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Bordering the Digital Europe

Historical contingencies and dynamic geographies for current future imaginaries of European borders


The European Union is constructing new narratives of borderless digital, global societies — and yet Europe, and elsewhere, is currently experiencing an incredibly strict lockdown. With increased policing and control Spring 2020, due to the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, national borders become demarcated. Borders are defined as physical geographies and clear marked lines, however there is historical geography, and geography as a political category to be considered. The ‘digital European’ space as much as the physical is up for debate, as both can be argued to be socially defined. Indeed there are visible lines and walls, borders exist not only in the mind. Whether physical or digital borders are political geographies, and as such borders are purposefully crafted. How are these borders set and where can they be found? One could argue both European borders and the borderless digital are social, fluid and open for definition — as such constructed by people. Therefore, by saying “the borders of Europe” it is very much an anthropological question. The practice of cultural cartography in its essentializing form is a process of power filled with contradictions and tensions that arise. Localism and globalism co-exist in selective cultural narratives. One can find in this situation simultaneously closed borders and states shutting down, alongside other stories of opening up digital markets. Tracing changing borders of Europe and by Europe is important to help inform the current narratives of the European digital future.

1. European bordering — lines in the sand

Europe and European are not unproblematic terms, and I will come back to this later. However, before talking of definitions or imaginaries relating to the lack of borders one could start by configuring Europe as a maker of borders around the world. Because, although Europe itself has been reshaped and reshuffled it has in many regards shaped the world too. Therefore, this essay will begin with the past global ambition and international influence on borders; then explore a more regional European focus; to finally circle back to new ideas of the expansive borderless European in digital narratives.

The impact that a few European countries have had on the world has been immense. As such in demonstration of this to scratch the surface matter one could consider a few examples of bordering. In doing so I suggest discussing bordering as a verb of process and practice rather than a neutral line in the sand. Along these lines of making borders let us consider in rapid succession a few examples of European bordering as practice in: South America, Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East and Oceania. Of course it would be possible to question these regional descriptions and affiliations similarly to notions of Europe, yet for the moment the intention is to give an impression of this process of European bordering. In doing so the argument is not that these borders have not changed, rather that these processes of bordering have been influential in later geographical definitions within these areas of the world, and possibly in turn when redefining European relations.

Much of South America today roughly corresponds to the borders of the Audiencias of the Spanish Empire established in the 16th, 17th and 18th century. The Audiencias were subdivisions within a Viceroyalty (with direct relation to the king), and it was serving as the seat of a court having jurisdiction over a specific area handling decision-making in the absence of policy. It was one of the most important governmental institutions of Spanish colonial America. Venezuela was the Audiencia de Caracas; Colombia was the Audiencia de Santa fe de Bogota; Ecuador was the Audiencia de Quito; Peru was the Audiencia de Lima; Bolivia as the Audiencia de Charcas; Chile as the Audiencia de Santiago; Argentina was Audiencia de Buenos Aires. Paraguay and Uruguay were both part of the Audiencia de Buenos Aires, but broke away. Portuguese expeditions known as Bandeiras gradually advanced the Portugal colonial original frontiers in South America to approximately the current Brazilian borders.

Map by Nagihuin (share by attribution) Spanish areas in Blue and Portugese areas in Green.

African borders were marked somewhat by what Europeans happened to write down during the 19th and 20th centuries, at times described as The Scramble for Africa with the Berlin Conference (1884–85). European colonizers partitioned Africa into spheres of influence, colonies, and various segments. As such this partitioning happened from Europe with limited knowledge of ethnic compositions in Africa with significant portions in many countries belonging to groups split by colonial partitions. (more on this)

Map by Eric Gaba (share by attribution)

In the Middle East there had been a variety of agreements to draw up borders. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, also known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was signed in May 1916. These negotiations were conducted in secret by British Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, on behalf of the U.K. and France, with the blessing of Russia and Italy. It was part of partitioning the Ottoman Empire, a state and caliphate that had controlled parts of Europe, Western Asia and North Africa between the 14th and early 20th centuries. Another act was of the Peel commission made to investigate unrest in Palestine administered by Britain. It was led by Lord Peel, appointed in 1936, and was a British Royal Commission of Inquiry known as the Palestine Royal Commission. It was the first to recommend partitioning Palestine.

