The coloniality of desire

Revealing the desire to be seen and blind spots leveraged by data colonialism as AI manipulates the unconscious for profitable extraction on dating apps


  • Gregory Narr


As AI penetrates increasing domains of everyday life, it is working to colonize and manipulate the unconscious for profitable extraction. This makes it important to remedy the harms of AI at the same time as those harms become harder to see. I detail the stakes of this development through an analysis of interviews and Reddit forums of users of dating apps. These apps are prototypical platforms penetrating AI ever deeper into the fabric of everyday life through a process outlined as data colonialism (Abolfathi & Santamaria, 2020; Clement, 2019; Narr, 2022; Romano, 2014; Srnicek, 2016). Data colonialism is a mode of dispossession through the extraction of data that perpetuates values forged during European colonization and its afterlife still felt around the globe (Césaire, 2001; Fanon, 2008; Federici, 2004; Hartman, 2022; Mbembe, 2017; Nandy, 1989; Patterson, 2018; Quijano, 2000, 2007), a mode of domination that has been influentially described as the “coloniality of power” (Quijano, 2000, 2007). As dating apps extract datafied indices of unconscious desire from superficial swipes and subsequently mine this data with dynamic algorithms designed to determine the “thoughtfulness” and “attractiveness” of users (Fellizar, 2015; Powering Tinder, 2019), they compel users to think and behave in ways that perpetuate what I describe as the “coloniality of desire” undergirding this coloniality of power.  Because this coloniality of desire feels like social death to those it renders invisible and generates stereotypes from superficial datafication, I suggest neither the lens of surveillance capitalism nor the individual privacy proposed as its remedy help to imagine how to decolonize dating apps. Instead of the liberal notion of selfhood as emerging through privacy, which was constituted from ideals of freedom borne of parasitic colonizers living off the social death of others (Patterson, 2018), decolonizing dating apps requires leveraging indigenous understandings of selfhood as only flourishing through community entanglements, something that others have forcefully argued is needed in in the context of AI ethics more broadly (Escobar, 2018; Gwagwa et al., 2022; Ricaurte, 2022).