Computing the human – biometrics and our dividual selves

Over on the excellent Aeon website there’s a beta section called ‘Ideas‘ that poses questions and solicits responses. One such question is: “How will biometrics transform surveillance culture?“. To which Kelly Gates (UCSD) offers an adroit response in the form of a short essay entitled ‘Computerising Humans‘.

Gates unpicks the technological deterministic fatalism of the expectation that the widespread deployment of biometric technologies is a foregone conclusion. She argues:

There’s also an assumption that in the very near future, these technologies will be capable of automatically identifying us with near-perfect accuracy, free of the messy cultural baggage that muddles the way humans identify one another. Human perception is inherently biased and flawed, according to this logic, while computers are inherently objective, free from error and prejudice.

It follows that, and as Gates goes on to argue, to invent the technology, be the owner of the data upon which it operates and then verify the ‘accuracy’ of that technology (as Facebook do with their facial recognition systems) means that one necessarily invents the accuracy of that technology as well. Likewise, in creating such systems and the parameters in which they (must) operate (to be effective) we necessarily circumscribe and predetermine their uses, and thus also invent their usefulness. Therefore, in this sense, by inventing the technology and its usefulness we invent the future in which it is necessary:

In other words, inventing the accuracy of biometric technologies involves making bigger claims about what they can do than their limited experimental results can support.

Of course, such a process of invention is also, necessarily, a (re)invention of our ‘selves’, in multiple. It is a kind of ontogenetic (and more specifically here, technogenetic process, as Gates highlights – although I prefer Simondon to Hayles on this point). The multiple nature of the data representations of our ‘selves’ convenes the various ways in which we are conceived as entities, in data and in flesh, and thus the multiple ways our identities are performed. We are reinvented by looking back at our-selves through  the ‘eyes’ of the technology: the surveillant relation between the unblinking gaze of the technology and our performance of identity is co-constituted.

Understanding ourselves as fully enmeshed with technologies might help us get a better sense of what biometrics portend for our already surveillant culture. We already conceive of ourselves as people with official identities composed of disembodied aggregates of transaction-generated data–digital representations of ourselves that circulate over networks. In fact, it is a necessary precondition of biometric system development that we conceive of ourselves in this way. In short, if computers are getting better at recognizing humans, it’s because humans are getting much better at looking at, and seeing themselves, much like computers.

A helpful way of understanding this is through the brief exposition of the ‘dividual’ Deleuze makes in his Postscript on the Societies of Control: “a physically embodied human […] that is endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control, like computer-based systems” (as Robert Williams has it). If we look at the production and performance of our selves, as ‘dividuals’, we are, I would argue, confronting the necessity to un-think “the subject” (following J-D Dewsbury’s Deleuzian reading of Badiou). We accordingly consume our selves by trusting in the apparatuses of multiple surveillance (Facebook etc.) and are invited to deny what is incalculable.

Stiegler would perhaps argue that to combat our rendering as biometric surveillant subjects we must take care of our selves, of our incalculability; believe in that incalculability, and make that care a basis of our political economic relations. Of course, that is far easier said than done. Biometric technology does not necessitate the rendering of ‘dividuals’, that future is not a forgone conclusion, but it will take a lot of work to invent an alternative.

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