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One of the most evocative images from the movie Dune, adapted from The Dune Series by Frank Herbert, has been the vision of “spice melange” slipping through the fingers of the protagonist, Paul Atreides. Commentators have drawn understandable parallels between the spice in the Dune series and oil in the 20th century. However, in the contemporary era, the new oil is data. This fact has led to the manifestation of concepts such as data localization and data colonization. This struggle is also mirrored in the Dune series, with the resistance of the Fremen on the planet Arrakis, where the spice melange is found.
Spice melange, referred simply as “spice” in the Dune universe, is synonymous with power. In fact, it is essential for space travel, as it empowers specific users to foresee the future. Thus, its importance is tantamount to the significance of data for data-dependent technologies. For example, data is imperative for space travel, especially for Artificial Intelligence (AI) initiatives during deep space exploration missions.
Spice was found in everything on Arrakis, including in the air and water on the planet. Spice was ubiquitous on Arrakis, as is data on Earth in the 21st Century. However, the control of the spice was the catalyst of conflict between the Harkonnens and the Homerically-styled Atreides. As stated above, spice was essential for space travel and space navigation. Thus different factions, such as the Bene Gesserit‘s “Sisterhood”, sought to benefit from the spice trade. Others, such as the Spacing Guild, prescribed members consumed the spice to gain prescience, so as to be able to travel safely through space. Thereby, these factions acquired a monopoly over space transportation and communication making it a highly profitable enterprise indeed, that prompted the extreme commodification of spice.
In the Dune books, the antagonist observes “he who controls spice, controls the universe”. This echoes remarks by India’s Prime Minister, who posited that ‘the one who controls data, will be the world leader”. This acknowledgement has resulted in discourses and debates on data localization, and an enhanced emphasis on data colonization. Data colonialism combines the predatory extractive practices of historical colonialism with the abstract quantification methods of computing.
Data colonialism is perpetuated by conglomerates such as Alphabet and Facebook, who are involved in data extraction and are part of a “cryptocolonialist system”. Similarly, in Dune, the Combine Honnete Ober Advancer Mercantiles (CHOAM) controls, processes and benefits from spice. Great Houses are also in control of spice harvesting and processing. This bears an uncanny resemblance to conglomerates that are profiting from data and fighting data localization efforts in developing nations. The Padishah Emperor, who controls CHOAM and decides the fates of the Great Houses, resides on a faraway planet called Kaitain. From there, he exploits the spice extracted from Dune to guarantee the uninterrupted expansion of his galactic empire, the Imperium.
The myriad uses of data and spice have both promulgate a culture of extraction, expansion and exploitation. In the movie and the novels, the protagonist and prophesied savior, Paul Atreides, is part of a legacy of colonist malfeasance. In his upbringing, value was only placed upon the appropriation of Arrakis’ assets, including spice.
Notably, spice and data alike render humans as objects, prone to external control. The extraction of spice came to define social and power hierarchies in Dune. It spawned a system of government that was benefiting from infrastructure, order, and system that revolved around spice. This is eerily familiar to predictions that are being put forth by experts. In fact, they discern the advent of infrastructure fixated on data extraction and data appropriation. These practices tie humans to an emerging social order and government system, propped up by rationality and a new model of knowledge. In turn, this model is based on the monopolization of data, a totalizing endeavor.
Consequently, just as spice is taken out of the planet of Arrakis to benefit the shareholders of CHOAM, so is data taken out of developing nations to the benefit of the shareholders of major information conglomerates in the developed world. Data is taken out to be processed and stored in locations that are out of the geographical boundaries and legal jurisdiction of countries where they originate from. This has major security ramifications, particularly from firms backed by state actors, including the Communist Party of China (CPC). Coincidentally, China has some of the most comprehensive data localization laws on the planet, along with Russia.
The interests of state actors are given precedence in regard to data. This is the result of the monetary value of flows of data, which continue to generate new infrastructure, new monopolies, new sources of economic growth, and new political movements. This mirrors the importance of spice to the Imperium as an enabler of expansion and affluence in the Known Universe. Additionally, the Great Houses owned equipment such as spice Harvesters, Spotters, and Carryalls. In parallel, conglomerates control the data centers and their locations. In this way, they can to circumvent legal frameworks and regulations enacted by the data originator countries and gain control of data flows, thereby perpetuating ‘digital imperialism’.
Moreover, conglomerates’ commitment to data infrastructure investment in the countries where they are extracting data from is extremely disproportionate to the benefit reaped by their shareholders. This is analogous to the treatment doled out by the Great Houses to the Fremen. Furthermore, a larger trend is observed by strategic analysts. That is, a new colonial thrust to alter human existence into torrents of data for economic value and political power. This has provided avenues for unprecedented social discrimination and behavioural influence by conglomerates, as was done on Dune.
However, the Fremen on Dune were able to regain their agency and work towards terraforming their planet, a multi-generational endeavour. Experts likewise would prefer efforts aimed at decolonisation of data to take place. This would place the agency of the use of personal data at the behest of the individual. Furthermore, data could be used for the collective good and for collective use, which means working actively towards “data universalism”.
Nevertheless, emerging dimensions of data, including health data (which has been referred to as the “open frontier”) make it impossible for conglomerates to relinquish their control of data. This has also led to renewed concern in regard to its repercussions for national security in biotechnology. Particularly relevant is the case of China’s acquisition of ethnically diverse health data from the US.
Finally, spice was opined to have immortalizing properties. This gave impetus to the increasing rivalry for the control of spice between the various factions. The clash only came to end during the rule of “God Emperor of Dune”, and was resumed soon after his reign ended. Notably, God Emperor was able to achieve a form of immortality with the help of spice producing sand worms or their infantile form, sandtrouts. Data, through machine-learning algorithms, can approximate a unique personality or at least some part of it, thereby offering a chance at immortality. This is likely to exploited by corporations with access to the highest amount of data.
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