When using my British SIM card in New York to call my bank in Berlin, a help desk in New Delhi picks up, asking me to verify my identity: “Miss van Gool, what is your mother’s maiden name?” My conversation—a back and forth exchange of personal details—owned by T-Mobile UK, is transmitted and downloaded by the American provider AT&T, stored in India by its local equivalent, while its content belongs to Deutsche Bank in Berlin without me ever setting foot in Germany. My data travels from city to city, moving stealthily across international borders, mountains, and oceans only to evaporate into the invisible digital cloud known as the Internet of Things.
Although invisible or ephemeral like a cloud, digital space increasingly fosters real-world implications. During the 2014 Maidan Square clashes in Ukraine, innocent onlookers received text messages saying, “you are participating in a mass riot.” Knowingly or not, cellular data randomly assigned people to a political act and therefore to a party. In another part of the world, the digital cloud manifests itself even more ambiguously. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, together with the Cairo Amman Bank in Jordan, introduced biometric cash machines for Syrian refugees. Enabling the disenfranchised to access financial assistance through retinal scanning, refugees now pay for food and shelter in the blink of an eye. Yet, this advanced digital technology provides information beyond the simple necessity of aid distribution, in the same way that the biometrical data of your eyes also reveals whether one is HIV positive or is pregnant. In a refugee crisis in which bread and bricks would be much more useful than complex digital ATMs, it is fair to wonder what Cairo Amman Bank is getting out of aiding refugees by recording their data and to whom or where this data is sent.
Cultural theorist Paul Virilio argues that technology cannot exist without the potential for accidents — for example, the invention of the locomotive also contains the invention of derailment. The digital revolution is caught in a catch-22 in which its freedom really doesn’t imply freedom. In 2014, American architect Andrew Herscher coined the term “digital shelter,” which formalizes “the digital” as both a form of shelter and a force we need to shelter ourselves from.
As a result, today’s continuous exposure to data demands that we redefine what “shelter” actually means. Unlike the old sense of the word, shelter is no longer a condition in which walls protect our cities and citizens. Today, humans protect themselves with digital passcodes, CCTV cameras, and facial recognition. But somehow it’s hard to fathom that the same satellite technology keeping burglars out or bank accounts safe is equally responsible for leaving migrant boats to sink and refugees to die. The cloud of data yields a parallel cloud of danger.
By 2020, there will be an estimated 50 billion digital devices transmitting data to the clouds orbiting around planet earth. Besides mobile phones or WiFi-zones, digital technology will be operating on increasingly smaller scales such as retinal scans, nanny cams or remote chip birth control. As our bodies and homes increasingly turn into data-factories, our private lives are becoming inevitably more hackable. The Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas argued at the 2014 Venice Biennale that our future is slowly beginning to resemble Kubrick’s dystopian 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a computer has the power to aid us, yet also to kill us. How long can we keep turning a blind eye as digital technology enters our bodies and homes uninvited?
Denied our privacy, with bankrupted banks, and refugees flooding our borders, shelter today is a condition most of us can’t relate to. With both its geographical and digital borders blurred, the right to shelter has become the most contested of all human rights. Yet, shelter is also the only existing spatial human right, and architects should take on its new spatial parameters. But how can we shelter ourselves from “data” if we cannot see, measure, or experience its threat?
In 2014, the Italian architecture studio Space Caviar designed the RAM House, a domestic environment made out of movable shields of radar-absorbent material (RAM), offering digital shelter by selectively filtering incoming and outgoing signals of data transmission. The singularity of the RAM House lies in its ability to translate privacy spatially: today, I would like to receive my emails (move shield to position A); tomorrow, I would like to place calls (move shield to position B); or wait, maybe I just want to listen to the radio (move shield to position C). The RAM House thus enables humans to outsmart their smart home by returning control to the private realm. But whereas the RAM House aims to be a safe haven for the digitally anxious, its tech-savvy architecture is too prison-like for it to be considered a shelter.
Then again, what does privacy actually look like? As explained by Hannah Arendt in her book The Human Condition, the original and ancient notion of privacy does not resemble present day notions of the private in any way. Rather, privacy was considered an undesired disconnection from business and the republic. It’s fair to say that, in our digital surveillance societies, the definitions of shelter and freedom are changing once again.
As “the digital” embodies the paradox of providing freedom at the cost of freedom, we need to accept that we cannot simultaneously claim the right to privacy and the right to information. We can’t have it all.
Moreover, the continuous integration of digital technology into our daily existence diminishes our traditional notions of rights and safeguards as citizens. Where, traditionally, shelter has meant protection from the elements or from danger, in the near future, when we will have become assimilated to increasing digital surveillance clouds controlling our private lives and secrets, shelter will have to update its ‘security settings’ again. Digital innovation must come hand in hand with digital shelter. And as it is clear that the boundary between the digital and the physical will blur ever more, if not eventually even fade, the parameters of shelter are becoming thinner and digital. But, as the two areas where humans still have the edge over technology are adaptability and flexibility, shelter has to become modular and personal. Blocking these new threats will require a balancing act, between the freedom of the cloud and our freedom to be.