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Border bodyscapes and precarious life


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Atelier 6 - G. POPESCU

Risk management strategies associated with the quest to securitize transnational mobility have triggered a technological race to embed borders into the human body. The belief is that mobile risks can be estimated from mobile bodies and efficiently eliminated along the way, so that traffic flows are not disrupted at the border. Accordingly, bodies are imagined as spaces to inscribe borders on. This logic of power has adopted a view predominant in natural sciences that sees the body as a material object that can be rendered digitally knowable with the help of technology. Biometric technologies, among others, are used to acquire comprehensive knowledge about every mobile body even before it crosses state borders. Then, these bodily data are used to classify people in terms of good versus bad mobility in order to produce categories that are amenable to risk contingency calculus. In this way, knowledge of the body results in power over the body. This is, at the same time, power over the most intimate and mobile of spaces. A closer examination reveals that such logic of spatial control tends to imagine border automation as panacea for reconciling unfettered mobility and territorial security. Biometric technology is understood as a tool that would allow predicting future threats and threatening behavior. Contrary to claims that digital border technologies simply aid human decision-making, the manner in which they are implemented suggests that border automation aims to assume self decision-making capabilities that diminish human involvement in the act of bordering. In this context, it is important to understand if biometric bordering can reduce uncertainty to make life more secure or if it is creating more uncertainty making life more precarious.

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Border bodyscapes and precarious life

  1. 1. Border Bodyscapes and Precarious Life: Techno-embedding borders into mobile bodies Gabriel Popescu Associate Professor Indiana University South Bend
  2. 2. Research context The major border-making dilemma in the 21st century is to reconcile unimpeded mobility and effective territorial security. From a spatial perspective, this has lead to a paradigmatic shift of bordering logics, from securing territories to securing flows. To achieve this in practice is to automatically control everybody and everything that moves across space. This means more borders, of more kinds, in more places, at more times than before, to enable the emergence of a global regime of technology-assisted continuous filtration that allows selective mobility.
  3. 3. Research context Risk management strategies associated with the quest to securitize transnational mobility have triggered a technological race to close the ultimate frontier that the human body represents. If borders are about achieving power through the ordering of difference in space, then the diffusion of bordering strategies to the smallest and most personal of spaces - the body - appears natural. The body makes the ideal border, as it is always at hand, ready to be performed whenever circumstances require. Embodied borders are highly mobile and utterly individual, allowing accurate movement control at the smallest scale. In this logic, bodies are imagined as spaces to inscribe borders on. They are border bodyscapes. The individual becomes a walking, talking border.
  4. 4. Research goals Understanding what kind of decision making techno-embodied borders are capable of and what are the possible outcomes of this bordering logic? Can techno-embodied borders reduce uncertainty to make life more secure, or are they creating more uncertainty to make life more precarious?
  5. 5. Biometric bordering The use of biometrics is predicated upon the need to verify a person’s identity to confirm that they are who they say they are. Underlining their appeal is the assumption that a person’s identity makes a good risk predictor, providing the basis to calculate the risk an individual poses to society. At the border, the body works much like a password: a person’s identity will be digitally read from their body part and checked against the data stored in databases or on passport chips to verify their identity. The end product is a computer generated identity that nobody really understands but that everybody has to trust. This is not the identity of a person as a social being, but the identity of an object that has been rendered knowable.
  6. 6. Precarious life Precarity is a condition of human life that relates to feelings of vulnerability due to the inability to predict the future. Despite the fact the human behavior is ultimately unpredictable given the multiplicity of contextual experiences that shape our consciousness, people have long used three main mechanisms to produce an illusion of certainty: Classification – focus on difference (but not similarity) between groups Homogenization – focus on similarity (but not difference) within groups Legitimization – focus on justification of categorization The outcome is the institutionalization of essentialist territorial categories that obscure difference and treat it as deviant, thus deterring its engagement.
  7. 7. Techno-embodied borders and Precarity Mobility, when thought of at the scale of the individual becomes spatially “atomized”. To secure the flow is to control each of its components. This represents an exponential increase of uncertainty and unpredictability levels that is too high and too complex to be managed efficiently by humans at the stationary one-stop-shop sites such as checkpoints. Automated risk management strategies where risks are “extracted” from surveillance activities are deployed to govern the implementation of a border regime that allows flows to be scrutinized along the entire journey, from the place of origin to the place of arrival. The result is a border regime in which worldwide mass surveillance practices are justified as necessary evils to secure social life.
  8. 8. Techno-embodied borders and Precarity A closer examination reveals that such spatial logic of mobility control involves a technologically deterministic understanding of biometrics as panacea for reconciling unfettered mobility and territorial security. Contrary to claims biometric technologies simply aid human decision- making, the manner in which these are implemented suggest that automation aims to assume self decision-making capabilities that diminish human involvement in the act of bordering.
  9. 9. Techno-embodied borders and Precarity This reflects a strain of Cartesianism-informed technological determinism that is blind to the fact that identifying a person’s body is not the same as knowing a person’s identity. While not being able to actually say who you really are, embodied border technologies are in fact producing one’s identity to say who they have to be. Instead of verifying that “you are who you say you are” the purpose changes so that “you are who we say you are”. Put differently, this is the 21st century version of the enduring desire to predict the future.
  10. 10. Producing precariousness 1. The secretive nature of the algorithms governing biometric borders opens them up to erratic change and lack of democratic control. 2. Every type of biometrics input (fingerprints, iris, etc.) into automation introduces more subjectivity by bringing its own representations and shortcomings into the system. These do not work seamlessly. 3. The security market is increasingly driving the adoption of biometric technology at the border. This works in many ways, from buying items are not needed to increase security to subcontracting various border functions, thus making it more difficult to establish decision accountability. 4. Data collection on peoples’ daily lives becomes a goal in itself, as algorithms generally need large quantities of data in order to increase the probability of their statistical modeling.
  11. 11. Territorializing precarious borders There are three main ways precariousness manifests spatially in a biometric border regime. First, only certain places are deemed important enough to secure mobility. This is not a straightforward geography of enclosures only. In addition to the archipelago of migrant detention centers, key segments of physical infrastructure as well as various institutional sites are also included here. Second, there is denial of access to certain spaces. As borders are embedded at individual level into the flow it becomes more efficient not to contain but to ban access and keep bodies circulating. Third, there is the permanence of temporary presence in selected spaces. Latest neoliberal strategies of labor control allow for temporary status to be prolonged indeterminately, in effect normalizing to co-presence on unequal terms.
  12. 12. Conclusions The expectation that biometric automation can by itself reduce the uncertainty of life is unrealistic and shows an erroneous understanding of the relationship between technology and society. Biometric technology, just because it uses the binary code of zeroes and ones, is not bias-free; instead, algorithms carry with them the cultural stereotypes and worldviews of the selected few who write them. Biometric borders cannot help predict the future. Instead they end up helping to create it. Evidence shows that such biometric future reduces life to simple mechanics. In other words, it is a precarious future.
  13. 13. Precarious Future