By Annalisa Pelizza

On July 20 2015 – one month before the growing number of migrants crossing the Balkans pushed some countries to declare a state of emergency – the European database containing fingerprints of asylum seekers, called Eurodac, was rendered interoperable with national police authorities’ databases Europe-wide. From that moment, Member States’ police forces could query European data sources not only to grant citizenship rights, but also to preserve order in their national territory. An almost unnoticed technical switch in the Eurodac system marked a major shift in personal data exchange policy Europe-wide.

In Science and Technology Studies (STS), information infrastructure have long been recognised as privileged sites in which power relations materialise.

In Science and Technology Studies (STS), information infrastructure have long been recognised as privileged sites in which power relations materialise. It is thus striking that – when it comes to the most complex power-handling device of Modernity, the nation state – information technologies are usually seen as separate from it. In globalisation studies focusing on denationalisation, for example, the “by-passing argument” conceives trans-national digital networks as external causes of the erosion of state sovereignty and the decentralisation of authority. However, the Eurodac case shows that data infrastructures can visibly materialise broader administrative and political transformations in which citizenship, territory and institutions are co-produced.

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Migrants getting registered at Ellis Island. (Courtesy: Pinterest)

Along this line, a newly granted European Research Council (ERC) project titled “Processing Citizenship” looks at information infrastructures for migrant registration as interfaces that can reveal transformations in late modern nation state. Interfaces can be conceived of as devices that crystallise underlying relational processes. On one hand, recognising information infrastructures as interfaces introduces a notion of performance that is missing in deterministic explanations of IT as causes of state disassembling. On the other hand, it allows looking at information systems as analytical sites in which broader but scarcely visible transformations in the order of authority can be observed.

In my past research, I developed a framework to trace transformations in the established order of authority by looking at the technical details nested in information infrastructure. This work on what I called “vectorial glance” addressed two main institutions of the modern state: citizenship (i.e, by analysing civil registers’ database integration) and territory (i.e., by considering land registry’s systems).

I call “Citizenship processing” the materially-embedded set of procedures through which the individual Other, institutional actors, and territory are co-produced with the mediation of data infrastructures.

My new ERC project focuses on these foundational institutions in the moment in which they are promised or negated—in the registration of migrants arriving in Greece and Italy. I call “Citizenship processing” the materially-embedded set of procedures through which the individual Other, institutional actors, and territory are co-produced with the mediation of data infrastructures. In liminal situations like migrant processing centers (“Hotspots” in the latest European Commission language), information systems are charged with the task of reducing the complexity of human diversity into standardisable identities. Information systems thus do not simply act as tools, but as actual mediators tasked with the politically-relevant assignment of translating Otherness into “European-readable” identities.

I contend that “Hotspots” can be conceived as “routers” in which past identities are assessed and translated into prospective European identities.

Which aspects of migrants’ lives are inscribed in information systems-mediated registration practices? How do migrants resist them? I contend that “Hotspots” can be conceived as “routers” in which past identities are assessed and translated into prospective European identities. However, routers do not work in a vacuum. Which material devices “speak for” the previous identity of the individual? Which database-embedded categorisations are decisive to be granted a future European identity? While EU policy documents mention rigid criteria (e.g., being a national of a few given countries), part of that rigidity may be “lost in translation” when it comes to embedding policy into the different materialities of digital information systems. For example, to what extent are “soft” criteria like professional and linguistic skills encoded in registration procedures upon migrants’ arrival? Is there any room for developing agency that goes beyond the disempowered identity as alien?

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Map showing the number of Syrians displaced and coming to Europe as migrants. (Courtesy: NPR)

Furthermore, contemporary information infrastructures and migrants registration practices are activities of governance transformation. However, we do not know yet the outcome of contemporary migration management practices. Which loci of power will emerge from material activities of data circulation: a revised version of the nation state, or a more centralised configuration of Europe? Or even a novel distributed techno-social network made of (public and private) agencies at different scales?

In order to answer these questions, from March 2017 to 2022 three PhDs, two postdocs and a research assistant will work with me to analyse ontologies and algorithms, registration practices, data architectures and territorial patterns, by means of qualitative and computational techniques. An innovative software method to detect incipient forms of organisation by tracking web services will even be developed. You are very much invited to join the team, either by applying to the hiring calls, by taking part in the open conference, or by engaging in a publishing dialogue. You will have the opportunity to discover how migrant registration is transforming not only migration policy and trans-national relations, but also our very status as “citizens”.


Annalisa Pelizza is an Associate professor at Twente University (NL) in the department of Science, Technology and Policy Studies (STePS).

This article was originally published on Backchannels.

Featured Image Courtesy: New Zimbabwe.

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