The Biopolitics of Biometrics: An Interview with Btihaj Ajana

Biometrics_coverThe Biopolitics of Biometrics: An Interview with Btihaj Ajana

Btihaj Ajana & David Beer

This interview focuses upon Btihaj Ajana’s recently published book Governing Through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity (2013). Although the interview focuses centrally upon the book, it also covers broader topics including identity, measurement, the work of Foucault, big data, biopolitics, bioethics and biometrics.

Dave Beer: Perhaps we can start with the central concept of your book, biometrics. What do you mean by biometrics? Are there any particular reasons why a focus on biometrics is important?

Btihaj Ajana: Generally, biometrics is defined as a technology of identification that relies on physical characteristics or behavioural traits to identify or verify the identity of a person. But I find this technical definition rather limited. So, in this book I try to explore alternative ways of defining biometrics by drawing on Thacker’s concept of ‘biomedia’ and Bolter’s and Grusin’s notion of ‘remediation’. I argue that biometrics can be defined as a form of biomediation in terms of both the way in which biometrics refashion older forms of identification such as anthropometry and fingerprinting, and also in the way that the body in biometric processes is doubly mediated by being at once the object and the subject of measurement, i.e. that which is being measured as well as what enables the process of identification.

Given the growing deployment and widespread of biometrics within various sectors and areas of society, I think it’s very important to examine this technology as a rising mechanism and phenomenon of governance, and understand its myriad political, ontological, social and ethical aspects and implications. Biometrics is also a very telling example of the double strategy of biologisation and informatisation whereby the control and management of identity, movement, citizenship, access and so on are being conducted through the use and manipulation of one of our most intimate aspects: our bodies. Engaging with biometrics and its implications can help us start fathoming and appreciating what is at stake in rending the body as a ‘password’ and a means of ‘fixing’ identity.

DB: Given the accounts in your book it would seem that biometrics are really complex and are therefore quite tricky to comprehend and analyse. This raises questions about how biometrics might be studied. Does this mean that we need to adapt our approaches or rethink how social research should be done? What types of methods and concepts are needed? And what does a focus on biometrics reveal about the social world?

BA: I think the primary challenge here is to do with the kind of questions we ask and the way we ask them. As Heidegger puts it ‘Questioning builds a way […] The way is a way of thinking’. The way of thinking that has been dominating discussions on biometrics tends to focus mainly on traditional and normative issues of privacy, data protection, civil liberties and the like. While these issues are important, focusing exclusively on them runs the risk of precluding other equally salient and relevant dimensions.  So, in this book, I seek to engage with other concerns and through different conceptual frameworks and methodological toolkits so as to highlight some fundamental issues that go beyond privacy, data protection and so on. My concerns have to do with the very ontological foundations of biometrics, the assumptions this technology makes about who we are, and the ramifications of a technologically mediated approach to governing identity. To explore these, I draw on a variety of methods and frameworks including governmentality and biopolitics, narrativity, and ontology. Rather than engaging with these methods and approaches in a systematic way that seeks to synthesise them into a coherent thesis, I use them in a rather experimental, spontaneous and promiscuous way, embracing the juxtapositions and even contradictions that their triangulation yields. This allows me to gain a profound, well-rounded and holistic insight into the nuances and manifold implications of biometrics that touch the very depth of what it means to be ‘human’ and a ‘citizen’ nowadays.

I therefore believe that risk-taking, experimentation and confidence to undo established rules and guidelines in research are all necessary ingredients for rethinking and conducting social research. For this, we need a passionate (rather than merely rational) engagement with the social. We need a methodological coalition of sorts that can allow for different combinations and connections to take place, which otherwise wouldn’t be easily established. We also need to explore new ways of ‘performing’ academic writing, ways that blur the boundaries between the creative/experimental and the scholarly/academic – perhaps an ‘empathic writing’, so to say, that can implant the researcher straight at the heart of the burning socio-political and ethical issues in a radically embodied and affective way.

In this book, I start delineating some signposts for doing so in the spirit of opening up alternative ways of thinking about the technological, the social and that which is in between.

DB: Your book focuses upon the ‘biopolitics of biometrics’. This allows you to explore the implications of forms of measurement for the politics of life and bodies. When you explore these connections you introduce some interesting conceptual resources. Michel Foucault plays a central role in your analysis here. What does Foucault’s work offer in terms of the on-going analysis of new biometrics?