File is public domain. UK Government — Palestine Partition Committee report 1938. Provisional frontiers of the Palestine partition according to the Palestine Royal Commission (Peel report).
Picture presented is public domain from the British National Archives. Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910–15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916.

In South East Asia there are a variety of examples of European bordering practice. The Radcliffe Line drawn by the British during the partition of India as the international border between India and Pakistan (one half that later became Bangladesh). Then there is Indonesia that largely still retains the borders created by the Dutch expansion. There is the partitioning of French Indochina after the 1954 Geneva Conference into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the State of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Next to these British Burma (1824–1948) later became the country Myanmar. Malaysia was formed on 16 September 1963 by the merger of the Federation of Malaya with the former British colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore. Singapore was a British possession with the founding of modern Singapore by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, and in the mid 20th century was expelled from Malaysia after rising tensions.

In Oceania the split in the middle of Papua New Guinea towards Indonesia follows the line between Dutch Indonesia against the German and British colonies. Australia was ‘discovered’ by Dutch explorers in the early 17th century, who named it New Holland. Later it was claimed by Great Britain with five British colonies becoming The Commonwealth of Australia. New Zealand was named Nova Zeelandia, from Latin, after the Dutch province of Zeeland. This name was later anglicised to “New Zealand” controlled by the British.

Picture presented is public domain from the British National Archives. Lawrence of Arabia’s map, presented to the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet in November 1918.

When presenting borders in this manner one could happen to get the impression that it is a relatively neat process, and yet that is not the case. It is filled with contested changing discourses. As an example in India the Radcliffe-Line was not an immediate conclusion — rather it was a long and drawn out process with continued disagreements (Chatterki, 1999). It can be said regardless that imposing borders may cause issues as lines on a map are lines between people. It is through working to gain understanding and respect for social and cultural variation between the lines that we may begin to consider why and how the question around setting and finding “the borders of Europe” is an anthropological question. The field of anthropology is tied to this colonial history, as it became important for anthropologists to travel far outside their respective countries — far away from home. Towards the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century anthropology as a discipline and practice has questioned these practices. The anthropological ‘field’ no longer had to be an exotic location far away (Gupta & Ferguson, 1997), to a larger extent the methodological approach could work outside rural areas and within the urban environments.

These days productive dissonance between the ‘field’ as a location and the ‘field’ as a conceptual topic is being explored. The ‘equivocal location’ can be different from conceptual discussions in anthropology. It is a concept that seeks to explore the field-site and the given analytical object — there does not have to be an equivalency or representation (Heywood, 2015). Not everything is a problem requiring a solution, not every border is a cause for conflict or resolution. The European region can as such be understood in a variety of ways and multiple expressions of meaning. Although bordering has become more strict after the second world war and the establishment of the United Nations — conflicts arise and borders change, at times without new lines being drawn on a map.

2. A changing Europe — boundless humanity

Although the Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl’s theory of Polynesian origins is likely wrong I find one of his statements resonate well, he said: “Borders I have never seen one, but I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.” The citizens of countries considered ‘Europe’ can similarly be said to be a construction. There is historical geography, but also geography as a political category. It is an access of thought, a way to approach space that has to be critical. It is history that looks over what people have been doing, received, place and time, through processes of time in a specific space. The very space of Europe is up for debate, what constitutes Europe can be negotiated or defined by actors with power. Europe as a continent is inextricably linked to politics when it comes to defining borders. In Europe and the People Without History the anthropologist Wolf (2010) argues that Europe had not in an appropriate manner given a voice to colonial subjects or their perspectives in history. One could similarly argue it voiced their futures as well through imposed geographical frameworks. One powerful act as part of this was borders and imaginaries of the nation state in a wide variety of geographic areas across the planet. Futuring, or the activity of crafting futures, can at its extreme be seen as the activity of crafting borders as frameworks for political power.

