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André Dao
Melbourne Law School

“Some people think we left ghosts behind in the Feudal Age,” says Derrida, “but these new technologies, of the image, of the telephone, have not diminished the realm of ghosts but rather enhanced their power to haunt us.”

Under the banner of the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s Global Pulse has begun to use machine learning to automate a range of data-gathering practices, from listening to Ugandan talkback radio during the “South Sudan refugee crisis”, to performing sentiment analysis of social media during the “European refugee crisis”. The promise of these programs is, as the Pulse’s chief data scientist put it, that eventually we will “know everything from everyone to ensure no one is left behind.”

Yet even as these technologies imagine a perfectly knowable – and so, perfectly just – world, their operation produces ghosts, the spectral figures that, in Derrida’s words, “no longer belon[g] to knowledge.”

What representations of the refugee are produced when the UN sees, hears and knows the refugee from afar through machine learning technologies? For whom are they produced – for the public, for UN officials, and for the machines themselves? And what actions or interventions are thereby authorised?

To answer these questions, this paper considers these representations alongside Richard Mosse’s multimedia artwork Incoming, also produced through emerging technology. By focusing on the aesthetic qualities of the Pulse’s representations of refugees, the paper deflects the Pulse’s claims to a total, scientific knowledge, working instead towards a spectral reading – that is, a reading attentive to ghosts.

André Dao is a writer and researcher interested in the intersections between human rights, international law and technology. He is a PhD student at the Institute of International Law and the Humanities at Melbourne Law School. In 2017-2018 he was a Community Fellow at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and he is currently working on a Statelessness Hallmark Research Initiative-funded project with the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness. His writing has been published in national and international publications, including The Monthly, SBS Online, Meanjin, Griffith REVIEW, and Al Jazeera English. He is also the co-founder of Behind the Wire, a literary oral history organisation documenting the experiences of marginalised peoples and a co-producer of the Walkley-award winning podcast, The Messenger.

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