Monthly Archives: September 2015

Rights, communication and the refugee crisis (or, how the real world made my research project better)

I have started working on a book, and this week I feel guilty about writing it. The book is about the ways that technologies, citizenship and urban life produce one another. I start in the 1990s, in the conceptual space of rights definition and rights claims, including the claims related to communication rights as well as renewed claims for “rights to the city”. In this time, we talked about remaking the city, perhaps virtually, but also about fighting for its public space. This paradigm is fading, though, and in the next part of the book I write about how data and citizenship combine, how large-scale data collection and analysis shapes the ways that people feel that they can and do act, and how activists and advocates try to resist the dominant ways that data is collected and used. Certain kinds of surveillance dynamics are created by this collection and use, but there are also potential ways to resist this (albeit by demanding more individual responsibility) Looking forward, I also analyse how sensing technologies that collect intimate data intensify the ways that these experiences of surveillance and individualization occur, perhaps making us into “very predictable people” as one journalist has suggested. Sensor citizenships are all about risk: predicting it, gathering data to better describe it, reducing it. It’s chilling to consider how normalized and constrained the everyday life of the otherwise free and privileged might become – but also perhaps inspiring to consider the positive ways that embedded sensing technologies might be able to be used – to facilitate collaboration, or spur citizen science.

So while I am writing this careful, rather restrained analysis of citizenship and communication, the Western world is exploding with a crisis of citizenship. Thousands of people are fleeing war and danger and the European state machinery is singularly failing to accommodate them, to the extent that preventable deaths have captured public imagination. And my tiny proscribed musings on the ways that communication and data technologies create different citizenship seem feeble in the face of this overwhelming pain and complexity.

But the events I’m following have given me a bit of a chance to think through some of the ideas I am working on. I have been asked why I’m interested in cities, technology and citizenship, and my answer is that state conceptions of citizenship are under strain, and in cities people simply arrive and have to negotiate their belonging. In the refugee crisis, many of the actions of European states show the fractures in the rights-based state level model of citizenship – including the inadequacy of the Dublin III regulation for refugee registration as well as the hesitation of some states, like the UK, to accept more refugees.

Equally, the situation also shows the ways that networked citizenship can operate, by capturing and shifting the political mood and discourse – talking about people and experiences rather than “swarms of migrants”. This has surely been helped along by the swift, meme and hashtag-driven discussion on social media, and amplified by the mass media (I wrote about how this happens in advocacy movements here). I’m moved by the efforts of people I know who are working hard to get communications access to people stranded at the train station in Budapest.

Less encouragingly, the refugee crisis also demonstrates the fraying of the rights paradigm. Refugees have rights to asylum but states do not wish to grant them. So people move. They create new situations by their presence, by their refusal to be moved. This is a riskier tactic than claiming rights. It is a worrying trend. It also intersects with the kind of individualization that is tied to data production. I have just noticed that one of the key concerns of EU governments is the collection of more data about refugees, with the purpose of tracking them more specifically as they move. This sounds of course like a good idea, but it depends on a strong and trusted power to oversee the collection and tracking. As strong right-wing (even fascist) governments rise to power or exert more influence across Europe, we must ask whether this trust is well placed.

Finally, the refugee crisis has had me thinking a lot about my hope for the book: that I might be able to bring back into the high-tech discussions of future technology some essential human qualities that are often poorly considered or “designed out”. Qualities like empathy. Care. Husbandry and maintenance of the environments around us. These are qualities that I believe to be essential to cultivate, not only in our societies (where they always have been) but also in the technological systems that support the functioning of societies. In this late summer of crisis and pain, empathy is what motivates thousands to call for refugee acceptance or to donate materials and time. It is what we seek to generate when we communicate stories about people fleeing. It is of course what makes us human.

In my small work I hope to demonstrate that this greatest of all human qualities need not be laid aside, not in our institutions nor in our technology systems. After donating to help refugees and praying for all of the desperate people, it’s the least I can do.