2.1 Essentializing the historical present

Thus, one can draw the line in the sand for those in power: consuls, princes, kings and emperors. The realisation that history and its selective representations, or positionalities, is the foundation this futuring is often built upon is important. The Mediterranean in the Time of Philip the Second by Fernand Braudel (1902–1985) presented a different way of viewing history, building the story from the earth itself starting with geography, meteorological surveys and so on. This writing was bound within the ‘longue durée’ and people of a region, as a reaction to the particular focus on kings and rulers based on the official documents. This total history (histoire totale) was more interested in looking at the whole of society rather than the rulers — the mentalités as a deeper outlook on worldviews in the populations. Like the levels of the oceans, and tendencies of thinking. What enduring ways of thinking were passed down without people being aware of it? Following this line of thought of distinctive identities was The Annales School is often thought to be founded in the journal The Annales co-founded and edited by Henri Hauser (1866–1946), Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1886–1944). It grew influential, yet more so as Ferdnand Braudel (1902–1985) carried this onwards. In a personal testimony Braudel (1972) recounts the development of the Annales and the bitter events that transpired during the second world war with the death of Bloch as part of the resistance, Braudel’s time in a concentration camp, the good of humanity in harsh situations, and the future of the publication. They seemed to believe in the importance of the accounts of history in the present to shape the future — because history is open for interpretation as much as predictions of the future.

A general trend within this work was towards understanding people and the attempt at avoiding the reification of facts. The process by which social relations are perceived as inherent attributes of the people involved in them, or attributes of some product of the relation — of kings and commoners in historical documents. Along these lines we can consider Shore (2000) accounts of locating the origins of Europe and its projection of essentialism in the overarching cultural values emphasised in culture and education to stake out the new community for the European people. Cris Shore, having done his PhD fieldwork in the Mediterannian on the Italian communist party in Perugia, worked after this as a political researcher for the European parliament and the socialist group in the European Parliament in Brüssels. Later he did fieldwork from 1993 to 1997 in Brüssels writing about the EU civil service, the tension between the factions and forging a supranational administration. His research focus, according to himself, went from political anthropology to an anthropology of politics (Shore & Durão, 2010). Shore was concerned with the emerging question of culture in the European Union that was attempting to create a common set of values with a focus on symbols, history and invented traditions (Shore, 2010). He argued that there was a cultural construction of the European citizen, and he followed the process of creating the European single currency. Not only did he undertake this as a project of political anthropology, the second second in his book was largely dedicated to help understand the anthropology of politics in the civil servants working in this ‘supranational’ context. Shore (1993) had been critical prior to this of how the European Community’s campaign to enhance Europeans’ awareness of their common cultural heritage could inadvertently promote new forms of xenophobia and cultural chauvinism.

There is an alterity within and across Europe. The Yugoslav wars and the conflict in Ukraine are two examples. Raging from 1991 to 2001 it led to the breakup of the Yugoslav state and the death of more than 140,000 people. In Ukraine some 13000 people have been killed, a quarter of them civilians, and as many as 30000 wounded according to a report by the United Nations (United Nations, 2017). In these celebrated constructions of European values there is an otherness that is created through migrants, refugees, minorities or regions of “European people” not accepted as such by their peers. It is contested whether Russia, Balkans or Eastern Europe is European. Using a nation state as a unit of analysis is not uncommon in social science, yet exploring the understanding of a region and how it is imagined or structured has a growing importance closer to Shore (2010).

2.2. Between the lines

Doing so may allow us to look between the lines and into the Mediterannian ocean. Ben-Yehoyada (2015) writes about Mazara del Vallo, the closest Sicilian town to the Tunisian shore. Writing about the increased migration to Europe across the Mediterannian this is framed as a transnational process with great importance: “For Europeans, these events have turned the Mediterranean into a mirror that reflects their dilemmas about the tensions between the bounds of their political union and boundless humanity.” As such a border is drawn between the espoused European values and reality. The moral and political are entwined aspects of actions across scale, temporary inclusion establishes categorical exclusion.

