Institut für Sozialanthropologie


Big Data Lives. Anthropological Perspectives on Tech-Imaginaries and Human Transformations

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Michaela Schäuble

Projektmitarbeitende: Dr. Darcy Alexandra, Lucien Schönenberg, Sophie Wagner 

Laufzeit 01.09.2019 bis 31.08.2023

How individuals and societies aim to live in the future is channelled through and inextricably linked to the use of technology. Today, artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data technologies are key elements in popular narratives about the future of mankind. What these developing technologies promise is enticing, as well as frightening. Public debates about AI and its effects on civilization tend to be heated. Famous figureheads conjure up distant, contrasting futures where we are either at the mercy of selfish machines, or have managed, with their help, to banish illness and war, and end all the world’s problems. Rather than argue for either side in this debate, our research project endeavours to understand the effects of human engagements with AI and Big Data technologies that acquire and manage personal data on behalf of states, intelligence agencies and commercial corporations.

The mining, storing, analysing and selling of meta data by corporate firms, state authorities or intelligence organisations, combine to form the backbone of ‘biopolitics’ – the attempt to rationalise the government of populations – that considers life itself as an object and subject of concern. In order to do so most effectively in an ever more digitalised world, surveillance and dataveillance – the tracking of online data for unstated pre-set purposes – are being rendered as normal forms of social monitoring. We will investigate the widely shared belief that Big Data systems and algorithmic decision making instil objectivity and rationality in the realms of irrational human existence. These narratives and imaginaries impact on norm-making processes, and enable the implementation of new technological infrastructures. 

This research project brings together three geographically diverse, ethnographic case studies. Each study explores the on-going implementations of technological infrastructures to provide insight into technology-driven, societal transformation as it happens: the implementation and use of algorithmic surveillance cameras in a French urban context (sub-project A by Lucien Schönenberg); a landscape ethnography that examines the “Virtual Border” – comprised of surveillance cameras, sensors, radar systems, and Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs) – between the USA and Mexico (sub-project B by Darcy Alexandra); and sensor enabled, wearable technology in the context of a booming, digitalised healthcare system in Austria (sub-project C by Sophie Wagner). All three projects deal with initiatives that promote “better/safer futures”. Aiming to instil moral behaviour, inventing security threats that demand counteraction, or claiming to develop research while pushing a growing market and a country’s status as ‘ideal for business’ all produce troubling impacts on the freedom and privacy of individuals and radically alter notions of transparency, responsibility and trust. They bear witness to the ways in which Big Data based technologies add unprecedented degrees of complexity to the management of individual lives. For example, the mechanisms through which societal control is exercised, are increasingly veiled, and individuals are often left devoid of knowledge about who owns their data and what will be done with it. Simultaneously, however, the responsibility for the policing of behaviour is often transferred from political and economic institutions to individuals and commercial corporations.

Rather than imagining the future as an uncertain and distant cosmos, we propose to explore the ways that humanity is already and continuously shaping these entangled processes of gradual change. We ask about the ways in which individuals circumvent and subvert surveillance technologies. We ask how the participants’ capacity to act according to their own desires, hopes and fears is defined by knowledge of the technological infrastructures they move through, as well as by existing narratives surrounding developments in technology-driven change. We acknowledge that the existence of Big Data based technologies has the potential to radically alter individual perception and subjectivity, and that it might be productive to rethink the human/technology dichotomy. Therefore, this research project investigates the relational existence of technologies and social phenomena. Our aim is to add a specific, human-centred approach to the discourse about AI and Big Data, and contribute to the dynamic understanding of human ontologies. 

Between Two Rivers: Hydro-social Poetics of Care, positions the Sonoran Desert as a vital place from which to study contesting theories of futurity. Within this landscape of deadly migration policies, extractive surveillance infrastructure, and some of the most unique ecological networks in the Americas, the research aims to learn from the multiple stakeholders who are imagining more equitable and livable futures.

In the wake of climate change, anthropologists increasingly position the future as an urgent object of study. Circumventing the apocalyptic Game Over climate scenario, new attention is focused on developing a nuanced consideration of the borders where people and other living beings are shaping possible futures. Formed through inter-dependent relations of attention and care (Haraway 2016), these borderlands are found in trans-species engagements unfolding in the ruins of capitalism (Tsing 2015). Building from the divergent histories of two rivers, the San Pedro and Santa Cruz watersheds, this audio-visual ethnography will examine borderlands futurity in relation to notions of collective wellbeing and security.

Surveillance technologies hold competing significance and objectives in the US-Mexico borderlands. On the one hand, state surveillance is a long-standing aspect of settler colonialism and an everyday reality of life for borderlands dwellers, in particular since the introduction of Prevention through Deterrence. This statecraft includes a "virtual wall" of integrated fixed towers (IFTs), resource-intensive infrastructure, and the production of massive surveillance data. In the construction and maintenance of border surveillance infrastructure, water extraction is essential. On the other hand, environmental scientists, citizen-scientists, and community activists also employ diverse statecraft technologies to study and protect riparian waterways, wildlife, and travel corridors along the "Sky Islands.” 

