Book review forum—“Data Power: Radical Geographies of Control and Resistance” by Jim E. Thatcher and Craig M. Dalton

Introduction—Nick Lally, University of Kentucky

In Data Power: Radical Geographies of Control and Resistance, Jim E. Thatcher and Craig M. Dalton assess the current state of “data capitalism”, arguing for the need to “both think through and act to produce alternatives” (p.33) to this current conjecture. Adding a modifier to capitalism does not result in an empty neologism on the part of the authors, but rather, signals their attempt to theorise a particular tendency that weighs heavily on the present. The proliferation of data enabled by computation may shift the qualities and possibilities of everyday life, but the valorisation of data reflects the endless vampiric thirst of capitalism’s drive to extract surplus value. In their choice of grounding interlocutors—which include Heidegger, Benjamin, Marcuse, and Debord—Craig and Jim signal historical continuities with the past, using these theorists to understand how capitalism led us here and how critical thought might lead us out. Of course, as the authors are careful to explain with the help of contemporary theorists, this “here” and “us” is fragmented, geographically and socially uneven, and situated within particular contexts, affording socially-differentiated possibilities for living within and resisting “data capitalism”.

In reading the text, it is important to remember Jim and Craig’s insistence on a dialectical materialist approach, where social relations and technologies are co-produced, contingent, and never unidirectionally determinant. Holding forces in dialectical tension allows the reader to see how the proliferation of data can both produce possibilities for joy and connection while also producing oppressive, alienating, and extractive forms of data colonialism. Likewise, we can see how moments of data exploration, which the authors fashion after the Situationist dérive, can be productive in imagining resistance to data capitalism, but which, on their own, are also largely ineffective without the necessary solidarity-building of organising. These tensions also allow the authors to write a book replete with examples that might seem shocking for a casual reader, while insisting we should not be shocked if we understand the conditions that make such spectacular acts of violence, data leaks, and misuses possible and ultimately inevitable. From the playful use of mapping apps to simulate a traffic jam to the targeting of drone strikes based on phone metadata, the authors offer numerous examples that encourage us to think deeply about the potentialities of data under current social and political relations. These examples also help us begin to see the cracks in data capitalism because, as the authors remind us, they are describing a “totalizing tendency” not a “static totality” (p.31).

The book is also an invitation to intervene in and resist data capitalism. It is, after all, a guidebook that shows us how to “live joyfully within the social and literal ruins of data capitalism” (p.3). But it’s also, as Emma Fraser points out in this Forum, something of a manifesto, with echoes of Situationist provocations. The Situationists, who vowed to collapse the distinction between art and everyday life in order to form an immanent critique of a society awash with the spectacle of media, offer a provocative rejoinder to what the authors have termed the “data spectacle”. Jim and Craig suggest acts of playful defiance against the data spectacle, which has reached into the furthest corners of daily life in ways that would be unimaginable to the anticapitalists that form the early theoretical grounding of the book. Drawing inspiration from Debord and the Situationists, Craig and Jim suggest ways to drift through data, detourn and hack the tools of data capitalism, and ultimately organise data strikes in order resist the commodification of everyday life. Here they bring into the conversation contemporary theorists and activists who are doing work that resonate with these suggestions, from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in the Bay Area to Precarias a la Deriva in Spain, in addition to numerous scholars who have theorised the current moment. As a number of reviewers in this Forum found salient, Jim and Craig suggest we live in the cracks and find moments of weakness that might be exploited to organise against data capitalism.

This Forum features four reviews of the book, which encourage us to think expansively about the theories, concepts, methods, and approaches the book offers. For example, Ian Spangler, drawing on Katherine McKittrick’s work, asks about the role of transparency and opacity in struggle and how the tools offered in the book allow us to toggle between them. Ofurhe Igbinedion calls for a stronger and more careful centring of those who are most vulnerable to data capitalism. Luis F. Alvarez León wonders about the use of oppressive tools in the service of liberatory politics, asking how one might balance the need to work within or outside of the system. And Emma Fraser calls for an expansion of a later section in the book in order to theorise more thoroughly the revolutionary promise of rupture, which I read as a prising open of the gaps and cracks that Craig and Jim invite us to inhabit. To these questions and invitations for elaboration, I might add my own. For one, I wonder about the framing of data generating practices as labour. Without precipitating an argument over which volume of Capital is most relevant for understanding the valorisation of data, I wonder if data practices are qualitatively different than labour as it has been historically understood. Perhaps it is a strategic decision to develop expansive understandings of labour in the hopes of developing solidarities and possibilities for broad-based strikes. And second, I am curious to hear more about how the authors can imagine organising and solidarity in the face of data capitalism. The book, as I see it, is in part a handbook for beginning this work, pointing to possibilities for rupture. But can these ruptures be transformative on their own, or do they need to link to other kinds of intersectional organising and struggles? This question might, in the end, be too big—one we can only find answers to through the types of praxis, experimentation, solidarities, and site-specific resistances that the book suggests.

Book review forum—“Data Power: Radical Geographies of Control and Resistance”

Introduction—Nick Lally, University of Kentucky

Review 1—Ian Spangler, University of Kentucky

Review 2—Ofurhe Igbinedion, Oakland Department of Transportation

Review 3—Luis F. Alvarez León, Dartmouth College

Review 4—Emma Fraser, University of California, Berkeley

Authors’ response—Jim Thatcher, Oregon State University and Craig Dalton, Hofstra University