big data lives

Anthropological Perspectives on Tech-Imaginaries and Human Transformations

2019 – 2024

The big data lives research project examines practices at the interface of control and care. In a hospital setting in Vienna, within state security systems in France, and among environmental caretakers in the Sonoran Desert, the project ethnographically follows the ambiguities and frictions of datafication.

We ask how clinical decision-making is being influenced by automated health-tracking systems which are placed on, and interact with, the body and how notions of expertise, care and control are being challenged in the medical contexts. We investigate how corporate computer vision software products shape real-time and predictive policing practices and foster new forms of spatiotemporal control. And we inquire how sensors in border regions and ecologically sensitive areas are being appropriated by environmental and citizen scientists, as well as community activists to empower communities of ecological care.


Autonomy and Automation. Chronic Living with Technologies of Care.

Sophie Wagner, doctoral student

Sensor enabled, (semi-)automated systems transform what life with type 1 diabetes feels like on an everyday basis. 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, and notions of care 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.

Autonomy and Automation 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.

Algorithmic governance through automated video surveillance in France

Lucien Schönenberg, doctoral student

This project examines power shifts through algorithmic governance by researching the use of video surveillance algorithms as a governmental security praxis in France. 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.

Entre Rios: Surveillance and Futurity in the Sky Islands

Darcy Alexandra, Ph.D.

"Entre Rios: Surveillance and Futurity in the Sky Islands" positions the Sonoran Desert as a critical site to study contesting theories of futurity. In this region, amidst deadly migration policies and extractive surveillance infrastructure, local stakeholders are also envisioning more equitable futures.

In response to the climate crisis, scholars are urgently examining the future itself as a site of study. Instead of the paralysing doomsday perspective, they focus on the borders where people and other living beings are shaping potential futures (see Gómez-Barris, 2017; Haraway, 2016; Tsing 2015). These borderlands, formed through interdependent relations of attention and care, offer opportunities for studying trans-species engagements in the ruins of capitalism. Entre Rios: Surveillance and Futurity in the Sky Islands focuses in on the Santa Cruz and San Pedro watersheds to examine borderlands futurity in relation to collective well-being, security, and alternative uses of surveillance technologies.

Surveillance technologies serve conflicting purposes in the US-Mexico borderlands. State surveillance, rooted in settler colonialism, is an everyday reality shaped by statecraft infrastructure like integrated fixed towers (IFTs) and extensive data collection. Simultaneously, environmental scientists, citizen-scientists, and community activists employ similar technologies to study and protect waterways, wildlife, and travel corridors. Water defense activism, watershed restoration, and sensor tracking of borderlands wildlife are conceptualised as "ecological practices of care" that challenge dominant surveillance narratives and offer alternative visions of the future. Drawing from critical Indigenous studies, ethnographic poetry, and audiovisual practice, this research aims to reveal generative practices of care during uncertain times. By exploring the complex dynamics of the borderlands, it contributes to reimagining the region and developing new frameworks for understanding and envisioning the future.

sensing technologies

Imaginaries, Futurities, Practices of Control & Care

19. – 21.10.2023


General Information

University of Bern, Switzerland, 19th-21st of October 2023

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation

In a datafied society, living with and through big data technologies raises many issues: How are bodies and biographies (not) being taken into account in the process of standardization, and what space is left for ‘failing’ bodies and lives unfolding ‘otherwise’? How do individuals, institutions, and societies navigate sense-making amidst often conflicting forms of knowledge? What can practices of implementation, circumvention, and adaptation of diverse technologies tell us about the ways in which people and societies craft their futures?

Scholars studying the role of sensors, Big Data, and AI technologies in the fields of health, policing, and ecology will gather in Bern, Switzerland, to discuss these questions and the broader implications of datafication, in a dynamic, collaborative environment. The Big Data Lives Symposium proposes to engage with technologically mediated practices of control and care, the imaginaries present in sociotechnical assemblages, and to explore how futures are being imagined, and imagined otherwise, in relation to data-driven practices that are already, continuously shaping our lives and the worlds we inhabit. We will engage with a series of thinking pieces and works in progress that will ground in-depth discussion and dialogue. It is our intention that the symposium will lead to a publication.

