A first way in: one nation, two affects, thirteen body parts

Monday January 9, 2012

I begin reflection on UIDAI by arbitrarily taking a point in time–midway through the year 2010, when I had begun noticing an intensification of global reportage on the project–and thinking through a variety of commentaries and observations appearing then.

The following short summary is neither an expert nor a particularly detailed account. It interests me as it has moved across multiple websites, ranging from the conspiracy-theory-engaged site Godlike Productions (http://www.godlikeproductions.com/forum1/message1613435/pg1) to the “Tyranny in a Police State” section of The Mental Militia Forums (http://thementalmilitia.com/forums/index.php?PHPSESSID=1bb00298007f37b864ad5ff9503f8686&topic=27190.0).

At this point I am not sure what if anything to make of these hosts: my point is not, slyly or otherwise, to assert either that conspiracy theory is needed here nor conversely to denounce such concern as paranoid. Rather it is to suggest that talk about UIDAI, at least on the Internet, often comes bundled up with other things: specific narratives, specific knowledges, specific hermeneutics, specific affects.

The piece appears to be authored by Aaron Saenz of  the futurist science news site Singularity Hub (http://singularityhub.com/2010/09/13/india-launches-universal-id-system-with-biometrics/) and was published September 13, 2010.

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India Launches Universal ID System with Biometrics

India has launched an ambitious program to fit each of its 1.2 billion residents with an Unique identification number (UID). Each number will be tied into three pieces of biometric data: fingerprints (all ten digits), iris scans (both eyes), and a picture of the face. Starting this month, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) will begin processing people in various locations around the country. UIDAI aims to slowly roll out the program through February of 2011 and to ID 600 million people in the next four years! This is a mammoth program. While residents are not mandated to get a UID, a growing list of services including social welfare and even some bank accounts will soon require the identification number. If successful, this will be the first biometrically verified universal ID implemented on a national scale. India is forging new ground, drawing both fears and hopes of what a national ID number may bring with it.

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Some notes on the obvious, restricting ourselves to this account for the moment. Since I tend to think in threes, I will restrict myself to three comments for now:

1) The primary agent of this development is framed as the nation state: “India.” Thus, “India has launched an ambitious program….” UIDAI is here not differentiated from the nation-state, despite its particular mix of “public” and “private” resources, expertise, and claims for governance.

We might call the implicit political theory here neo-Samkhyan. Samkhya is the one of classical Sanskrit’s six legitimate schools of darsana, insight or philosophy, that focuses on the emanation of forms from some primary figure of form, energy, or nature, prakrti. Emanations clutter the universe, forcing us into a process of discrimination to achieve clarity. In this web item, however authored, there is a primary source of form, the nation-state, and from it emerge new institutions, here UIDAI.

This framing of “neo-Samkhyan” is provisional at best: what I am attending to is first, an implicit and presumptive form (emanation). If I borrow from the lexicon of the classical Sanskrit cosmopolis, it should be but is probably not obvious that the intent is neither to assert some transhistorical structure of thought or semiotics (“India”) nor to address the state of mind of either this author nor his sources. One works to specify form through analogy, requiring choices. There is a politics to such analogy.

In any event, at the outset, we face the problem of origins in a particular way: what are the uses, and limits, to framing UIDAI as an institution of and from the nation-state?

2) A lot of body parts are needed to produce the assembled collection of biometric data “tied” to each UID number, at least according to this account: two eyes, ten fingers, one face. This plenitude (thirteen, an unlucky number in a different world) of parts is worth mulling over. We will I imagine find that the technical regime of universal identification, its procedures and algorithms, may be somewhat more complex than a simple list of thirteen body parts as traces or data points.

Much of my own work for some years has wrestled, in a different set of global and Indian contexts, on what is a body part.  But the simpler questions generated here are of labor (in order to produce traces of all 13 parts for hundreds of millions of persons), error (given the magnitude of the assembled traces at the national scale), and lack (given that not all persons will have 13 traceable parts: some will have less or more fingers, or burnt fingertips, or missing eyes). In popular Indian film (I will come back to this), identification has often set against the problem of the “duplicate,” someone else who looks exactly like oneself. After I announced the blog on Facebook yesterday a friend wrote to remind me of the very real dangers of duplication: I will address his comments if I can in a later posting. The magnitude of parts here seems like a shoring up, effective or not, against the danger of duplication.

The elaboration, “politically,” “culturally,” of what I am calling such a danger of duplication may need to be a key theme of the blog.

3) This project is framed as both singular and emergent: it is a “first” and it is “new.” This newness may be not only obvious but worth taking seriously. But it is, certainly in the kinds of websites that circulate this news, haunted by other, earlier projects of securing and distributing through universal identification.

As emergent, the project seems to carry a doubled affect: of fear and of hope.  The pairing may or may not be a cliché: how one reports, on websites dedicated to the future.

So, at the outset: one nation, 13 parts, 2 affects.

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