforce the will to grab land, either in the case of sovereign wealth funds or when Global North corporations or wealthy farmers go into developing countries and via domestic, middle to upper, or even ruling classes, acquire land from others and consolidate their holdings.
It makes sense to view data grab and land grab as bound up with each other – they have similar logics at work. It is to gain position, get ahead, and to accumulate wealth and power. And there are serious overlaps here – if all life is digital life, then all land grabs are digital grabs. They’re going to go in with sensors and satellite imagery, and they’re going to interpret what they find on the ground, they’re going to make an assessment with digital and data analysis.
What I also think makes it all quite interesting, is the extent to which Big Tech and many other smaller companies in the Global North can take positions as leaders in their respective fields to then target Global South markets. For example, an Irish tech firm might develop products that are going to be sold or made available for free across Africa. This brings value to Ireland and only reinforces the gap between rich and poorer countries. It smacks of a type of data colonialism, especially in an Irish context where companies are drawing upon locally trained expertise that was subsidized by the state, often importing workers from India or Africa who were trained by their states, and so they get a double subsidy. They’re backed by entities like Enterprise Ireland and other similar agencies that encourage and support entrepreneurs to get ahead. And so, they draw upon infrastructures of the Global North and then use them to try and exploit the Global South.
But at the same time, we have to be cautious about data colonialism. We have evidence that the process of colonialism can be turned around. Tik Tok is a Chinese company that is very successful all over the world, and it’s tapping the colonizers for data. It’s a complex process of colonialism that’s at work here.
One of the things you say in your work is that despite all of these issues, we do not turn our back on digital technologies; and a reimagined and restructured, alternative models of these technologies can be deeply beneficial. Can you elaborate on some of these alternative models you’ve seen or want to see going forward?
I’m keen for all of us to always bear in mind that we’re at an early stage in the development of digital life. The underlying “high tech” sectors – when digital tech used to be called high tech – have been around for decades, particularly in the development of semiconductors and desktop computers. What is relatively new is the ability for an individual or small group of collaborators to use relatively cheap devices and even free software to develop an entirely new product or service or platform. There is a need to be aware that all of the shiny new tech that one sees could quite possibly be turned upside down by something new tomorrow, even something new that’s been written by people who are outside of the mainstream digital economy.
If all life is digital life, then all land grabs are digital grabs.
So, I would say that this century’s best apps or programs or platforms remain unwritten. It’s a mistake for critics of data grab or land grab to conclude that it is the technologies that are the problem. Instead, we should be looking at problems faced by the people working the land or living on the edge of the city, and ask how they might use technology to improve their lives. Most farm management systems can help farmers in numerous ways, but tend to be made and sold by private developers. However, farmOS is a nice example of a free and open source solution that has been developed by farmers along with developers, researchers, and other organizations. It tries to create a platform for agricultural data collection and management, but one that isn’t going to siphon off data to an agricultural technology provider like John Deere or so on. In other contexts, there’s a need for a re-platformization of the digital economy. Rather than Big Tech running the platforms, we see platform cooperatives take shape.
There’s scope to work from the ground up and develop technologies with those at the bottom to produce technology that can help improve lives. This is not easy and there are plenty of constraints to overcome, but that’s where we are in 2022.
There’s no silver bullet. That’s the thing.
There’s a dialectical relationship that we’ve built with data and potentially, “digital life” itself being a form of resistance to what Big Tech has brought about. You’ve spoken about data curation as a tool that is used by Big Tech, but can also be used to resist Big Tech. What sort of avenues do you envision as an alternative to data curation?
We are digital workers – I work for Alphabet when I use my Android phone. I’m not deliberately working for them, but I’m generating money for them through advertisements, through services like YouTube. But I don’t think it is fair to refer to myself as a digital worker or a data worker, because a worker means that you get paid for your labor. I think “curator” is a more helpful term.
Big Tech firms need users to produce data and if you look at users as data curators – it’s the idea that we work on an array of data and services in unique ways. There’s a dialectical relationship here – Big Tech doesn’t get anywhere without getting users’ latitudes to play around and to “curate”. And users get frustrated and sick of bad services if Big Tech doesn’t use the data they curate to generate new products. So, it is a relationship of mutual interdependence.
But the firm and the user don’t always want the same thing. And a risk for Big Tech is that users start to use their devices and services – at their disposal – to produce new technological arrangements to undermine the power of the Big Tech club or more dangerously still, to undermine capitalist values in their entirety. There’s a real tension there.