The symposium will begin on Thursday, 19th October 2023 with a public lecture by Veronica Barassi.

On Friday 20th October and Saturday 21st October 2023 panels with invited scholars will take place. Please register for the panels via the registration form.


Thursday, 19th October 2023 – Public Lecture by Veronica Barassi (University of St. Gallen)

The Everyday Life of AI Failures: Conflicts, Experiences and the Future Imaginaries

The rapid proliferation of data-driven and AI technologies in everyday life has led to the rise of important research in anthropology which investigates the relationship between big data and meaning construction (see Boellstroff and Mauer, 2015), analyses algorithms as culture (Dourish, 2016; Seaver, 2017) or explores the multiple ways in which people negotiate with processes of datafication (Pink et al., 2018; Dourish and Cruz, 2018). Yet little research has focused on AI failure, and this is articulated, experienced and understood. Drawing on the findings of The Human Error Project, this keynote will show that we need to understand AI failure as a complex social reality that is defined by the interconnection between our data, technological design, and structural inequalities (Benjamin, 2019; Broussard, 2023) by political economic forces (Appadurai & Alexander, 2019) and by everyday practices and social conflicts (Aradau & Blanke, 2021). To make sense of the complexity of AI failure we need a theory of AI errors. Bringing philosophical approaches to error theory together with anthropological perspectives, I argue that a theory of error is essential because it sheds light on the fact that the errors in our systems result from processes of erroneous knowledge production, from mischaracterisations and flawed cognitive relations. A theory of AI errors, therefore, ultimately confronts us with the question about knowledge production in our AI technologies. What types of cognitive relations and moral judgements define our AI technologies? How are these erroneous, misguided or deluded? As I will show in this paper, when we pose these questions we come face-to-face with the extent of the fallacy of our models, and their inability to understand the complexity of our worlds, cultures, and experiences. We also realise the fundamental role that anthropological knowledge can play in AI research.


Panel 1: Sensing Insecurities in Urban Policing

Participants: Daniel Marciniak, University of Hull; Florent Castagnino, Institut Mines-Télécom; Lucien Schönenberg, University of Bern

This panel critically engages with the field of urban security, focusing on data-driven policing practices in the UK, the US, Canada, and France. Sensors and algorithmic machines expanding the human sensorium often come with the promise of efficiency and objectivity to overcome human errors. The proliferation of sensing technologies in policing has opened up an opportunity to think about the knowledge this human-machine hybridity (Suchman 2021) produces. Data accumulation for predictive cartographies, heat maps, and automated object recognition marks a shift from reaction to more proactive and predictive forms of policing (Brayne 2021). In this panel, we closely investigate the combined energies of humans, sensory devices, software, servers, and interfaces that produce visual representations for policing processes. Doing research on predictive policing software in the UK and the US and on the work of watching in video surveillance control rooms in Canada and France, we ask about technologized ways of sensing insecurities in urban spaces and their underlying epistemic regimes. This panel invites to resist algorithmic fetishism (Monahan 2018) by discussing ethnographically informed accounts of sensing technologies in policing and to critically engage with theories of algorithmic governmentality/governance (Rouvroy and Berns 2013; Katzenbach and Ulbricht 2019; Issar and Aneesh 2022), data-driven managerialism (Benbouzid 2019), and the marketization of urban security in the era of digital capitalism.

Panel 2: Feeling good? Caring for everyday relations with algorithms

Participants: Minna Ruckenstein, University of Helsinki; Jeannette Pols, University of Amsterdam; Sophie Wagner, University of Bern

This panel aims to address the way we intimately relate to data gathering and processing technologies. We address the affective dimensions that result from routine encounters with algorithmic technologies in (the context of) health and care.

Data technologies – sensors on bodies, cameras in homes, applications on smart phones and online platforms – are intimately entangled in the fabric of everyday lives, where desires, fears, and competing notions of truth and objectivity emerge. How do people experience health and illness as mediated through algorithmic technologies? When and how do we trust algorithmic decision-making? And what can we learn from the moments when skepticism and irritation disrupt the “anticipatory sensation of trust” (Pink, 2021) towards our co-evolving technological companions? Following Puig de la Bellacasa (2011), we care for future relations with algorithmic infrastructures by turning to neglected perspectives of living with algorithms – those moments when algorithmic relations don’t feel right. If articulations of “bad” algorithmic encounters are treated not merely as ambivalent personal reflections, but as intrinsic “affective atmospheres of data” (Lupton, 2017) or a patterned “algorithmic culture” (Ruckenstein, 2023), the epistemological value of affects and emotions in knowledge formation become visible. Caring, in this sense, means taking seriously practices such as repair work (Pink et al., 2018, Schwennesen, 2019), tinkering and doctoring (Mol, 2006, Mol et al. 2010), which citizens, users, and patients perform as a way of mending relations with technologies.

Panel 3: Ecologies of Care and Control

Participants: Zsuzsanna Ihar, University of Cambridge; Carolina Dominguez Guzmán, University of Amsterdam; Darcy Alexandra, University of Bern

This panel focuses on ecological practices of control and care (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2017) as a means to apprehend contesting theories of futurity. Considering the tensions between statecraft/military technologies and everyday acts of maintenance and repair, the panelists will present research into data collection cultures in the Hebridean Sea, the care for water infrastructure in Northern Peru, and citizen science interventions in the Sonoran Desert. From these three field sites, we aim to discuss the crisscrossing of expertise between different stakeholders, and the interdependencies between the science of diverse forms of monitoring including those intending to protect non-human worlds and the co-existence of different versions of care.

Organizers and Contact

Prof Michaela Schäuble, Dr Darcy Alexandra, MA Sophie Wagner, MA Lucien Schönenberg

Do you have any questions regarding the symposium? Please write an e-mail to:


Thursday, 19 October 2023 – Public Keynote Lecture by Veronica Barassi


The Everyday Life of AI Failures: Conflicts, Experiences and the Future Imaginaries

Hauptgebäude, Hochschulstrasse 4, 3012 Bern, Room 115

Friday, 20. Oktober 2023


Coffee; Official Welcome and Opening Remarks

Haus der Universität Bern, Schlösslistrasse 5, 3008 Bern

Panel 1 – Sensing Insecurities in Urban Policing


Lunch Break


Feeling good? Caring for everyday relations with algorithms


Coffee Break


Joint discussion

Saturday, 21. Oktober 2023



Haus der Universität Bern, Schlösslistrasse 5, 3008 Bern

Ecologies of Control and Care






Sophie Wagner

Sophie Wagner is a visual anthropologist with a special interest in the anthropology of health and illness and technology studies. She completed her Mag. studies at the University of Vienna and an MA at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in Manchester (UK). While being based at the University of Bern for her PhD, she also joined the Health Matters research group in Vienna as a research fellow in 2023. In her current work, Sophie is interested in the impact of automated decision-making technologies on the lives of chronically ill patients and medical professionals. Against the backdrop of persisting imaginaries of tech-solutionism, and in the light of the ongoing datafication of patients’ lives through sensors, she focuses on re-negotiations of “evidence”, “expertise” and “good care”. As a trained visual anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, multimodal practices are central to Sophie’s work. Her research with type 1 diabetes patients and health care workers involves creative elicitation processes and audiovisual storytelling. Previously, she conducted fieldwork and made films in Israel, Australia and Austria, worked as a researcher for documentaries, taught ethnographic filmmaking and held school workshops on media literacy. Sophie is also a curator for the ethnocineca – International Documentary Film Festival Vienna and organizes the festival’s own filmmaking workshop Filmwerkstatt.

