Datafication incarnate

Experiencing data – Negatives, positives, cyborgs, and nationalities: how it feels to embody unstable data

by Pip Hare

I was working on something, rearranging words on my computer screen. My mum called; a mobile call, not WhatsApp. I was just about to explain to her again that that costs money, but I let her speak first. She told me my dad had died that morning. The words on the computer screen lost their relevance. The next few days I had a sentence running on constant loop in my head: My dad died this morning/yesterday/My dad has died. I went to the market and almost felt compelled to tell everyone I encountered. I somehow expected the information to be visible; I somehow expected the market vendors and everyone else to see that I was now a different person. I was now one of the many people who have lost a parent rather than one of the many who have yet to experience the death of someone close.

After a five-week suspended voidtime in England, I came back to Berlin. Meanwhile, lockdowns had become stricter in the UK and Germany, although I had been almost completely isolated in the English countryside and had only been aware of the lockdown virtually or televisually. I had to take two flights to get back as there was no direct connection available and I had to complete a form online for the German authorities in order to check in. The first flight was full, with everyone wearing masks. Until snacks were distributed; when everyone took them off. I observed the irony but did so myself nonetheless because I was hungry, and not totally convinced that it would be crucial.That the person next to me or the air we were all breathing was infectious was only a theoretical possibility; we were all (presumably) unopened Schrödinger’s boxes, breathing Schrödinger’s air.

Back in Berlin, I had to quarantine for five days, then I was permitted to leave my flat to get tested. I was told that the result for a PCR test could take up to six days, so I paid extra to have an antigen test with an immediate result. The test showed negative, which I paid for my doctor to confirm in writing, so that I could email her confirmation to the local health authority to apply to be released from quarantine. I quickly received a response. I went out to shops and felt positively negative; I wore my mask as required but I was less particular about disinfecting my hands, certain that I wasn’t going to infect anyone. After so many months of not trusting my own body not to endanger others, I was confident that I couldn’t harm anyone by simply breathing in their direction.

My transformation was multiple on that day. There was an envelope in my letterbox: containing a certificate of German nationality. Having filed a request approximately four years previously for recognition of my Germanness on the basis of my mother’s German nationality, what had theoretically always applied was now official – about two weeks before Brexit was to take effect. My body was not only positively negative, it was German, with rights and duties, as the accompanying letter informed me. I was immune to the follies of the Brexiters. Although I was still British, as far as I could work out.

I visited a friend and we spent a carefree evening without thinking about maintaining distance or regularly ventilating. Like it was 2019.

Two days later, I went to the doctor to get my health insurance card scanned, which hadn’t been possible when I went for the test. I walked into the practice, hearing the receptionist’s voice and not realising she was on the phone. She told me to wait outside. The waiting room was no longer for waiting in. Another person came and joined me in waiting. I was already slightly late for another appointment but wondered whether it was worth trying to get a prescription that I needed, or whether that would take too long. The receptionist came to the door and asked us to stand back. She asked whether I had received my result. I said yes, at the time of the test. She said, no, the PCR test – it was positive. I should GO HOME NOW. Get well soon, she wished me. But I didn’t feel sick. Slightly wobbly, nonetheless. The other prescription dissipated to a different category of significance, even as I realised I no longer had to hurry to my next appointment. No more waiting rooms. She gave me a piece of paper: it said that I was acutely infectious. But I still had to cycle home. I decided to wear a mask, which I don’t usually do when cycling. I felt like a biological weapon on wheels, loose on the streets. I felt like I should be wearing a high-visibility jacket and flashing lights, with a loudspeaker announcing ‘Achtung Achtung!’ I did my best to keep two metres between myself and anyone I passed, but Berlin has its roadworks and that wasn’t always possible. I was almost tempted to tell people, but I didn’t want to induce fear either. For my conscience, I held my breath whenever I passed close to anyone. I made it home to my flat and closed the door. At least I had already practised quarantining and discovered it was survivable; which I had previously doubted. I had to call to explain the missed appointment. And I felt I had to share the news. Like the news of my father’s death, my messages provoked more phone calls than I needed at that moment. I tried to reach the health authority but the hotline was impenetrable. I contacted the friend I had met on the weekend. According to online information, she was now a ‘contact person #1’. That meant she had to quarantine for 14 days. I felt very guilty, particularly since, as a positively tested person, I was only required to quarantine for 10 days – unless I developed symptoms. I took my temperature. It seemed lower than human, as far as I could remember from school biology lessons. It occurred to me that I could inform the Corona App even if I couldn’t reach the health authority. The App requested that I scan the QR-code on my test receipt, which I had barely glanced at after receiving the negative antigen test result. The App instantly turned red and informed me that I was infectious and should avoid other people. Had I scanned the code directly after my test, I might have received the result sooner, but I hadn’t realised that the code worked together with the App. I thought back to my shopping trips on the weekend. I had forgotten to wash my hands before filling my jars at the vegan co-op. Should I call them and say so? Or would that just spread worries unnecessarily? I decided that it was too late anyway.

