Can Cooperatives Defeat Digital Coloniality?

In February 2022, TIME published an expose under the headline: “Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop”. The story revealed allegations of unfair labor practices and hazardous working conditions at the Kenyan operations of Sama, a California-headquartered company contracted to provide content moderation services in Africa to Meta, Facebook’s parent company. It was, in my reading, a glimpse into digital coloniality, a concept that I will be using in the coming months of my research fellowship at the Institute for the Cooperative Digital Economy.

According to TIME, Sama’s moderators worked long hours for a tiny fraction of what similar work pays in the United States. They were also exposed daily to traumatic content but had limited access to adequate mental healthcare. When one moderator, Daniel Motaung, tried to organize to form a union, Sama fired him but has since increased what it pays moderators to at least $2.20 per hour — seemingly a tacit admission that all was not well with its labor practices. Motaung is now suing Sama and Meta has washed its hands of the entire saga.

A cocktail of extraction, exploitation, exclusion 

When I say the story offered a glimpse into digital coloniality, I mean that it revealed one way in which the digital age can and has reinscribed inequitable forms of human relations that took hold globally through European colonialism and continue to shape the world at present. It is by design rather than coincidence that digital multinational companies headquartered in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in the West can operate in this way and exploit workers in an African country. Like the charter companies that served as tools of colonial conquest, digital multinationals like Meta, Uber and Airbnb have amplified the extractive, exploitative relationship that global elites have established with everyone else, and have also co-opted governments into their plans. The actions of these companies’ controlling shareholders are defining, and some would say corrupting, what it means to be human in a digital world and who can be human.

Digital coloniality borrows and builds on the concept of coloniality, the ‘darker side’ of modernity, and considers its transmutation into the digital domain. Much of the work on this phenomenon focuses on data — perhaps rightly so. Data is the new gold, according to the World Economic Forum. In recent decades, it has been extracted through unethical means, processed using models that amplify colonial-era bigotry, and deployed to make products and services that solidify the chokehold of digital multinationals on people, governments and economies.

But there are other ways in which it manifests. Data is not the only possession that digital multinationals extract and exploit for profit. Human labor is another, as Meta’s and Sama’s actions in Kenya illustrate. Similarly, the physical hardware that powers digital economies is built from raw materials extracted under exploitative and at times violent circumstances from places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo — with little of the value of these materials accruing to local communities. Digital coloniality has ecological dimensions, too, in terms of where and who bears the brunt of the environmental impacts of mining, energy production and electronic waste.

With a good dash of oppression

Perhaps the most profound way, at least to me, that digital coloniality manifests is by digitalizing the ongoing remaking of the world in the image of the Western ‘modern’ man. Underlying ideas, norms and value systems that shape dominant views on what it means to be human on the internet trace their origins to the flawed ideals of the European enlightenment and the American revolution. They reflect the limited perspectives of a subset of the human population but are popularized in the digital domain, and elsewhere, as though they are universally applicable to all humans. Other ways of being, or knowing, in the world have been pushed to the fringes and suppressed.

One example of this are the ongoing, recently reignited battles over the meaning of free speech online, which is overwhelmingly framed in individualist terms. But much of the world’s philosophies recognize that being human is, in part, relational rather than purely individualistic. Existing in relation to others implies that any conception of free speech, or any other entitlement, that focuses solely on the individual is likely to prove inadequate if not conflict prone in reality. And attempts at backstopping through legislative limitations and content moderation policies under increasing regulatory pressure seem to provide new ways for digital multinationals to shift the costs of digital life to those who can least afford it — as Meta through Sama appears to have done in Kenya.

Cooperative responses to digital coloniality

Through my fellowship project, I intend to examine the responses of cooperatives to digital coloniality. I want to understand what cooperatives are doing about it and to also consider what they can do. I have zeroed-in on cooperatives because they, unlike other organizational forms, are intended to be relational by design. Community and questions of co-existence, sharing and conflict resolution are built into the model, at least in theory. I would expect, or hope, that cooperatives are considering philosophical and knowledge-related questions that digital life poses for being and becoming human, in addition to those of extraction, exploitation and exclusion.

From my initial review of the landscape of cooperative responses, there are some promising initiatives out there, which I hope to detail in my final research paper. I also welcome suggestions of other initiatives I should look into. Much of what I have seen, however, appears to be disconnected responses rather than a coherent, collective cooperative response to the extension of inequitable patterns and forms of human relations into the digital domain. So, the final item on my to-dos in the coming months, as an ICDE fellow, is to attempt to understand why, if indeed this is the case, and to offer suggestions of what could be done.