Good datazens: New questions about technologies of good citizenship

datazensCostica Dumbrava | Technologies of collecting, sharing and analysing information have become central to contemporary policies of migration, border management and citizenship. In Europe and elsewhere, the establishment and gradual expansion of information databases, together with the deployment of a complex operational infrastructure for data collection, information sharing and risk analysis, plays an increasing role in managing migration and in determining access to key membership rights (entry, asylum, stay and freedom of movement).

Unlike older technologies employed to demarcate borders and boundaries, such as stone walls, paper passports and census suffrage systems, the new membership technologies operate at a less material level (although they have concrete material effects) by increasingly ‘datafying’ borders and membership. Enforcing border policies and assessing fitness for membership have also become more subtle, complex and automated.

Political theorists have long debated the question of what makes a good citizen in order to justify or contest political inclusion/exclusion. The good citizen has been defined by reference to, for example, personal virtues and inclinations, social ties, descent, physical and cultural characteristics. While this debate is not yet finished, new questions about good citizenship emerge in the context of the new membership technologies:

(1) What data define the good citizen (the datazen)?

People’s identities are becoming hologram-like maps emerging in the cross-fire of various data writing and data reading machines. What goes in and what comes out from these machines? What data-morphed characteristics, behaviours and circumstances allow a person to enter the territory and/or claim rights? What makes a person a good/bad datazen? When is your data ‘wrong’?

(2) How is good datazenship assembled and by whom?

What institutions, actors, and practices govern the new membership technologies? Who encodes and implements good datazenship? How are the new membership technologies applied on the ground (e.g. border point, situation room, embassy)? The recent large-scale movements of people across borders, driven by violent conflicts or/and social and economic aspirations, have unveiled, apart from problems related to policy coherence and operational capacity, a sense of moral schizophrenia, a crisis of empathy that touches not only policy makers but also large sections of the public. Would the renewed call for expanding and upgrading membership technologies reduce or augment this moral and political malaise?

(3) What theories of the good citizen are reiterated/reshaped by policies and practices of good datazenship?

What conceptual continuities exist between previous models of the good citizen – e.g. the virtuous republican, the law-abiding liberal, the common-good communitarian, the organic nationalist, etc., and the models emerging from the various practices of good datazenship? Would the faintly dissimulated distrust and prejudice of the border officer or social security bureaucrat be displaced or complemented by well-written bits of code of algorithmic discrimination? What is the normative story behind stripping people of their data, at the border and beyond.

Plenty of questions begging for answers.