Due to the centrality of water in this arid region, water defense activism, watershed maintenance and restoration and sensor-tracking documentation of borderlands wildlife in riparian areas are conceptualized as “hydro-social practices of care.” These practices are placed in relation to surveillance technologies as a means to examine alternative notions of futurity. In response to calls for scholarship that develops new visual and epistemological frameworks for reimagining the borderlands, the research combines critical Indigenous studies with ethnographic poetry and moving and still image. In this way, the research aims to reveal generative hydro-social poetics of care during uncertain times. 

Algorithmic governance through automated video surveillance in France

How do algorithms change government and legal practices? This project examines power shifts through algorithmic governance by researching the use of video surveillance algorithms as a governmental security praxis in France. In this project, such algorithms are conceived as sociotechnical systems imbued with specific moral values and social norms. In addition, they serve as nodes around which different actors organize in a field of unequal knowledge and power relations. The aim of the study is to understand how values and norms are negotiated, updated, and discarded in the use of algorithms for automated monitoring of urban spaces and how this influences the “management” of public spaces and its populations.

Images from surveillance cameras monitoring public spaces are no longer only evaluated by humans, but also by algorithmic systems. Computer vision software enabling real-time image and video analysis can perform various data-driven processes, ranging from object recognition and sound monitoring to face (and face mask) recognition and predictive analytics. In France, different software to monitor public space are being tested in so-called “smart” or “safe” city initiatives.

Through ethnographic research, I study the development, implementation, and use of algorithmic video surveillance in a French urban context. First, I ask how algorithms are imagined, developed, and implemented. Second, I investigate how the use of automated technologies of vision in centers for urban surveillance change the work of video surveillance operators. And third, I assess how information which has been produced in a human-machine interaction, is transformed into evidence to be used in court cases.

By investigating these three moments of algorithmic video surveillance, this project has the goal to track changes in governance and legal practices produced by automation.

Self-Tracking and Sense Making

The impact of wearable technologies on the experience of wellbeing among patients with chronic diseases in (post-) pandemic Austria.

Sensor enabled, (semi-)automated systems transform what life with diabetes feels like on an everyday basis. Those technologies are part of a development, which increasingly emphasizes personalized medicine. It demands the gathering, storing and managing of large amounts of data and is often discussed with reference to changing notions of responsibility, accountability, trust and transparency. This research aims at highlighting the patients experience of their bodies within the generative framework of current developments, which allows for an investigation of the relationship between self-monitoring, flows of data and modes of subjectivity. The study is situated against the backdrop of the current posthumanism debate, in which the continuous merging of humans with technologies, the boundaries of the body and the embeddedness in its environment are re-negotiated.

Personalized medicine and Big Data technologies are buzzwords in current public debates on health care. The gathering and management of large amounts of patient data are also key to the idea of a “technological fix”, which is often implied by speculative claims about the future of health systems. The emphasis of this “body of data” shifts from patient information with a narrative quality to a structured set of quantified, computable data. Wearable, sensor enabled technologies play a huge part in these developments, as they allow for meticulous self-monitoring and create large amounts of hitherto “hidden” data – thus supposedly closing a gap in knowledge. Citizen science initiatives, and certain agents in health politics, furthermore promote the idea of data sharing as public good, summarized in the claim for “data philanthropy”. Altogether, the current developments promote the image of technology as unambiguous and accurate, which seemingly diametrically opposes the equivocalness of the body and its potential failing.

Self-tracking and sense making positions patient experience with and through technology in the context of recent discourses about fragile demarcations and continuously fluctuating boundaries between humans and their material surroundings. The research focuses on type 1 diabetes patients using (Hybrid-) Closed-Loop-Systems (sensor enabled glucose measuring and connected, semi-automated pumps) in Austria, highlighting the ambivalences of continuous monitoring and automated interventions. It asks how these technologies shape the ways that patients generate knowledge about their bodies and the disease they live with, and how the perception of their bodies, as well as their experience of illness and health, changes. It also looks into the narratives that coin the expectations of those involved in the medical setting – from patients and their care environment and the medical staff to technology and health policy professionals – and how these imaginaries impact on the complex exchange between humans and technology, on the handling of patient data (exploring the “mapping” in electronic patient dossiers) and on the support structures patients use. The project aims to work with its interlocutors and research participants in order to creatively explore imagination and its boundaries in the context of wellbeing and technology, revealing patients fears and hopes and their imaginations of possible futures as sick/healthy people when transitioning to the new forms of therapy. Finally, it considers the economical thresholds and questions of access to knowledge with said technology, as well as the social dimensions of the disease, which are easily overlooked when the discourse evolves around technology and its alleged benefits.