What are we doing here and why are we so helpless?

Paul Feigelfeld posed this fundamental question in March 2016, speaking at an academic symposium focused on media and political theory responses to the current global migration disaster.1 The question has somehow become extrinsic to the conversation surrounding the ‘refugee crisis’ – we have, he said, reached ‘a crisis of critique’. 2 To construct a response to his question he began where few have done previously: tracing the etymology of the very word central to the debate – crisis. It comes from the Greek word krinein (κρίνειν), he explained, meaning critique. This line of enquiry invites parallels to be drawn between the ‘refugee crisis’ and the necessity for what Feigelfeld called an ‘infrastructural critique’. He postulated that the current migratory situation is a crisis of data: data used against people, not for them.

With this in mind, he and a team of fellow coordinators began Refugee Phrasebook: providing basic vocabulary related to the most common and immediate needs of refugees through a multilingual tool originating from an open-source Google Sheet. Feigelfeld argues that critical participation in technological systems is the best way to disrupt them, and that such work provides productive terrain from which to counter dominant political ideologies and challenge their legislative articulations.

In the following discussion Feigelfeld expands on the work done by Refugee Phrasebook, and his experiences of the conjunction of politics, technology and the process of asylum seeking.

How would you describe Refugee Phrasebook and how did the project begin?

Refugee Phrasebook is an open-source data collection of useful phrases for refugees and helpers. It was started by a group of people in Berlin involved in a variety of local aid projects – from donations to bureaucratic assistance – as an immediate reaction to the migrant situation in Europe in late summer of 2015. Within days, hundreds of people were collecting and translating phrases, and after a few months 150,000 phrasebooks had been printed and distributed. The data is under Creative Commons Licence 0 (CC0): open for anyone to access and ‘build upon, modify, incorporate in other works, reuse and redistribute as freely as possible in any form whatsoever’.3

How does Refugee Phrasebook work within the refugee process?

Refugee Phrasebook is a simple resource that can be used immediately in places where there is little else at hand. It doesn’t need a battery, SIM card or internet access. Its content ranges from very basic primary information – hello, where am I?, I am hungry, my name is, I need help – to more specialised phrases covering medical, legal, and bureaucratic needs. It has quickly grown to 44 languages and roughly 1,500 phrases as of March 2017. However, it can also be – and has been used as – a material resource. People in the Idomeni camp in Greece used it as insulation against the cold, and just as you can start a conversation with it, you can also kindle a fire.

How might Refugee Phrasebook develop as a tool?

Our principal goal at the moment is to make it a more sustainable, more adaptive, easier to use tool. Creating a usable print resource from the bulk of data is still quite complex and tedious – no one needs 1,500 phrases in 44 languages. Most people just need a certain set of phrases in six languages at most. We collect all the PDFs people have created on our Wikibooks page so they can be reused. Right now we are finalising a filter function which allows people to select languages and phrases with a simple click, so they can quickly print and use their own custom PDF.

Because the data is entirely open under the CC0 licence, it’s already included in many other projects and apps. For example, the InfoAid app provides up-todate information for refugees travelling through the southeast of Europe – from the weather to border situations and ferry strikes. The RefuChat app offers a resource of phrases commonly used between refugees, paramedics and other workers: users select a sentence to be read aloud in a choice of other languages. We are always happy to learn what people do with the phrasebook and curious to see how we can use it to help further.

What sort of response has Refugee Phrasebook received?

The response was immediate and thoroughly positive. Many volunteer groups and NGOs, as well as universities, art schools, art institutions, publishers, professional translators, app developers and private individuals picked up on it and gave us valuable feedback and contributions. Some provided languages, some paper or access to their printers, some helped with distribution, some integrated the data into their apps. Some donated money, which we directed to places where Refugee Phrasebook was needed most, but where infrastructure was the worst. Even with small amounts, volunteers could pay for paper and printing and distribute hundreds, sometimes thousands, of copies. The good thing about Refugee Phrasebook is that it’s cheap to make.

