“We are all connected to the phenomenon of data colonialism”
The media scientist and expert on data sovereignty, Ulises Mejías, was a guest at BFH Wirtschaft for a few weeks last May on the occasion of a research stay. In this interview, he talks about his impression of Bern, data colonialism and the relevance of the topic for the public and private sectors.
You were in Switzerland for the first time. How did you experience your visit?
Prof. Dr Ulises Mejías: My visit was wonderful. Everyone at BFH was so nice and hospitable. I had the opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. I even attended a folk music festival. Professionally, it was a great experience to discuss my work with students, lecturers, researchers and representatives of the media and administration.
The topic of data colonialism, on which you gave a keynote speech at TRANSFORM 2022, is a rather young field of discussion. What reactions did you receive?
I had many interesting discussions throughout the day. Of course, the first reaction was often to question the use of the word “colonialism” and to wonder whether such a concept is relevant to Switzerland at all. The comparison that my co-author Nick Couldry and I make between historical colonialism and emerging data colonialism is not based on form or content, but on the function of colonialism, extraction. This explanation helped. So my discussion partners found it a useful model to talk about the impact of data mining on our societies and who benefits and who does not. I also found it very productive to discuss how data colonialism is taking shape in Switzerland. And how it can be fought through individual corporate strategies as well as through politics.
The city of Bern also has a colonial past – even if not at first sight. During your visit, you took part in a city walk on the traces of colonialism. Which aspects have remained in your memory?
I learned a lot about the circulation of commodities, about the way finance has connected the world for centuries. And about how events in other parts of the world have a local impact, also in terms of violence and racism. I think these are all lessons to keep in mind when talking about data today. We also joked about adding a component about data colonialism to the tour. The “Evidence” may be harder to spot. But we can see it in cities like Bern in the form of infrastructures, institutions and local impacts of global trends.
Where do you see a connection between the colonialism of Bern and today’s data colonialism?
Someone mentioned to me that half of the gold mined in Brazil was marketed in Swiss banks. Since data colonialism is about monetising the data extracted from our social lives, I wondered how much of this wealth is now stored and multiplied in Swiss banks. I do not know the answer to this question. I realise that this does not mean that the wealth is literally stored in a bank in Bern. But the point is that we are all connected in one way or another to the emerging global phenomenon that is data colonialism.
Are you planning further collaboration with BFH and our Public Sector Transformation Institute?
Yes, of course! One of the most important aspects of the trip was the opportunity to discuss my work with students* at BFH Economics. I hope to continue these conversations. I also think that the Public Sector Transformation Institute is doing very important work by initiating a public discussion on digital governance and sovereignty issues. I look forward to working together on these issues in the future.
What are your plans for the next few months?
There will be a lot going on: I’m giving more lectures, starting my teaching career again after a nice sabbatical, and working on some new writing projects. I also hope to return to Switzerland and Bern at some point!
About the person
Ulises Mejías is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Institute of Global Engagement at the State University New York, College at Oswego. Together with Nick Couldry, he wrote the book “The Costs of Connection”. As part of a Fulbright scholarship, he stayed at BFH Wirtschaft in May 2022 and gave the keynote speech at the TRANSFORM conference in addition to public lectures