Ben-Yehoyade (2015) proposes viewing transnational regions as: “…ever-changing constellations which form and dissipate through the interaction between cross-boundary practices and official region-making projects.” After the rescue of two vessels in 2008 by Mazarese fish trawlers there was a Minister of the Interior in Italy that called for a national more ‘mean’ attitude towards the unwelcome while the Bishop of Mazara pointed to the role of character in hospitality saying that the fishers acted as ‘men’. Increasingly over the years the death toll was increasing and in 2011 a ship with 72 migrants were left out at sea, and despite a great deal of patrolling ships in the ocean as well as distress signals it was left on its own. It was later called the ‘left-to-die boat’.

Italy and Frontex (the European Union Agency for border management) justified breaking hospitality into rescue and safe harbour. European vessels intercepted migrants’ boats pretending to rescue them and then when this was done they no longer required Italian hospitality. However, the European Court of Human Rights decision on the case in 2012 prolonged the hospitality sequence. Within this framework once a vessel was intercepted it fell within the state’s jurisdiction and obligation. Thus the transnational followed only later the fishers of Mazara that would save migrants’ souls by rescuing them from drowning at sea. The Bishop of Mazara compared them to the Apostles, they should become ‘fishers of men’, saving the souls of those crossing the water. In 2013 a boat carrying 518 migrants capsized outside of Lampedusa leaving 366 of them dead leading to The Pope’s denouncement of ‘the globalization of indifference’. Within this Ben-Yehoyade argues there are two different types of ‘scale’. Scaling up as ‘framing’ to groups of different sizes to apply moral obligations of hospitality. Then scaling down as ‘stagecraft’, the construction of a space of hospitality.

To ‘scale up’ or ‘scale down’ is to construct and deploy hospitality assemblages to construct sovereignty — claimed over spaces or groups. It is argued that European migration policies combined both moves. There is a politicization of humanitarianism (Fassin, 2005) particularly when policy goes from rights and justice to suffering as well as compassion. In this sense the discourse of ‘humanitarian reason’ can become a way of asserting domination and control while responding to concern to the public. Ben-Yehoyade (2015) observed this when the Italian Prime Minister kneeled in front of several of the coffins at Lampedusa, held a funeral elsewhere in Agrigento (on the 21st of October) and included none of the 157 survivors who remained in detention in Lampedusa. The narratives of openness are contrasted with the political considerations of the powerful, this has been demonstrated as well in the treatment of migrants in Callais or approaching the European with a variety of negotiations (Fassin, 2005).

2.3 Crossing the border of humanitarian reason

There is a sea of issues that arise when one could think of these political practices as crossing the border of ‘humanitarian reason’. Considering the European past of conquest, slave trade and current practices of neglecting basic human concerns one should perhaps not be overtly surprised. After all the world has been carved up and cooked. Bordered and heated, by these varieties of human(e) practice that proliferates in what is considered European. In this breath it should be mentioned that by categorising Europe as this ‘other’ or even as a category it is possible to commit what many anthropologists consider a gross simplification. Edward Said (1979) used ‘Orientalism’ to refer to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. Within this it is highly possible to be critical of how the term ‘Europe’ is used or areas within Europe such as the ‘Balkan’ or ‘central Europe’. (Todorova, 2009).

Constructing as previously done in this essay ‘Europe’ as a category of expansion with imperialist undertones may very well be a form of ‘othering’ and leave us numb to understanding the complexities therein. Rakopoulos (2019) suggests that this notion of austerity and structural adjustment ‘somewhere else’ makes this ‘centre’ think it has been immune to restructuring. Indeed, what makes us draw these physical borders or scaling up these mentalités as a deeper outlook on social relations? It is possible the interplay of this empirical information that opens discussions, yet these discussions are situated within an anthropology of politics as much as political anthropology.

This ‘Fortress Europe’ bent on keeping outsiders beyond geographical boundaries are changing notions of what it means to be European. In the United Kingdom there was a disenchantment with the distant political systems, and despite attempts at bringing local politicians this rarely translated into collective actions that could reach these larger political systems (Koch, 2016). As Thomas Hylland Eriksen says: “The perception is that the EU has moved towards centralisation rather than a nesting of scalar levels ensuring local and regional autonomy.” (Social Anthropology Forum, 2016).