Keywords: participatory research, visual anthropology, health and illness, technology studies, type 1 diabetes, evidence and experience

Sophie Wagner
Sophie Wagner — Photo by Ellen O'Connell

Lucien Schönenberg

Research: Algorithmic governance through automated video surveillance in France

Lucien Schönenberg is a doctoral student in anthropology with a special interest in the Anthropology of the State, Science and Technology Studies, and Security Studies. He completed his bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, Philosophy and Central Asian Studies at the University of Neuchâtel and his master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Bern. In his master’s thesis, he focused on surveillance, security, and control in the context of remand custody in Switzerland. For his PhD at the University of Bern, Lucien Schönenberg is researching the socio-material emergence and testing of algorithmic video surveillance in France. He immerses himself in video surveillance control rooms to research their role in policing practices and to understand how algorithmic systems reconfigure the work of watching.

Keywords: Urban security, (algorithmic) video surveillance, control rooms, work of watching, policing, enforcing order.

Lucien Schönenberg
Lucien Schönenberg — Photo by Ellen O'Connell

Darcy Alexandra

Research: Entre Rios: Surveillance and Futurity in the Sky Islands

Darcy Alexandra holds a Ph.D. in visual anthropology from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland, and an M.A. in educational anthropology from the University of Arizona, United States. Dr. Alexandra is an award-winning educator and poet. Since 2007, she has mentored learning and research partners in the audiovisual representation of lived experiences, knowledge and insights in governmental, university and community contexts. Her approach is informed by studies in video documentary at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, digital storytelling facilitation at the StoryCenter and poetry with The Community of Writers and Tin House. Her collaborations have resulted in two series of co-creative documentary shorts, Undocumented in Ireland and Living in Direct Provision, in addition to publications about the politics and ethics of voice and listening in co-creative, multi-modal research. Dr. Alexandra's current animated documentary, The Woman You Look For, has been awarded production funding from the Bundesamt für Kultur (BAK), Zürcher Filmstiftung, and Swiss National Television (SRF), among others.

For her current research in the Sky Islands, Dr. Alexandra is developing an audiovisual landscape ethnography of the lower Santa Cruz watershed. Consisting of water portraits and ethnographic poems, the work engages with local stakeholders and diverse technologies aimed at protecting water sanctuaries and travel corridors in the contested US-Mexico borderlands.

Keywords: Landscape ethnography, ecological practices of care, border regimes, hydro-social relations, watershed thinking, multimodal anthropology, ethnographic poetry

Darcy Alexandra
Darcy Alexandra — Photo by Ellen O'Connell

Michaela Schäuble

Michaela Schäuble is professor for social anthropology with a focus on media anthropology, and co-founder of EMB - Ethnographic Mediapsace Bern, both at the University of Bern. She works and teaches across the fields of ecological and digital humanities, (post)colonialism and cultural heritage, and experimental ethnography. Her research explores apparatuses of belief in the broadest sense, specifically the role of technology, mediality and remediation in contexts of religious practice and experience.

Her filmic work investigates documentary methodologies to (re)mediated ritual practice and has been screened internationally at film festivals (i.e. HotDocs Toronto, Duisburger Filmwoche, Guth Gafa) and in museums (i.e. Zentrum Paul Klee, Grassi Museum Leipzig, Witworth Art Gallery). Michaela's academic writing has been published in Visual Anthropology, Visual Anthropology Review, Nationalities Papers and History & Memory. She is author of Narrating Victimhood. Gender, Religion, and the Making of Place in Post-War Croatia (Berghahn 2014, Pb 2017). With Thomas Gartmann she co-edited Studies in the Arts - Neue Perspektive auf Forschung über, in und durch Kunst und Design (transcript, 2021) and she is also co-editor of Rethinking the Mediterranean: Extending the Anthropological Laboratory Across Nested Mediterranean Zones (ZfE/JSCA, 2021). Michaela previously held fellowships at University College London, Institute of Advanced Study in Bologna and Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University.

Keywords: Anthropology of media, ethnography and art practice, multimodal anthropology, reenactment and cultural heritage, decolonial environmental humanities

Michaela Schäuble
Michaela Schäuble — Photo by Ellen O'Connell



University of Bern
Institut für Sozialanthropologie
Lerchenweg 36
3012 Bern Switzerland