Vulnerability – University of Copenhagen

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The ubiquities of sensors that track and capture our habitual movements have turned our life-world into a latent archive. Big data developments have expanded the capturing mechanisms at work in contemporary control societies, minimizing the areas of our lives in which our movements are unknown to the archive. Most of this data is produced by ourselves: more and more people share the belief that gathering and analysing data about their everyday activities can help them improve their lives — an approach known as “self-tracking”, “body hacking” or “self-quantifying”. We readily track ourselves to improve ourselves; and in that process we build up enormous personal archives attesting to our habits and whereabouts – archives we often do not control.

Advocates of big data collection procedures argue that the more knowledge made available to the archive, the better our lives can be managed and securitized. Yet, as systematic data retention enables and promotes increased data sharing between the public and the private domain, it also becomes particularly vulnerable to mission creep, making it impossible for the archival subject to predict how one’s past will be used in the present and future and to what purpose. Moreover, these capturing apparatuses not only collect data, they also incite action. Commercial companies are now increasingly producing devices whose primary function is to prod them to change – and often to consume a certain product.

Thus the widespread commercial and state-mandated data collections, and the unsettling of previous existing ethical understandings of what data would be used for and in what context, have produced not only securitization measures but also a looming social state of anxiety. This anxiety stems from the bodily encounter with the archive and the ways in which the archive appears not only as a protective armour, but also as a bodily opening that facilitates attacks. This dual archival function creates a field of vulnerability in which openness to the archive can be read as a site of potential danger, and where one is threatened not only by epistemic gaps and errors, but also by the ways in which the archive can be mobilized to different, and potentially injurious, ends. The bodily openness to the archive thus becomes a potential exposure, which is anticipated as a future pain or wound.

By looking at how big data archives and their key actors go about tracking and self-tracking and their relationship with the archives they co-build, it becomes obvious how ambivalent the field of archival vulnerability is. This workshop is devoted to investigating the archival uncertainty through the figure of vulnerability both as an archival structure and an archival experience. Where and why do fields of vulnerability arise in big data archives? In what ways do our bodies open and close themselves to the archive? What cultural imaginaries do they give rise to? How does the experience of vulnerability register differently at the level of groups and individuals, and in public and private archival spaces? Why are some bodies more vulnerable to and potentially wounded by big data archives than others? What new forms of movement and mobility do the archival fields of vulnerability produce? And how can we conceptualize the vulnerable subjects that populate data archives?


  • Orit Halpern (Concordia University)
  • Celia Lury (University of Warwick)
  • David Lyon (Queen’s University)

  • Kara Keeling (University of Southern California)
  • Birkan Taş (ICI Berlin)

Please sign up by March 20 to Sayuri Alsman.