In our times, the food sovereignty issue comes into play here because there’s so much about that concept, and the practices that tend to suggest that a post-capitalist or anti-capitalist world is in sight. All I want to suggest is that food sovereignty construction is already a digital affair insofar as protests or other actions involve social media. But then we should explore how it might be even more digital in the future if activists and practitioners can create new arrangements. My sense is that technology users who want to see a different world take shape this century, need to recognize how they curate data, how they live online, and how they might reimagine that data curation process so that they stop curating data for Big Tech and begin curating data for their own projects and programs intending to create and deliver justice in their social contexts. I think it’s helpful to look at ourselves as curators and then question who we are doing that for.
Apart from these decentralized models, the other counter forces challenging Big Tech status quo are attempts to come up with different public policy frameworks. What do you think of emerging regulatory frameworks – where do they fall short and what might be some effective examples?
What we do know about digital life today is that there are strong tendencies toward fragmentation, with only certain countries, especially China, developing ways for the state to ensure that local digital firms do best, thereby avoiding the control of foreign, especially U.S. firms. So, there’s some fragmentation going on – especially with the U.S. and Europe trying to regulate the digital economy in their own ways. It’s tricky, I think we all know that now because the digital economy is fast-moving. And there’s lots of evidence to suggest that regulators struggle to keep up and are several years behind.
The bigger question in all this is, what stance critical observers of digital life should be taking when states try to regulate things in such a way that they simply lock-in the power asymmetries so that the local digital economy remains a capitalist digital economy. While there will always be support for a digital economy that’s more oriented toward cooperation, collaboration, and transformation, the risk is that it gets ruled out by states and regulators. The question then becomes, who are they regulating it for, are they regulating it for the maintenance of the state, a particular political economy, or are they regulating it in the interest of their citizens? If it’s a digital economy for pioneering tech entrepreneurs and the biggest investment portfolios, we won’t get farther within this century. But I don’t think that’s the way we should be doing things.
Apart from these various economic issues and power asymmetries, you talk about a more fundamental disruption to people’s subjectivity and everyday lives and how digitalization is bringing about disruption to societies. You’ve advocated for something called Slow Computing. Can you tell us more about this and what you mean by it?
I wrote Slow Computing with Rob Kitchin, a colleague at Maynooth University. We wanted to ask what it would mean to have a digital life that wasn’t subjected to data grabbing and the constant rush to enact one’s presence within the seemingly unending chains of responses.
This experience that we have of constant pings on our phones or emails – Slow Computing is a response to that. In our experience of digital life, we’re aware of surveillance and we’re asking how anyone can try to get over that and change the system. We built on the term slow computing, which Nathan Schneider coined, to suggest that a more balanced digital life could be established. But, crucially, such a move would not be easy. It requires re-assessing one’s level of participation in digital action.
It’s a mistake for critics of data grab or land grab to conclude that it is the technologies that are the problem. Instead, we should be looking at problems faced by the people working the land or living on the edge of the city, and ask how they might use technology to improve their lives.
The idea of Slow Computing is a parallel to the Slow Food Movement – the latter is a response to the expansion of capitalism in the food economy, particularly to fast food. We are rushing headlong into something that is problematic and it might be time for us to try and step out of that and be critical.
Beyond looking at everyday lives and subjectivities, what should we focus on in order to contest the dominance of Big Tech, and create the conditions for re-appropriating digital technology for both people and the planet?
I am broadly very pessimistic about a lot of what’s going on, both in terms of digital life and also in terms of the progression of society – there is a lot of evidence to suggest that we’re moving into a period of intense automation, particularly as Big Tech’s next move is artificial intelligence. We’re doing this by participating in what I refer to as a “brain drain to the cloud”, where we dump all of our thoughts and knowledge into the cloud maintained by Big Tech. But ultimately, it is social relations that make the world. We can’t be apathetic about the future. As I’ve said, the best apps and the best platforms remain unwritten. There is scope to explore avenues that encourage and support solidarity and cooperation and avenues to support efforts to create better governments.
I insist that we are one or two good governments away from really improving how we live. The trouble is getting that first government into power. We need avenues that counteract dispossession (of data, or land, or hope) and perhaps most important of all, avenues that let workers or other subaltern populations across the world see what they share in common with distant others with a view to creating what I think will be necessary this century, which is a planetary-wide political alliance to meet human needs for nourishment, shelter, and care while also regenerating the environments in which we all live and on which we all depend.
Lastly, what is a recent book/text you’ve read related to these issues that you would recommend to a wider audience?
Rodrigo Nunes’ ‘Neither vertical nor horizontal’, published by Verso, has been very helpful in thinking about the importance of organizing. It’s not a digital life book by any means, but it contains lots of insight on the need for constantly re-assessing how change might occur. He says we can’t be stuck in a trap of thinking change will only happen in one way or another – either there must be a revolution, or it must be through political reform, or it must involve one particular type of actor/particular form of a party.
I think this is setting up to be a fascinating, albeit a dangerous, century and I think Nunes’ premise is a helpful way to get people thinking about change to try and converse with one another.