Do you have an idea of how many of the phrasebook’s contributors are refugees themselves?

It’s hard to say who the contributors are because anyone can access the source files. To avoid making stupid mistakes or missing something out, we have tried to create a feedback loop between contributors and users through workshops where we ask for refugees’ assessment of the phrasebook in Amsterdam, Vienna, Kiel and Berlin.

Do you think Refugee Phrasebook has left any impression on bureaucratic systems?

On some levels, very much so. It has been quickly recognised and adopted by officials – including police – in many places along the Balkan route. In Berlin it has been used at registration offices and at LAGeSo – the State Office for Health and Social Affairs. Most notably, it has reinforced that bureaucratic systems have been severely lacking something of this nature. In Berlin, for example, volunteer human translators accompany people to appointments, help during interviews or assist filling out forms – they are of paramount importance. Many of them also use Refugee Phrasebook.

In your talk Whose Crisis? at TBA21 for Olafur Eliasson’s Green light workshops you discussed the need to shift away from ‘institutional critique’ and towards an ‘infrastructural critique’.4 Could you explain this term?

The process of ‘infrastructural critique’ has several steps. Firstly, the existing infrastructure of the immigration process needs to be critiqued: the clear demand for something so simple as a paper phrasebook demonstrates the ineptitude of existing bureaucratic and communication infrastructures. Usually, refugees have to rely on mobile internet to perform translation tasks, amid changing network standards, roaming fees, connection issues, and different power outlets. Wifi hotspots and power outlets are the new campfire spots in refugee sites. Critiquing these infrastructures reveals what they are lacking and thus what can be usefully contributed by other infrastructures. When we delineated the problems at hand, art schools, foundations, universities, and other institutions were quick to offer their labour, skills and networks, both informal and technological. Critique led to ‘infrastructural misappropriation’ – institution members usurping their printers to produce phrasebooks, for example. Through ‘misappropriation’ people are being helped, gaining access to information and finding ways through immigration processes.

This line of critique must also consider the infrastructures that are not being offered as help. Government, telecommunications corporations and internet corporations collect and process every morsel of our data for surveillance, control and capitalisation. Their infrastructures could be utilised for other purposes, but it’s not happening. The refugee crisis is just one example of data being used against people, not for them. Ultimately, through infrastructural critique, I hope that people worldwide become more aware of the data they are constantly producing and relinquishing for others’ control or profit.

Do you envisage Refugee Phrasebook being part of the shift towards infrastructural critique?

It’s certainly an indicator of a shift. Peer-to-peer production and distribution of open-source data is a way of using existing infrastructures democratically and openly, but we also need to actively think about creating new, alternative infrastructures. Platforms such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, as well as more open tools like Zoom, Slack and Trello were central to the speed and scope of the Refugee Phrasebook project. But these platforms always come at a cost. The user hands over their data rather than their money, turning privacy into currency on seemingly ‘free’ platforms that are designed to obscure any sense of transaction.

You have previously referred to the Refugee Phrasebook as an instance where ‘language creates itself’.5 Could you explain this?

Through a collective process phrases and languages came together by the hundreds; it was amazing to experience how swiftly the project grew. It started with a Facebook post about the idea to create something like a phrasebook and turned into something big within a day. I think it grew so quickly because it’s a very simple idea: if you think a phrase is important, add it. If you speak a language, translate what you know. Translating a spreadsheet column of simple phrases can be done in a few minutes. For more specialised phrase groups – like medical and legal terms – doctors and lawyers were quick to contribute, and suddenly Refugee Phrasebook was there, almost by itself. Of course the project needs editing and maintenance – especially because the data grew so quickly – but essentially, it’s a wondrous example of the way language creates and spreads itself through peer-to-peer knowledge production. The same could be said of my personal experience of the project: most of the people at the core of Refugee Phrasebook didn’t know each other before they started the project (some I’ve never met to this day), but producing the phrasebook created dialogue and discourse among us.

