Failures and bodies

I’ve finished Shoshana Magnet’s When Biometrics Fail and what I like most about this study is the keeping in clear sight the success of failed technological systems.  Magnet keeps her readers focused on the ways in which technological systems of surveillance and bodily indexing do not provide great results in terms of new data but are very effective at capturing economic investment and political will.

Magnet’s study is very empirical and in terms of representing her book it is important to emphasise this.  She examines prison systems and border controls.  The book uses the idea of corporeal fetishism – the idea that the body becomes reduced to a fixed set of symbols (code) through technoscientific apparatus and these symbols become exchanged for the lived body – such that the index of the body and the body become exchanged. She uses this as s springboard to think about how the failure of biometrics is also their success in that their failure exacerbates the policing of certain kinds of bodies. She points to the way that such systems exacerbate new bodily economies where only certain kinds of bodies pass.  Unsurprisingly, women of colour and queers are failed by these systems quite often.

One of the most wonderfully wry expressions in this book occurs when Magnet is reviewing some of the literature that has studied bodily complexity and comparing this to the biometrics literature. One of her arguments about failure in the book centres on the impoverished version of the ‘bio’ that pervades the biometrics literature.   She explains that this arena appears to foster incredibly reductive ideas about emotion, identity and facial and bodily expression and bases technology design on this.  Magnet counters this reductive base to the field by pointing to studies of facial expression from the early 19th century as well as referencing highlights in the study of bodily complexity in the two hundred years since. She includes studies of natural sciences, acting, psychology and social science, as well as more recent contributions from critical race, queer and disability studies. She concludes this with comment: ‘Certainly the omission of even a cursory review of this vast field of research seems egregious’ (Magnet, 2012: 43)


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