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Race & Mobility in the Digital Periphery: New Urban Frontiers of Migration Control



Change log


Mahmoudi, Matthew 


Global movement and information technologies are changing practices of bordering, globally. Such matters are now also substantially urban. As cities of refuge rely increasingly on tech companies to develop digital urban infrastructures for accessing information, services, and socioeconomic life at large, they are also inviting the border closer to cities and migrant bodies. This marks a convergence of Silicon Valley logics, austere and xenophobic migration management practices, and racial capitalism. In New York City, infrastructural technologies such as sophisticated public Wi-Fi, smart ID cards, and digitalised city services, in an environment prone to deportation raids, has led to deep information “panics”. In Berlin, a combination of civil society and private sector technology initiatives have produced a deluge of largely unused or distrusted information services, job-matching, house-sharing, social credit, and identity management tools in the name of refugees. In lieu of mitigating conditions of displacement, these practices compound analogue borders by engaging in a practice of digitally fusing borders to racialised characteristics, resulting in symbolic, material, and epistemic forms of technological marginalization.

Through following and documenting how migrant communities navigate and experience these digital urban interventions, and the logics of those who develop them, this dissertation 1) highlights how migrant bodies and urban spaces become contested spaces in the battle for racial capital – a frontier in which technology actors are chiefly concerned with reconstituting conceptions of race for power and profit, and; 2). unveils how digital urban infrastructures interact with subtle practices of racialised bordering.

Drawing on an analytical lens rooted predominantly in the Black radical tradition, critical development and migration studies, and science and technology studies, it challenges the paradigms of techno-solutionism and techno-chauvinism, as well as critical digital studies that has tended to treat race and racialism as a symptom of, rather than as integral to, the technology industry. By extension, the field of migration has also tended to impart greater weight to the positive affordances of technology in contexts of displacement, in absence of the critical voice of would-be recipients and “users”. By attending to the frontiers of racial capitalism and increasing technology deployments, I advance the idea of the ‘digital periphery’ to make sense of how urban migrant environments and subjectivities are commodified and ‘datafied’. As a concept, the digital periphery allows for the rapid advance of technology upon displaced populations to be disaggregated. It reveals an inseparable and mutually constitutive entanglement of race, borders, and migration, advancing racial capitalism beyond its conventional physical and spatial limitations.





Denyer Willis, Graham


Migration, Borders, Technology, Artificial Intelligence, Critical Race and Digital Studies, Racial Capitalism, Refugees, Digital Periphery, Colonialism, Smart Cities


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
This dissertation was completed with the financial support of the Jo Cox PhD Studentship at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, and the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust.