The contributions to this book explore a phenomenon that appears to be a contradiction in itself – we, the users of computers, can be tracked in digital space for all eternity. Although, on the one hand, one wants to be noticed and noticeable, on the other hand one does not necessarily want to be recognized at the first instance, being prey to an unfathomable public, or – even less so – to lose face.
The success of today’s booming biometrics industry resides in its promise to rapidly measure an objective, truthful, and core identity from the surface of a human body, often for a mixture of commercial, state, and military interests. Yet, feminist communications scholar Shoshana Amielle Magnet has described this neoliberal enterprise as producing “a cage of information,” a form of policing, surveillance, and structural violence that is ableist, classist, homophobic, racist, sexist, and transphobic.
Biometric machines often fail to recognize non-normative, minoritarian persons, which makes such people vulnerable to discrimination, violence, and criminalization: Asian women’s hands fail to be legible to fingerprint devices; eyes with cataracts hinder iris scans; dark skin continues to be undetectable; and non-normative formations of age, gender, and race frequently fail successful detection. These examples illustrate that the abstract, surface calculations biometrics performs on the body are gross, harmful reductions.
A visual motif in biometric facial recognition is the minimal, colorful diagrams that visualize over the face for authentication, verification, and tracking purposes. These diagrams are a kind of abstraction gone bad, a visualization of the reduction of the human to a standardized, ideological diagram. When these diagrams are extracted from the humans they cover over, they appear as harsh and sharp incongruous structures; they are, in fact, digital portraits of dehumanization.
Face Cages is a dramatization of the abstract violence of the biometric diagram. In this installation and performance work, four queer artists, including micha cárdenas, Elle Mehrmand, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Zach Blas, generate biometric diagrams of their faces, which are then fabricated as three-dimensional metal objects, evoking a material resonance with handcuffs, prison bars, and torture devices used during the Medieval period and slavery in the United States. The metal face cages are then worn in endurance performances for video. Face Cages is presented as an installation that features the four performance videos and four metal face cages.
The computational biometric diagram, a supposedly perfect measuring and accounting of the face, once materialized as a physical object, transforms into a cage that does not easily fit the human head, that is extremely painful to wear. These cages exaggerate and perform the irreconcilability of the biometric diagram with the materiality of the human face itself–and the violence that occurs when the two are forced to coincide.
In a recent interview, Forrest Stuart, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, talks about his experiences spending five years living on Skid Row. The Los Angeles neighborhood, in the heart of downtown, is known to house one of the highest populations of homeless people in the country. The 34 year old was doing research for his book, “Down, Out and Under Arrest: Policing and Everyday Life in Skid Row,” hoping to find a way for police and policymakers to eliminate the criminalization of poverty. On the subject of the American Dream, by which Americans pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, Stuart said: “I was like, ‘Well, let’s go see if somebody who’s fresh out of prisons, let’s go see somebody who just been evicted, let’s go see somebody who’s maybe just recovered from a cocaine addiction. Let’s go see if some of these people actually can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.‘” You can read more of the interview and hear about Stuart’s experience at the Fusion website. http://fusion.net/story/333851/forres… http://www.wochit.com
While spending time with gang members in the South Side of Chicago to conduct fieldwork for his forthcoming book, sociologist Forrest Stuart would regularly check Twitter and Instagram. He’d be surprised to find that the young men he was hanging out with, often in perfectly mundane situations, were posting pre-prepared images and videos of themselves wielding guns.
“I discovered all this flexing on social media,” he tells me over Skype. “I’d be standing right next to these guys and realise they were posting things that were nothing to do with what we were actually doing.” Some of the young men didn’t own and had never used a gun. They simply borrowed them to stockpile photos and videos of themselves holding weapons, later curating an intimidating social media profile that they would drip feed onto the internet over the coming days and weeks.
Drill artist Digga D has found a young, engaged audience through social media, despite some of his videos being banned
“I’d be driving them across town in my car, and when we’d pass a rival block they’d start taking selfies out the window, pretending they were on their way to do a drive-by,” Stuart continues. “Another time, in a cold Chicago winter, I was sat with a young man who was babysitting his little sisters. We were in his living room watching music videos on the television. But when I checked Instagram, he was on there posting photos pretending to be stood in the blizzard outside protecting his block.”
It is no secret that social media platforms are shifting human behaviours, habits and interactions all over the world. People are increasingly able to use digital profiles of themselves to extend or invert their physical realities, and thus manipulate their social, professional and moral worlds for all sorts of benefits and incentives: the prospect of meeting a new lover, the lure of branded money from sponsors, the endorphin-hit of likes and shares, and chase votes and political power.
By the end of his senior year in a Philadelphia high school in June 2017, Jamal had missed out on completing his certification in the culinary arts, playing on the basketball team, attending prom, and walking across the stage at his graduation. He was barred from working a job to help his mother pay the bills. He wasn’t even allowed to leave his home — all on the order of a judge. But Jamal hadn’t been convicted of a crime. Jamal lost a year of his life because — like many testosterone-filled young men — he acted tough on his social media accounts.
Jamal, a young black man — whose name has been changed at his request due to confidentiality concerns — was swept up in Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program, an initiative meant to crack down on gang violence but which has instead been used to criminalize entire social networks of young black and brown people. Philadelphia police arrested him in September 2016 on a gun charge after an officer in the department’s South Gang Task Force identified Jamal as a member of a gang. How had that officer made that determination? As officer Matthew York, a member of the task force, later testified in court, it was largely based on photos and tweets that appeared on Jamal’s social media and which York believed associated him with a gang, as well as Jamal’s appearance in a friend’s music video, a video that the officer believed was “gang-related.”
Philadelphia’s Focused Deterrence program, like similar programs in cities around the country, relies on internet surveillance. Police officers mine social media for possible gang affiliations of young people, then compile that “data” and feed it into gang databases. Police officers target young people in the databases — who may be included for as little as flashing a gang sign in a Tweet to bragging about a crime in a music video on YouTube and Facebook — for on-the-ground policing. State and federal prosecutors also get their hands on the social-media “data,” using it to shore up criminal cases. Philadelphia modeled Focused Deterrence after criminologist David Kennedy’s “Ceasefire” policing model, which, as I previously reported in IThe Appeal and The Nation, focuses policing on small groups of individuals (often referred to by police departments as “gangs”) that purportedly drive community violence. The Kennedy model and its offshoot programs have been deployed by many cities, including Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans.
But the “data” police feed into these databases, for the most part, has little bearing on reality. Indeed, in December the City of Chicago settled a lawsuit with a man who was falsely included in its sprawling gang database. Across the country, young people are swept into these databases and then targeted by police — just because they bragged about actions they had no part in or made threats against rival groups they have no intention of following up on…