3. Digital borders — lockdown and the European online

3.1 The ambiguous European digital border

I was in Liverpool in 2013 as a student seeing the celebration in the streets after the death of Margaret Thatcher. “Ding-dong the witch is dead,” sounded throughout the streets by singing scousers (Liverpoodlians). It was strange to see so many celebrating loudly the death of a previous national leader. After many conversations with elders in Liverpool and hearing devastating stories of how Thatcherism affected people, one could perhaps understand to some extent the sour bile that had built up over the years. The hunger, blame and general devastation was felt by those in the community who had lived through those years. The Brexit movement was fueled in part by the prior support of ideas championed by Margaret Thatcher (2003) in her book Statecraft. Her book is filled with lucid descriptions of backroom policy-making, yet additionally there is an inherent fear of the European Union’s ‘supranational’ ambitions arguing that it would override the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. Cris Shore wrote in a feature of ‘anthropologists on the EU at 60’ referring to Matti Bunzl says that Islamophobia (Kalb et al., 2017) is being mobilized for creation of a supranational Europe questioning whether Muslims can be good Europeans. He mentions the ambiguity and contradictions around the term “European” and the appropriation of that term by groups on the Far Right (even in Auckland, New Zealand).

It is strange how the combination of Cambridge Analytica’s illegal use of data and the illegal lies promoted by the current Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the election did not nullify the whole affair of Brexit. Simultaneously there had been a buildup over the 2000s as the war on terror went online. Suddenly the European ideals were under attack, and perhaps they, the ‘digital’, could be blamed for the divisiveness and distance that Shore (2000) describes between the policy-makers and the citizens of the European Union. Not as if propaganda or state influence is anything new — the inherent surprise apparent should have been a surprise in itself — it should be more obvious that state actors will use a new platform for whatever purpose they deem fit. Then again, if one reads Yurchak (2005) description of the time towards and after the Soviet Union was dissolved and the concept of Zagranitsa, one can perhaps me more sympathetic to how social imaginaries change over time. The question of data sovereignty has risen to a greater extent.

3.2 New digital borderlands with existing inequalities

If there were to be a map of the digital what would it look like? The digital map is physical through devices and structures; smartphones and servers — these all have ownership structures. Most digital infrastructure is owned by the United States and China. As argued previously citizenship, nations or borders are not always as certain or evenly distributed as one would like to think. Within these new imaginaries strange borderlands emerge. As alluded to in the two previous sections the double-edge, or perhaps Batesonian double-bind, of bordering practice is the trade-off between safety and ‘othering’.

As money is increasingly digital, digital theft is in this borderland too. Peebles (2010) describes how the drive to create transnational spaces is inseparable from the drive to create a pan-national currency — my argument that the construction of the digital is such a project. Identity and immigration has a digital component whether it is registrations with various services or biometric identity markers. Criminal activity is no longer as limited as previously by physical location, one country in Europe could steal hundreds of millions in a matter of seconds given the right access to digital systems. The European Union is scrambling to defend, and doing so may to a great degree enter this bordering practice whether by national states within some notion of Europe and large sovereign nations abroad. Anderson (2014) describes in a rapid fashion how time is influenced for migrants and private companies use the digital and precision to police borders in camps as well as through technology. What will digital citizenship constitute and what borders can be seen to be more fluid or less fluid?

3.3 Conclusion — Constructing Digital Borders

In this essay I first sought to explore European bordering as a cultural practice. My argument is that it is a cultural process with imposed geographical and physical consequence, although borders are dynamic and can change over time. Within Europe there is a construction of humanitarian values that are ignored when convenient, particularly when people fall in between the lines. The border of humanitarian reason is being crossed in the Mediterannian ocean and across land in the notions of European. Digital European borders are growing increasingly ambiguous as political consequences come to the fore, and ideas of ‘democracy’ in elections are challenged by large scale digital voter analysis. This essay’s main intention is to explore historical contingency and work towards raising the question that remains unanswered throughout: if there were to be a map of the digital Europe where would the borders be drawn? I would strongly argue an anthropological ethnographic approach to borders is necessary if one is to answer such a question.


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This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 370. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. Towards day 400 I am writing about artificial intelligence and racial inequality. To better understand how AI is demarcated I believe it is constructive to consider digital borders.



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Alex Moltzau

Alex Moltzau


AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.