The collaborative, live nature of a Google Sheets creates the impression that language is active and responsive to the situation of migration. On the other hand, there are the seemingly concrete languages of policy and law which are strictly regulated by governments and their agendas. What’s been your experience of the relationship between these language systems?

A conflict was definitely observable. During the early days of Refugee Phrasebook various groups in Berlin helped to tackle the obscure, concrete language of immigration law and bureaucracy – often by accompanying refugees to their appointments with officials. Public offices in Germany rarely have personnel with language skills (other than German and maybe a little English) let alone professional interpreters. The project required all of us to learn something about this impervious ‘Beamtendeutsch’ – bureaucratic German.

Thinking about the use of Google Sheets for Refugee Phrasebook, how else do you see technology companies’ platforms intersecting with the ‘migration crisis’?

The tools of major private technology firms in the process of migration have become an integral part of the asylum seeking process, for the government, the asylum seeker and the activist. For example, Skype is used in the official Greek interview process, WhatsApp is used to share vital information between asylum seekers and Google Sheets is used as a form of activism – as seen in Refugee Phrasebook.

I am quite sceptical about using the technologies provided by a few major companies who have formed a de facto monopoly. I’m also a technology security researcher and it’s widely known in my field that Skype has a backdoor – a mechanism ‘to allow users’ communications to be intercepted’6 which was built through a collaboration between Microsoft and the USA’s National Security Agency. WhatsApp, too, is selling information to third parties and behaving very sneakily with its users’ privacy – including sharing user data with others in the ‘Facebook family of companies’ under a default opt-in scheme.7 Such policies are dangerous firstly for people with a difficult political status: it makes them vulnerable to persecution and transparent to the wrong kinds of authorities. You don’t want to be visible when you try to escape a war zone but you do when your boat is sinking off the coast of Greece. It’s also problematic for helpers, volunteers and NGOs: sometimes aid workers have to navigate around official authorities, protecting their own information and data and guaranteeing individual privacy. Last but not least, it’s an issue for governments and public authorities too, since they’re also allowing commercial technologies significant access to their data. Nonetheless, these technologies have tremendous impact and even more tremendous potential. Since 2014, the Chinese internet giant Baidu has been using location-based data from its apps to track around three billion trips during Chinese New Year.8 Skype is already implementing real-time translation9, which would of course be a giant leap in making interview processes easier. It’s still in its infancy though. The data produced by refugees using messaging services is definitely being kept and I am sure it is being used, but it remains obscure how. If governments and authorities have access to so much information, why are they often so helpless during the most dire moments of the crisis?

Open platforms are central to facilitating integration and help in the crisis. Google Sheets, however, isn’t open to everyone: you need a Google account. True openness and open access lies elsewhere. There are secure and open-source alternatives for video calls, shared documents, and private messages. It is definitely on the agenda of Refugee Phrasebook to migrate the data to an open-source framework out of Google’s reach – but this makes distribution more difficult.

The transition from liberal to neoliberal governance has had many implications for the more vulnerable in society, including a globalisation that ‘has not suppressed borders’, but rather ‘transforms and shifts them … It multiplies and expands them, while rendering them more fragile and uncertain’.10 Would you say technology has played a role in this transition?

Technology – as part of industry and society of cybercapitalism – is at the core of this transition. Technology produces cybercapitalism, which is in turn produced bytechnology. Technology requires resources, energy, and labour; such demand has created a new geo- and biopolitics on a planetary scale. As China mines ores and rare earth minerals in Africa, the continent’s infrastructure is transformed – from its geological layout to transportation to governance and trade. Technology under cybercapitalism transforms the environment, labour structures, trade routes, wars, migration patterns. If you want an iPhone, that is what happens.

There is a new form of border that’s not geographic per se, but cognitive and infrastructural. These borders concern us, as subjects of technology and citizens of the internet, as well as our nation states. We constantly migrate across these borders, or are kept inside them by corporations and governments. They encroach on our freedom to use and access information, shape the way we think, the way we produce and disseminate knowledge. Dismantling these borders is one of, if not the very central challenge we now face in creating a truly open, transparent and democratic infrastructure.