BA: If we consider the literal meaning of biometrics, it is all about measuring life, measuring the uniqueness of the ‘bio’ and its identity.  Biometrics as such provides us with a very valid example of what Foucault terms ‘biopower’, that is, the form of power being directed at the biological existence of individuals and populations, at man-as-species-body. The management of life, which Foucault refers to as ‘biopolitics’ is performed through a variety of means and techniques of which biometrics is an example. We can see this unfolding in a variety of domains and spaces including borders, citizenship and immigration policy, social services, healthcare and many other areas of governance that are increasingly reliant on biometrics for managing and controlling the life of the living. Foucault’s concepts provide us with pertinent and valuable points of departure for analysing the ways in which biometrics is implicated in processes of categorisation and classification which allow the (sub)division of the population into manageable groups according to their level of risk and identity profiles. Crucially, Foucault identified the paradoxical aspect of biopolitics: the same techniques that are used to protect and enhance certain lives can be used to endanger and obstruct others. And this is something we can clearly observe in the politics and policies governing asylum, immigration and citizenship. Throughout this book, I stage an encounter between the figure of the ‘citizen’ and that of the ‘asylum seeker’ by way of elucidating this paradoxical yet constitutive biopolitical relation between the two, a relation that is increasingly being mediated through biometric technology. But instead of relying exclusively upon a Foucauldian conceptualisation of biopolitics, I extend my analysis to other relevant theorists including Agamben and Rose in order to achieve a more nuanced, complex and critical approach to the biopolitics of biometrics. Ultimately, the concept of biopolitics becomes here both a method of analysis as well as a subject of enquiry.

DB: As you’ve mentioned Agamben and Rose, I wonder if you might say a little more about how you combine these three thinkers and what this combination allows you to do – or what problems it might create. It seemed to me that you were building up a conceptual framework that might be used beyond the remit of the book.

BA: Indeed. I think this combination was extremely crucial for my analysis and its multi-level aspects. As without it, I would have restricted my understanding of biometrics as a biopolitical tool by limiting it to one single approach or one interpretation of biopolitics. Each of these thinkers provides distinct yet interconnected tropes for analysing/using biopolitics. Foucault was instrumental, as I mentioned earlier, to understanding biometrics as a form of biopower whereby the body and the living are the subject of control and management. The premise of his approach towards biopolitics is based on the paradigmatic shift from ‘sovereign power’ to ‘bio-power’; that is, the shift from a power to ‘take life or let live’ to the power to ‘make live and let die’. With this, Foucault also distinguishes the modern era by the inclusion of the biological existence into the domain of politics. Biopolitics as such is a modern form of managing life, according to Foucault, and operates in ways that are different from the sovereign form.

Conversely, in his take on biopolitics, Agamben argues that life has always been political and rejects Foucault’s historical break between the classical and the modern paradigm of power. For Agamben, biopolitics remains sovereign through and through, and bare life is the original base of politics. The metaphor of the Homo Sacer serves Agamben as an illustrative example of the relation of exception (inclusive exclusion) that binds life to politics. In my book, this reformulation of biopolitics helps me uncover the enduring impulse of sovereignty in contemporary political practices and analyse the power of exception that surrounds certain spaces and fields such as borders, immigration and asylum.

On the other hand, Rose’s analysis of biopolitics in terms of governmentality provides me with a framework for approaching practices that are less exceptionalist and more routine. Citizenship and everyday neoliberal forms of (self-) governance, for instance, operate in ways that are, at times, less about discipline and more about subtle control, less about sovereignty and more about soft power. This is one of the main arguments of Rose’s take on biopolitics, one that differs sharply from Agamben’s in which the assertion is that we are all potential homo sacers.

So as you can see, each of these interpretations of biopolitics provides a different angle and entry point to analysing biometrics, and each carries with it its own limitations. For Foucault and because of his death, many of his arguments and questions on biopolitics remained unfinished and unanswered.  For Agamben, his approach is rather generalising and ignores the complex nuances of contemporary forms of governance. As for Rose, his limitation remains in the fact that his analysis of biopolitics is mainly concerned with the figure of the right-bearing citizen and her autonomous, responsible, informed and agential qualities, something that leaves him silent in the face of the bodies and spaces that are increasingly becoming the site and byproduct of violent biopolitical interventions.

By combining the three, I was then hoping to overcome these limitations in order to bring out the nuanced and contradictory character of contemporary modes of governing and managing individuals and populations through technology. And I believe this triangulation can serve anyone who is seriously thinking of researching biopolitics, whether as a field of enquiry itself or as a method of analysing socio-political and economic phenomena.

DB: The notion of the ‘remediation of measure’ is really central in your book. You dedicate a whole chapter to exploring what this concept means and how it might be used – which you then extend through the rest of the book. This seems like a really important step, particularly given the centrality of systems of measurement in so many spheres of social life. You’ve perhaps hinted at this already, but I’d be interested to know where you think these systems of measurement are heading and how they might be analysed. You make the point in your book that we tend to take a relatively narrow focus in our understanding of this ‘remediation of measure’. I wonder if you might flesh this idea out a little and perhaps suggest where we might need to look next to gain a greater understanding of this ‘remediation of measure’? Where should we now be looking in order to study and observe the power of biometrics and the remediation of measurement?

