Resisting Biometrics/Evolving Cyberebonics

In Volume XI of De Bow’s Review published 1851, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of the University of Louisiana writes in authoritative terms describing “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. Amongst these he lists the ailments of “Drapetomania”, a disease which causes slaves to run away, and “Dysaethesia Aethiopica” an malady common to black people resulting in displays of ‘rascality’ in observed behaviours. (1)

Such comical pseudoscience can, one would hope, be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the racist assumptions contained within disciplines such as ‘polygeny’, ‘craniometry’ and the eighteenth century illustrations of Petrus Camper. (2) However what it does reveal is a longstanding tradition of the black body being cast as the mute subject of progressive sets of scrutinising discourses, knowledge sets and technological framing devices over which those black subjects have exercised little or no control. These traditions of positioning the black individual as the subject of technological scrutiny whilst simultaneously imagining the black subject as occupying a space wholly outside of the technological domain, still colours the perceptions of the non white ‘other’ within contemporary discourses ranging from the soap opera to the so called ‘war on terror’. In the latest variation on the craniologists mantra of ‘measuring heads’, the fetid imagination of US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, followed in usual close pursuit by UK Home Secretary David Blunkett, has seized upon the technologically savvy sounding term of the ‘Biometric’ as a key tool in their self generating struggle with international ‘Islamic’ terrorism. According to the website of the Biometric Consortium (3);

“Biometrics are automated methods of recognizing a person based on a physiological or behavioral characteristic.  Among the features measured are; face, fingerprints, hand geometry, handwriting, iris, retinal, vein, and voice.”

The premise being, one would assume, firstly; that terrorist intent is somehow mapped onto a particular configuration of physical characteristics which can be defined digitally; and secondly, that Islamic terrorists, being ‘other’ and hailing from ‘non technological’ spaces will be incapable of generating high-tech strategies capable of foiling the digital hegemony of the New American Century.