Next time I enter the United States of America my face will be biometrically measured and my fingerprints scanned and stored by American intelligence. Think about that: that’s information my own government doesn’t have about me. It’s information I don’t have about me. It’s also information the US won’t be collecting about its own citizens. (Perhaps it would be in breach of their constitutional rights, rights not afforded to non-US citizens?)

Of course, my government has plenty of other information about me. Norwegians have always been good at storing information about their citizens. When the Nazis invaded Norway, rounding up all the Jews was as trivial as it was to disenfranchise women in A Handmaid’s Tale (bank accounts transferred to husbands and fathers overnight, all electronic, a keystroke and lives are changed). That, of course, is the problem with total information awareness. Today I’m white, of appropriate social class, I’m gainfully employed, my gender is seen as (theoretically) equal in the countries I choose to visit and I’ve never done anything currently defined as criminal in the wealthy Western countries I’m a citizen and resident of. Others are far less fortunate in the lottery of birth and circumstance. And tomorrow or next year or decade even my gold-edged socio-genetic profile may no longer be appropriate. A fundamentalist regime (whether Muslim, Christian or political) might have any number of reasons to declare me a persona non grata. My Bosnian neighbour told me, on September 11, 2001, how nobody expected war in Bosnia, even after hearing that the Serbs had attacked. It’s not that long since Norway was occupied, either. It could happen again.

The first issue of the new Fibreculture journal is about The Politics of Networks and deal with issues like these. In “Perfect Match: Biometrics and Body Patterning in a Networked World” Gillian Fuller writes about the translation of identity into pattern matching where we must be validated at every threshold, not just at the border of a country but when buying groceries (money in account? PIN code?) going to work (swipe card and PIN to open door) driving (electronic tag for paying tolls) or making a phone call.

As we slip seamlessly in and out of various modes of traffic, we pass through innumerable thresholds. At each of these thresholds we are checked, but only for a “little detail”ñ what is my credit limit? Am I carrying drugs? Where is my e-tag? Who am I, really? (..) Thus on one end we are dealing with flesh bodies and at the other we are concerned with a pattern match.

Fibreculture is a mailing list, a series of meetings, and now also a journal, mostly populated by Australian and New Zealander artists and academics who care about networked culture and art and theory. The Fibreculture journal is a new endeavour: a peer-reviewed, scholarly online journal growing from the vibrant discussions on Fibreculture mailing list. The first two issues were published today. These are topics we need to think about.

Do you know what? Though these massive surveillance systems are meant to protect us against terrorists, they wouldn’t have helped a bit against the attacks on September 11. Every one of the 19 hijackers entered the United States using his real name. My talented Chinese colleague, on the other hand, doing a postdoc, safely resident in Norway, invited to give a presentation at a US conference, was denied a visa.

I think what jolts me most about the thought of being scanned on entering the US is being forced to realise that I am totally subject to the whims of governments. I’ve internalised that at home, keying PINs constantly, electronically clicking “yes” to file a tax return the authorities have already filled out for me, giving up information so automatically that I think I am free and in control. Crossing unfamiliar and heavily policed borders it’s impossible to sustain that illusion of freedom.

7 thoughts on “network politics

  1. Declan

    A beautifully articulated post Jill
    – from someone currently in the throes of such bureaucratic bungling

  2. Justin

    Excellent post. Living here, particularly in New York, the increasing level of surveillance and implementation of face scanning software under the disguise of security is being presented as a symbol of dedication on the part of government and law enforcement to defend us against terror attacks. Fortunately there has been firm resistance to concepts of neighborhood spy networks and certain aspects of new laws that march over civil rights and the constitution, but hypothetically if in ten years the “war” came to a definitive end the security measures implemented between now and then would not be dismantled but instead turned against citizens as a means of deterring crime. At least that would be the sales pitch for a safer world. In time it is possible to imagine the criteria for observation broadening and the sort of Phillip K Dickian paranoia of what constitutes a crime will become a sharper focus.

  3. Jill

    Thanks for the comments! I’ve been wanting to write about this for ages, not quite knowing how, and the Fibreculture journal issue spurred me to actually do it.

    It appears that citizens of countries in the Visa Waiver program (which includes Europeans and Australians) won’t be scanned after all. Unless they change that again I might not be scanned. Many others will be.

    The FBI’s probably got my prints already anyway: last time I was stateside I had to thumbprint a check to cash it since I didn’t have an account in the bank. The cashier didn’t check my signature against the two forms of ID they required me to show, and she didn’t question the fact that I only showed her Australian ID while the check only had my Norwegian address on it. Good thing it really was me cos it would have been easy for someone else to have their prints registered – next time I tried to enter the country my fingerprints might then have been said not to be my own. Like the evil twins some experience – check out Aviopolis, a fascinating project about airports. There’s a “visual blog” which is pretty cool except you can link to a particular entry and navigation stinks, but if you painstakingly click backwards till you get to the September 19 post there’s a story there about what it’s like trying to get through immigration when someone else with the same name as you is a drug dealer.

  4. Francois Lachance

    I found myself wondering as I was reading the entry about the failure of memory. Forgetting a PIN or a password… somewhere threaded throughout this discourse on identity which is linked in the entry to questions of entitlement [Aside: Dr. Jill/txt seems to somehow dropped the “dr” title from the blog]is a question of social solidarity: who may vouch for the identity of whom?

    A science fiction scenario: the average age of onset of neuro disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease is tied to how a network of nations manages the democratic and social security (i.e. entitlements to adequate resources for meaningful participation in governance & research) challenges of information saturation. The uncanny canary effect? Samuel R. Delany in his novels refers to the phenomenon of “culutral fugue” in the hypersatuatred info worlds he depicts. Gives one pause.

  5. Justin

    Aviopolis is very interesting. Thanks for the link. I remain conflicted about the security measures surrounding incoming visitors since the states have always been wide open and that was obviously exploited as a weakness. It is easy to say and impossible to enforce the idea of closing out undesireables from threatening nations. I don’t think it’s a smart idea to take the opinion of allowing certain security based technologies to monitor and store personal information simply because you “have nothing to hide”. This is a common statement made by people in response to the blanket idea of security.

  6. Norman

    Travelling in the States after 9/11, I found overwhelming support, from “ordinary” citizens, for increased security measures. As a negro lawyer, who surprised me by the manner in which he opened up, said “We wouldn’t have put up with this before, but people’s attitudes have changed now.”
    I’m surprised, by the way, that your Bosnian neighbour saw the disintegration into bloodshed as unexpected. Even here in distant Australia many, in my circles were discussing its likelihood well before the violence erupted. Two of my favourite Jugoslav proverbs [I never did know whether they belonged to a particular ethnic group] have long been:
    “Tell the truth and run.”
    “If you wish to know what a man is, place him in authority.”
    Sadly, they summed up the problem all too well.


    Have yourself a merry little Mithras.
    That’s Mithras, Mithra, Mitra — not “Mothra”! Jill/txt’s “Network Politics”…

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