The next day, someone from the local health authority called and asked whether I still had symptoms and said if not, I was now released from quarantine. My case didn’t seem to have been updated with my negative or my positive test result. Let alone that I had never had symptoms. When I explained that to the caller, she gave me some contradictory advice and then told me to call the hotline when I questioned it. Her job was just to release people from quarantine, not to deal with unexpected information.

At what point did I become one of the statistics of cases in the daily reports of new cases? In March, the first cases in Berlin had been listed one-by-one, categorised by area, age, and gender. I had imagined that those people must have felt stigmatised. Now, being Covid-positive seemed just like any other characteristic that would put me into one set of statistics rather than another.

I didn’t develop symptoms. I felt like I might be coming down with something on the first evening after receiving the result, but when I didn’t, I suspected that that feeling might have been psychosomatic. I stayed in my flat; my days were structured by zoom meetings, telecommunications, and meals. Every few days, at off-peak stairwell traffic times, I donned my FFP2 mask and went down to the bins and my letter-box; the extent of my permitted movements. I was officially a danger to others. I felt like I had when I began learning to drive and was unnerved by the idea that I was in charge of a machine that could potentially kill someone.

But from the tenth day after the test sample to the eleventh, my status changed overnight. I was allowed to leave my flat and do everything anyone else was allowed to do. I felt rather sceptical and thought maybe I should try to get another test to make sure. News of the British mutant variant made me wonder whether my personal virus crew might be special and different. I called and asked the health authority’s hotline whether I could/should get re-tested, but I was told that any test would come out positive because the virus would still be in my body. Nonetheless, they assured me that I absolutely definitely could not infect anyone, nor could I contract the virus. I had gone from being a biological weapon to an immune cyborg; the safest date at any party. I went shopping. It was strange to be out and about, in a pre-Christmas rush that wasn’t. I met a friend at a supermarket, she asked how I was, I said I was just out of quarantine. The other people in the queue increased their distance. I said loudly that I could take off my mask and hug everyone; I was a cyborg. She said perhaps that wouldn’t be appropriate. Having assumed I’d be spending Christmas alone, I ended up joining friends on Christmas Eve instead. That even gave me the unexpected chance to do some participant observation and filming for my research project. But despite all the assurances, I thought I should maybe keep a bit of distance. That idea was obliterated within 10 minutes when my friends’ kid launched a tickle attack that compensated for months of contact deprivation.

All these absurdities led me to the idea of writing a blog post; not an idea I would have ever expected to come up with. “From Schrödinger’s box to positively negative to negatively positive to the safest cyborg on the street: How I learned to stop worrying and love the virus.” It seemed like I’d effectively received a free vaccination – albeit with no certainty of how long it would be effective for – for the price of just a few weeks of quarantine. Considering other stories of 2020, that didn’t seem like a bad deal. But three weeks after my infectious flight, I came down with cold symptoms and fever. Initially, I presumed it was just a regular cold, but as a rather strange and persistent cough took hold, I began to wonder. Maybe my virus crew were special after all, only inflicting symptoms after I had finally concluded I must be one of the asymptomatic cases. I called the hotline and was once again reassured that I couldn’t be infectious, even if the symptoms could be due to Covid-19. So, I decided to believe that advice, at least until any statistics indicate otherwise. And the symptoms receded.

Before this blog article could even be posted, there’s been a further twist in the tale of my Covid career. I had an antibody test, and the result was negative. According to the report, that doesn’t entirely rule out a current or previous infection. I called the laboratory that had conducted both tests, and was surprised to actually get through to a human. She looked up my results and told me that the CT value of my PCR test was quite low, indicative of either the beginning or end phase of an infection. She surmised that my immune system had fought off the virus without it even getting so far that antibodies were produced in response. Perhaps my immune system was particularly strong, she suggested. Or maybe I had only been exposed to a very small virus dose during the snack time on the plane, I speculated after the phone call.

So once again, I find myself retrospectively reassessing my movements and encounters. Had I not considered myself a cyborg, I wouldn’t have spent Christmas with friends and received a tickle attack from their son. Which I had enjoyed. I had been planning to visit them again in the next few weeks, with the confidence of a cyborg. Since then, a scanned lab report sent to me via WhatsApp has thrown me back among the rest of Schrödinger’s humanity: a group that I had never (yet) left, apparently. I wonder whether my Germanness will prove more stable…

Pip Hare has been conducting camera ethnographic research for the project ‘Early Childhood and Smartphone’ in Germany, Austria, and India since 2016. She worked as a camera assistant in the film industry before pursuing her BA in social and cultural anthropology at the Freie Universität in Berlin with a semester abroad at North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) in Shillong, Northeast India. She completed her MA in visual anthropology at the University of Manchester in 2014 and has made ethnographic documentary films in India, England, and Italy. She also translates and copy-edits academic texts, and is on the editorial board of this blog.

4 replies on “Datafication incarnate”

Thank you for a thoroughly insightful piece, Pip. I am sorry for your loss and I hope that you can enjoy tickle attacks without fear in the future.

Great capture of the current moment we live in. With all the twists and turns of the real drama on how this pandemic cuts through our personal lives. Thank you for sharing your story.

A lovely mix of pathos, humour and the ambiguity of our responses to the pandemic. We all share your state-of-existence confusion..!

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