In my opinion, discussions of identity and what identity means, and what constitutes identity have never been more interesting. With the web as a mirror for each of us, as well as a playland of impersonation, self-invention, reincarnation and improvisation, the platforms and dimensions where human identity is played out have never been more abundant and easily accessible.
I was reading my New Yorker last night and came across an article about Aadhaar, an enormous project on a scale never before attempted, that could have far and wide reaching implications for generations of humans yet to come. The project is to officially identify and document the existence of every Indian living in India by collecting certain biometrics from each individual and then issuing those specific biometric features an ID number.
As summarized here:
“Aadhaar, launched by Nandan Nilekani, a genial software billionaire, intends to create a national biometric database ten times larger than the world’s next-largest biometric database.”
One of the stated aims of the project is to “help reduce the extraordinary economic distances between those who have benefitted from India’s boom of the past two decades and those who have not.”
Some of the stunning details of this project that I read about raised very fundamental issues of modern identity as being tied to a specific nation-state. For instance:
“India has no equivalent of Social Security numbering, and just thirty-three million Indians, out of 1.2 billion, pay income tax, and only sixty million have passports. The official opacity of hundreds of millions of Indians hampers economic growth and emboldens corrupt bureaucrats.”
It’s just incredible to think that in this day and age, not everyone who is born into the world is documented as even being alive. It’s incredible, as an American, to consider a situation where your government has no idea that you exist, and you survive outside of the limits of its systems .
Though that all sounds like fodder for a summer anarchist action movie trailer, the reality is, though the lines and boundaries between physical country border and cultures are disappearing slowly as a result of widespread globalization and commercialization, our identities are still very strongly tied to the countries in which we are born, or in which we live. And I should clarify that I am not saying that if you are born in America, you automatically strongly identify as an American. I am saying that if you are born in America and hate the U.S., you are still defined by the country in which you were born, or in which you live, even if you hate it. You are defined in reference to being a part of it, however tenuous that connection is. But if you are born in India and your country does not know you, nor acknowledge that you exist, how is your identity derived?
And if you do not really exist in the eyes of the government, and are not automatically considered a citizen in having been born there, what right does the government have to come and claim you later, as India and the Unique Identification Authority of India (the government agency that is directing this program) are attempting to do with Aadhaar?
It is ironic in this instance that India, so woefully behind in identifying its own citizens due to an outsized human population, is poised to actually jump the gap immediately and overstep other more-developed countries’ systems of social security and citizen identification. Aadhar’s system is based on biometrics, or “methods for uniquely recognizing humans based upon one or more intrinsic physical or behavioral traits.” Interestingly, Wikipedia’s entry here described two different applications of biometrics information: “In computer science, in particular, biometrics is used as a form of identity access management and access control. It is also used to identify individuals in groups that are under surveillance.” Oh Foucault, why do you plague us so?!
Still, in this case, it is hard not to question the intense nature of these methods of identification and the database of information they will generate. Concerns about privacy have, of course, been raised: “Alongside arguments about social policy, there is also some Indian disquiet about Aadhaar’s threat to privacy.”
A Times of India article also mentioned the potential for exploitation of this info:
“For Nandan Nilekani , the chairman of Unique Identification Authority of India , the challenge now is not just to roll out one lakh or more Aadhaar numbers a day, but to create an ecosystem for players to build applications on top of this identity infrastructure. Now, Nilekani has been negotiating with the Reserve Bank of India to allow banks to treat Aadhaar number as the only document for opening an account. In a free-wheeling interview with Shantanu Nandan Sharma, Nilekani talks about life after Aadhaar when a villager would be able to use a micro-ATM in his locality, or a migrant from Bihar would be able to flash out his number in Mumbai as an identity proof.”
So the ability to identify people, truly down to their physical core can be both exploitative and empowering, as the New Yorker article claims, “If the project is successful, India would abruptly find itself at the forefront of citizen-identification technology, outperforming Social Security and other non-biometric systems.” Of course it would, it’s the physical data collection analog of what Facebook has been doing all along.
In fact, the arguments for embarking upon this venture to issue ID numbers to each Indian are manifold, yet one that seems to float upwards most often is the assertion that this system of identification will help to cut down on abuse of government resources and inaccurate snapshots of how many people are affected by official policy.
Interesting that this is the very reason that Facebook famously insists upon banning pseudonyms on its ever-popular social platform. As Gawker puts it, “the idea that anonymity or multiple identities leads inexorably to a cesspool of abuse, cyberbullying, and spam is Facebook’s strongest argument for a monolithic online identity—one they come back to again and again in defending their controversial real name policy.”
This is written in the context of an article highlighting Chris Poole, shadowy head of the online meme-maker 4chan, and his remarks at the recent Web 2.0 conference that “true identity is prismatic,” and that the actions of online mega-sites like Facebook are “eroding our options” when they lock us into a single identity. In reality, Poole argues, humans are not defined in only one way or another, but by multiple simultaneously performed identities.
Gawker writes, “At this week’s Web 2.0 conference, Poole criticized Facebook’s real name, one profile-per-person policies. Facebook are, he said, ‘consolidating identity and making people seem more simple than they really are… our options are being eroded.
True identity is ‘prismatic,’ according to Poole. You want to be able to present a different identity in different contexts, and be able to experiment without risking a permanent stain on your identity—something Facebook is making increasingly possible as it colonizes everything from games, to blog comments to your favorite music service.”
Synthesizing these ideas and arguments for a minute, the very idea that a retinal scan can prove someone was born somewhere, and that those two elements of identity correlate to provide a human identity is interesting enough to a modern mind. How about when we suppose that each of us– though we may physically have blue, green, or brown eyes, blond, black, brunette or red hair, have been born in Bali, Mexico, Singapore, or Tunisia—is actually a shapeshifter, constantly adapting our personality and persona to best compliment a new group of people, or a new context. Are these quests to nail down our identity through increasingly scientific pursuits even worth their salt if we are each, many people, simultaneously?
No matter how we think our own identities are constituted and shaped, whether we believe we are multiple people or just one, the quest to collect information and data about how we behave, who we are, and what we look like is always evolving. Just recently Facebook field paperwork to form a Facebook Political Action Committee (PAC) that “will fund candidates who support ‘giving people the power to share.’
According to the Gawker story about the PAC, it’s “dedicated to ‘mak[ing] the world more open and connected,’ a spokesman tells The Hill. It will be funded by Facebook employees. Meanwhile, Facebook’s lobbying budget is metastasizing ; the company spent $550,000 so far this year, compared to $350,000 all of last year.”
Will a new era of online conmen and women emerge as a result of this movement to collect identity data? Is privacy officially dead? How do you choose to identify yourself, what do you identify with?