Data orientalism: on the algorithmic construction of the non-Western other

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Research on algorithms tends to focus on American companies and on the effects their algorithms have on Western users, while such algorithms are in fact developed in various geographical locations and used in highly diverse socio-cultural contexts. That is, the spatial trajectories through which algorithms operate and the distances and differences between the people who develop such algorithms and the users their algorithms affect remain overlooked. Moreover, while the power of big data algorithms has been recently compared to colonialism (Couldry and Mejias 2019), the move from the colonial gaze (Yegenoglu 1998) to the algorithmic gaze (Graham 2010) has yet to be fully discussed. This article aims to fill these gaps by exploring the attempts to algorithmically conceptualize “the Other”. Based on the case study of an Israeli user-profiling company and its attempts to sell its services to East Asian corporations, I show that the algorithmic gaze—algorithms’ ability to characterize, conceptualize, and affect users—stems from a complex combination between opposing-but-complimentary perspectives: that it is simultaneously a continuation of the colonial gaze and its complete opposite. The ways in which algorithms are being programmed to see the Other, the ways algorithmic categories are named to depict the Other, and the ways people who design such algorithms describe and understand the Other are all different but deeply interrelated factors in how algorithms “see.” I accordingly argue that the story of algorithms is an intercultural one, and that the power of algorithms perpetually flows back and forth—between East and West, South and North.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)919-939
Number of pages21
JournalTheory and Society
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - 1 Oct 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Springer Nature B.V.


  • Algorithmic power
  • Algorithms
  • Culture
  • Data
  • Data colonialism
  • Racism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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