13 December 2007

On Identity - 2

The essay below first appeared in the programme for Super Vision, a show in the 2006 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in Wellington. What with the recent police anti-terrorism raids in New Zealand, which swept up a wide range of political activists, it has become more relevant in the interim.

If you live in a city, you cross the path of hundreds of people every day. Some, you know - or think you know. Others are strangers. Who are they, really? What do they want? Where does their loyalty lie? What's in that backpack? Who are they staring at, anyway?

Help in answering these questions may be on its way. In the United States, research is said to be well advanced in a technique known as "brainwave fingerprinting". Its proponents claim that the method, which involves monitoring the responses of the subject's brain to a series of pictures flashed on a screen, can show if the subject recognises an image - whether it's of a phone number, an individual, or a specific location. Wondering whether someone has attended a particular terrorist training camp? Just flash up the image, and the subject's own brainwaves will give them away.

From the perspective of the modern security state, this technique does have disadvantages. It requires a specific individual to be singled out of the herd, have a headband - a patented headband, no less - attached to their head, and be compelled to look at the images. What's really needed is a scanner that can check brainwave fingerprints at a distance, without needing any images to be shown. That way, a whole crowd's thoughts could be scanned at once, with suspicious individuals then picked out for further processing.

Now wouldn't that be kind of cool?

During the course of the twentieth century, nation states, and other powerful actors such as large corporations, took advantage of advances in technology to increase the amount of information they held about individuals. The widespread use of computers merely accelerated a trend that was already underway. In New Zealand, a range of government departments are permitted to match the data they hold on us, to detect crimes ranging from social welfare fraud to tax evasion.

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, many countries enacted security laws which greatly increased the state's power to gather, hold, and refuse to release information about its citizens, and about foreign nationals. New Zealand's Terrorism Suppression Act 2002 and subsequent amendments are not as draconian as the USA Patriot Act or the recently-introduced Australian legislation, but there have been suggestions that New Zealand laws may be "brought into line" with those of our major trading partners.

In the US, the FBI can seize the library borrowing records of suspected individuals. In Australia, it is proposed that a person who reveals that another individual has been the subject of an anti-terrorism investigation can be imprisoned or fined. Are such measures on the cards here?

Almost as long as governments have been accumulating such bodies of knowledge about their citizens, writers and artists have been warning of the consequences. Perhaps the first great novel about state power and the loss of individual identity was Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, written in 1919-20, in which humans are known by numbers, not names, and all aspects of life are regulated by a mathematics imposed by the State.

In 1946, George Orwell - himself the bearer of a duel identity, for he was born Eric Arthur Blair - reviewed We for the Tribune. In his review, Orwell notes that We must have influenced Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. In turn, many critics have noted the influence of We on Orwell's 1984, which was published in 1949. All three novels deal with the breakdown of the individual, and the notion of individuality, in the face of an omnipresent State which exercises complete control over the lives, loves and thoughts of its minions.

In the 1980s, the cyberpunks took a different tack. The "consensus universe" of cyberpunk fiction was one in which governments were absent or irrelevant. Megacorporations ruled, and in their interstices, hackers made their living by "jacking in" to the omnipresent Net (which cyberpunk poster boy William Gibson named the Matrix, long before the Wachowski brothers adopted the term for their movie franchise). Humans interfaced with computers directly, and sent their minds roaming down virtual corridors guarded by shadowy AIs and lethal "black ice", as Raymond Chandler met Hugo Gernsback uptown.

You can still see characters jacking in to the digital world in such children's afternoon TV programmes as Digimon and Megaman, but the relationship between humans and technology seems to be evolving in the opposite direction: rather than jacking in to computers and thereby incorporating them within our consciousness, we are giving an increasing part of our identity over to machines. The PDA, the 3G cellphone, the wi-fi network: they've all got a part of us, a part that can easily be tracked or hacked.

But I suspect Terry Gilliam's 1985 film Brazil hits closest to the mark. Gilliam's film has the totalitarianism, the cruelty, the omnipresent State; but the workings of that State are also fantastically inefficient. The inefficient and arbitrary workings of totalitarianism depicted in the film have a strong resonance in our world, in which people can be arbitrarily disappeared because they have the same name as someone who appears on a terrorist watch list - who in any case may have got on the list because an informant was out for revenge - or arbitrarily killed because they happen to be on the wrong subway train at the wrong time. The collectors of information, the dispensers of death, have acquired power without accountability. It's the perfect combination.

In a world where identities multiply and fragment, where each of us is surrounded by a penumbra of data over which we have less and less control, let's not kid ourselves that we're immune from such concerns. Satellites pass overhead. Powerful computers monitor signals that pass to and from our shores. In windowless offices, analysts look for words of concern. Big Brother is certainly watching. Perhaps he thinks we've got something to hide.

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