“[D]ata is considered a resource, metaphorically separated from that which it represents (a person or an artifact)”. But is data a resource the same way that oil is? Not exactly. Instead, data extraction is analogous to the fishing industry and commercial forestry.
The internet is like a vast tract of land with an ecosystem of its own. This virtual information and communication ecology is a bountiful resource justifying slogans of perpetual growth and prosperity. However, the richness of the internet is alluring to profiteers, and the promised lands are overflowing with unprotected user-generated data available for extraction.
Within a political economy framework, commercial data extraction is comparable to the petroleum industry. To explore the similarities, though, we first need to identify the differences.
Unlike other industries, in which profits are created by workers consuming the means of production, extractive industries seize natural resources. Existing raw product is seized and appropriated, or refined, and sold by extractive industries, whereas the creation of surplus value usually stems from the labour-administered transformation of purchased materials into marketable products.
Profiteers specialising in providing oil and data seize an already existing product, which is raw. By refining it, they turn it into a marketable product, ultimately fuelling the labour-administered transformation of raw materials into marketable products. Extractive profiteering, under the growth paradigm, is wired to “reiterative magnification”.
With the exception of agriculture, wherein the existing raw material is the earth itself, or the cattle that tread it, and profits are derived from the growing of crops and the breeding of cattle, i.e. processes of cultivation and reproduction, profiteering is mainly organized around production of value, not extraction of it (or cultivation).
Surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff back in 2014, on the other hand, is the monetization of data harvesting and mining.  The words themselves reveal an important feature of surveillance capitalism. Of course, employees of companies like Google and Facebook show up to work on a daily basis, but the creation of an extravagant amount of wealth stems from a different kind of labour than their employees partake in.
It stems, in fact, from digital labour. Digital labour, in this case, is not the work of Big Tech employees. In this context, their work is just considered labour. Instead, digital labour is the unpaid production of data by internet users.
Because it is unpaid, there is no surplus value. Labour creates value, and, in return, it is paid. The remaining value, post expenditure, is surplus value, which usually aligns with profits, even though surplus value and profits are conceptually different entities.
The monetary value created in the capitalist production of data is not divided into salaries and surplus value. Therefore, there is no surplus value in data production, just profits. As a result, this kind of profiteering is mainly based on the extraction of value instead of producing it in-house, making surveillance capitalism the extraction of digital labour.
The product of digital labour is user-generated data. By harvesting and mining data, companies like Google and Facebook can algorithmically predict the behaviour of consumers and sell these predictions to third parties interested in selling products to consumers, profiting from the seizure and computational appropriation of user-generated data.
Yet, the biggest profiteers of the internet are also cultivating user-generated data. In other words, they are algorithmically propagating digital labour to ensure that their source of wealth stays rich and bountiful. In doing so, they successfully discovered a natural resource void of scarcity.
Hence, digital labour is considered a gift of nature to be seized and appropriated for monetization purposes. This means that internet users are creating value and getting nothing in return from the profiteers but the convenience of information and communication technology, and self-surveillance services useful for maximizing personal output or performance, thus coinciding self-regard with personal productivity.
The popular analogy linking the extraction of data to that of oil and other natural resources, also links nature and the internet, at least linguistically. Similar linkages occur in conversations of an ‘information ecology’ or ‘data pollution’. Nonetheless, the comparison of data and oil disbars internet users – the ones generating abundant data flows – to the realm of the ecological.
Whereas the resources of the earth are painfully finite, user-generated data can be cultivated and propagated in the pursuit of commercial interests, by those who target consumers, and, more importantly, by those who sell predictions about the behaviour of consumers to those who target them.
Generating as much data as possible is in the interest of companies like Google and Facebook, which is why they utilize the same algorithm predicting patterns of consumption to prepare the digital soil for data harvesting, cultivating content to retain the attention of users for as long as possible. The propagative potential makes the internet a natural habitat for commercial extraction.
Fishery and Forestry
The accumulative logic of data cultivation leverages the similarities of social production and customer coproduction. Moreover, the logic differentiates data extraction from that of oil. While it is possible to create more oil, it would take a very long time to do so, and shareholders, usually, will not wait millions of years for their investment to pay off. The didactic advantages of comparing data and oil within an economic framework are contradicted by this fact. Nevertheless, there are other kinds of extractive industries, such as fishery and forestry, both involving a similar process of reproduction. Consequently, when people ask: Is data the new oil? The answer is: Not exactly.
However, Big Data operates accordingly with commercial extraction and is essentially cultivating user-generated data to be caught like you would a fish or cut down like you would a tree, explaining why many of us are used to, unpurposefully, losing track of time scrolling through online feeds even though we would rather be doing something else. Put differently, computational cultivation allows companies like Google and Facebook to constantly trawl the internet for data.
Exploitation usually refers to the production of surplus value, but, in most cases, the people creating wealth within digital capitalism are not exploited. Internet users simultaneously produce and reproduce a source of incredible wealth, never expecting anything in return but convenience, without questioning the narrative of technological advancement and prosperity, instead celebrating the brilliance of its agents. Of course, this is outrageous, but, unfortunately, nobody has time for outrage or indignation when they are occupied with liking, sharing, scrolling, or clicking links, to maintain the economic growth of commercial data extraction.
People’s time and attention are no gifts of nature that should be extracted for profits, and we are not living through an era of technological advancement. If anything, we are experiencing a technology-driven retrogression, e.g. what Janis Varoufakis tries to encapsulate in ‘Technofeudalism: What Killed Capitalism’ (2023), wherein he names digital labour a sort of serfdom. Whether or not capitalism is dead, is a discussion for another day. Yet, the problematic nature of commercial data extraction is not up for discussion.
To quote the philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943): “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. Therefore, retaining it for profit is cheap and meagre, not prosperous brilliance!
A first step toward limiting the dominance of Big Tech is naming the problem! User-generated data is a product of unpaid labour. When we check our phones during our lunch break, we work for another employer, who profits from the time we spend online. When we get off from work, we repeat the process over and over again providing valuable data by effectively devaluing our spare time until every last second is entrapped within Big Data’s circuit of profiteering.
 Malm, Andreas: ‘Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming’, Verso (2016)
 Zuboff, Shoshana: ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’, Publicaffairs (2019)
 Lai & Flensburg, Signe & Sofie: Datafied mobile markets: Measuring control over apps, data accesses, and third-party services’ in Mobile Media and Communication (2022)
 Fuchs & Sevignani, Christian & Sebastian: ‘What is Digital Labour? What is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And why do these Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?’ in Triple C (2013)
 Arvidsson, Adam: ‘The Ethical Economy of Customer Coproduction’ in Journal of Macromarketing (2008)