BA: I think we live in an age of measurement. Whether we are talking about work performance, lifestyle and health, budgeting, security, marketing, etc. all areas of life seem to be penetrated by this mentality of measuring. And with the development of new technologies, new forms of measurement are emerging. At the same time, measurement is not something new. From Domesday Book to modern statistics, history is filled with examples where records, numbers and measurement have been instrumental to understanding and intervening in the social world, and to defining what is normal and what is deviant, oftentimes with material consequences. I guess this is what the idea of ‘remediation’ tries to bring out; it gives a genealogical context to the rationality and practice of measurement and serves as a strong reminder that measurement is not necessarily new but is rooted in history. In terms of biometrics, and as I discussed in the first chapter of the book, it is important not to regard this technology in isolation or as a technique that is completely new, but see it in relation to its predecessors so as to understand the continuities between them and establish what is particularly new about biometrics. In general terms, this genealogical move through the concept of remediation allows us to counter the hype that often surrounds recent and emergent technologies of measurement.

As for the future of measurement, I can only see this intensifying as more data become available through the rise of social networking and mobile technologies and the ever-increasing digitisation of work, leisure and daily activities and habits. Take for instance the current hype around the concept of “Big Data”. Big data analytics promises to take the art of measurement to another level. By capturing and analysing massive quantities of data and visualising patterns and connections, big data analytics promises to enhance the techniques of prediction and decision-making that have become an important practice in many fields, organisations and sites of governance.  According to IBM, prior to 2003 five exabytes of data had been generated. In 2013 that much was generated every 10 minutes. This gives a picture of the magnitude of our current data-driven world and the culture of measurement that enframes it.

Again, the technology of big data is raising the same familiar concerns of privacy, data protection, access, etc. But one should not stop there. As I argue in the book it is not enough to address such normative or legal concepts only, but we need to painstakingly question and rethink how these technologies of measurement are affecting our very ontological existence, our beingness and relations, and the essence of what makes us human. If, for instance, big data techniques are enabling more sophisticated forms of ‘predication’, it is not sufficient to only consider what is at stake privacy wise.  One needs to ask: why do we need to ‘predict’ in the first place? Isn’t prediction a form of control and isn’t control one of the problems – this will to master the world at any cost, including the cost of life, which only ends up closing off the horizon of our possible futures? I guess I am circling back to the point I made earlier regarding the need to pose the right ‘questions’, questions that challenge, destabilise, provoke and push us out of the comfort zone and out of the complacency of easy interpretations. This is where philosophy is needed, especially a philosophy of ontology that can critically address the deep ethical issues pertaining to measurement beyond the immediate surface manifestations. I am thinking here of people like Jean-Luc Nancy and Derrida, Ricoeur and Arendt among others whose philosophy can inform the social study of measurement and provide a base of analysis that is normative without necessarily being prescriptive.

DB: It’s really clear that your book represents an attempt to open up questions of biometrics to a more developed analysis. Your book raises lots of questions and provides a conceptual framework for others to use. I found this to be really useful, and it was interesting how the empirical and conceptual worked together in your book to identify and pose different sorts of questions. Given my previous questions about how we might proceed, it would also be interesting to hear more about how you think your book might be used. There are interesting combinations of conceptual and empirical analyses in your book. What do you think might be the key concepts or empirical insights that your book might lead us towards? Are there any other resources, beyond your book, that we might need to engage with in order develop a more complete understanding of biometrics and their consequences?

BA:  I’m hoping that the book acts as a means of heightening awareness of what is at stake in such modalities of technological control and incite people from different fields (philosophy, sociology, politics, media, policy-making, etc.) to engage with the ethical issues that biometrics and other techniques of measurement raise. I’m hoping it will appeal at once to people who are interested in the philosophical framework as well as those who are more empirically inclined.  As mentioned earlier, the combination of the different biopolitical approaches has the potential to inform various studies and topics beyond biometrics. As for a more ‘complete’ understanding, I don’t think what is needed is a complete theory or totalistic answers, for we know all too well that what is seemingly complete and totalistic only ends up turning into metanarratives which often silence our ‘petits récits’ and foreground some forms of knowledge at the expense of others. Instead, I am more in favour of ‘fragmentary’ approaches and answers insofar as they allow for a multiplicity of voices, a mosaic of interpretations, and the chance to keep asking more questions.

DB: Thanks Btihaj. I wonder if we might close with some final thoughts on your own future research. Do you intend to work further on biometrics? What sort of direction do you intend to take the work following your book?

BA: I continue to be interested in the developments of biometrics. It would be worth for instance researching these developments in light of other emerging techniques of measurement such as those of big data. This is something I might consider researching further. At the moment, however, I am looking at something different, the cultural developments in some Arab states. Still, there are some intersecting themes I keep going back to such as the theme of identity and ethics.

Btihaj Ajana is Lecturer in Culture, Digital Humanities and Creative Industries at King’s College London. Her book Governing Through Biometrics: The Biopolitics of Identity was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013.

David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His publications include Punk Sociology (2014), Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation (2013) and New Media: The Key Concepts (2008, with Nicholas Gane). He is also one of the editors of the Theory, Culture & Society open site.

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