By Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen
We are built from and move in patterns. Patterns and movements decide the code of our physical mass as connected to a single point.
But wait, your body is divided! You are not one, but two – a physical and a digital body. It is the same body but built of either flesh or digits. Your data body is catalogued and spits you out in new places.
Your data body is a digital double, composed of the traces you leave through your interaction with the material world. For every step you take, and every tap on the screen, your physical body moults parts of itself unto the digital plane. Here, your data body establishes new connections, multiplies and in turn transform your physical mass.
The everyday routines through which our bodies engage digital infrastructures often barely register. From our online presence and digital identities, endless data points are collected about our social behaviour. Through wearable technologies and the sensor-saturated environment surrounding us, our movement and body functions are traced and recorded. Digital archives, in turn, have increasingly become repositories for bodily information – from self-tracking apps to large-scale biometric databases used for e.g. immigration, labour camps and policing. Yet, data bodies determine how we meet the world and the information that is hurdled back at us. Our digital twin is chewed and analysed to define our access to healthcare, welfare and mortgage loans. It is compared and commodified to gauge our insurability, consumption behaviour and political leanings.
Biometric information – our fingerprints, iris scans and facial structures – become gatekeepers for the types of information we can access, what doors will open and which borders we can cross. When we travel our data bodies precede us. At the airport, data about our past travels, credit card expenditures, luggage information and social media check-ins merge with our biometric identifiers to algorithmically determine if we get singled out for additional questioning. Otherwise disaggregated personal data is reassembled to assign every passenger an individual risk score and enable border authorities to determine their travel-worthiness.
As the relationships between different data points are repeatedly mined, our digital doubles not only become more fine-grained, but also harder to predict. The operational logic of algorithmic border systems means that it can be increasingly difficult to explain why a particular individual is flagged as a security risk. Like shadows, data bodies may produce not only images of likeness, but also unrecognisable distortions that morph or blur depending on what they are projected unto. As H.C. Andersen asks in his fairy tale, The Shadow, what happens when the digital side of our existence grows stronger or takes on a life of its own? "The shadow was master now, and the master was the shadow."
Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen is Professor of Mobility Law, University of Copenhagen and Director of the Nordic Asylum Law & Data Lab, pioneering interdisciplinary research at the intersection between migration law and computer science.