This piece is the second in a series where Julia Keseru explores the connection between our online systems and bodily integrity, and the long-term effects of digital innovation on our collective well-being.
Three years ago, I gave birth to my daughter through a complicated delivery. It was one of the most intense moments of my life – an experience that required me to be my most vulnerable self, while also demonstrating incredible strength.
Luckily, I had the privilege to go on this journey with a doctor who understood the profound complexity of childbirth. When my delivery went astray, she told me she wanted to discuss options. In reality I didn't have many – for specific reasons, emergency C-section was my only alternative. And yet, when she offered to walk me through possible scenarios, I felt a sense of empowerment that I've never really felt before. Definitely not in a moment like this.
Since then, I've been trying to understand what exactly happened there, and why her behaviour helped turn an intense medical experience into one of the most empowering moments of my life. At first, I thought it was a sense of autonomy – the ability to influence what would happen to my body. Later, I realised it was something else too: her respect for my bodily integrity. This doctor didn’t just seek my formal consent to move forward with surgery, she genuinely wanted to make sure that I felt intact, complete and whole throughout the entire time.
From the perspective of human rights, bodily integrity is defined as the inviolability of the physical body – our right to refuse any forms of physical intrusion. The concept plays an increasingly important role in medical ethics too, signalling a shift from patient autonomy – the idea that we should be able to decide what happens to our bodies – towards a broader, more nuanced approach to patient well-being.
One pattern is striking though: while respect towards bodily integrity is more or less becoming the norm in our physical interactions, the concept has been largely absent from the digital world. Think of facial and emotion recognition, for instance – emerging technologies that build on machine learning techniques to verify our identity or analyse our emotions. These technologies have a rather aggressive approach to taking what they want (the digital footprints of our bodies), and such non-consensual methods are actually quite typical in the digital realm.
But how exactly did predation become the digital default?
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