"In societies of control the individual is doubled as code, as information, or as simulation such that the reference of the panoptic gaze is no longer the body but its [digital] double, and indeed this is no longer a matter of looking but rather one of data analysis." B. Simon
Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram was right when he said the gravest threat to Indian democracy comes from within. There's a slight change though -- the threat does not stem from the Maoists who are waging a war to ususrp state power by the year 2060. It comes from a super-panopticon project that aims to create a 12 digit UID/Aadhar number for the 1.2 billion citizens of India.
The UID/Aadhar, in reality a tracking, profiling and surveillance project fast-tracked post 26/11 attacks on Mumbai, is being sold to us as an ICT panacea -- a one-click fix for all the ills of a modern welfare state.
For Nandan Nilekani, the czar of India's Silicon Valley, who paratrooped straight from a corporate boardroom to the helm of the UIDAI and the UPA's neoliberal mandarins the UID project is nothing but the translation of the world into a problem in coding, the society reinterpreted as a cybernetic system with informational flows as control loops – a society subject to social and political control where privacy and dissent will remain -- to borrow a phrase from Rondald Rumsfled -- known unknowns.
It is to hide this real and devious intent that the UIDAI sings a lullaby of welfare and shows us its silicon (forgive the pun) mammaries. Who wouldn't love a technology that will plug the leaks in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and optimize the PDS delivery of food grains to the poorest of poor, all by de-duplication of identities of the 'fraudulent' Indian citizens? A good 37.2 per cent of population, according to the Planning Commission, falls under the Below Poverty Line (BPL).
Democracy can now cut the long story of its upstaging short. Why wait till 2060 for the gun-toting Maoists if you can cut five decades of crap with the UID that will roll out in early 2011? A bloodless coup in the digital realm.
The birth of UID also means that the singularity so far discussed in the realm of science fiction is already here. Not the technological singularity of domination by a super-human intelligence, but a panopticon singularity described by Charles Stross, that arises from a situation in which the human behaviour is deterministically governed by processes outside their control. With the advent of the UID, citizens will cease to be individuals and their relation with the state will be drastically altered forever. From individuals with power over our destinies we will turn into dividuals in perpetual cybernetic slave mode. Our 'databased selves' acting as our body doubles conditioning our behaviour in realtime and transforming our physical selves into zombies.
The metaphors of Orwellian Big Brother and Bentham's prison architecture pales in comparison. If in the Foucaultian vision of prison the object of surveillance was the physical body, in the panoptics of UID, the object of control is the digital representation of the body. It is no longer necessary to create a real cyborg: all you need is a virtual cybernetic double that can hold your biometric and other ID info and authenticate the Real You in all virtual and physical transactions.
UID should be opposed because it is an assault on our privacies which form the basis of free speech, autonomy and personal dignity. Privacy is a solemn zone and a powerful right by which we form opinions and express them fearlessly. We concede in private, what cannot be said in a public sphere - often political opinions and radical thoughts germinate within the four walls of a room. Journalists know the volatile power of information that is shared in private conversations with bureaucrats and politicians and of the solitary acts of whistle blowers - all which help democracy to flourish.
The UID seen in the context of its linkages with the National Population Register and the NATGRID that involves sharing of information by 11 agencies which run over 20 different databases, ranging from IT returns to bank accounts, and telephone records to internet search histories is sure to undermine democracy by infringing on our privacy in a way not visualized before. When the row over illegal phone tapping by NTRO surfaced recently the opposition was indignant. If a foxy Rs.70 million sophisticated snooping instrument can unnerve them what about the consequences of the UID whose potential for datamining and human rights infringement crosses every imaginable threshold?
In his essay Future Map US born theorist Brian Holmes quotes from scientist Norbert Wiener's seminal work God & Golem, Inc.: “Can God play a significant game with his own creature? Can any creator, even a limited one, play a significant game with his own creature?” The question we need to ask Nandan Nilekani and the UPA government is the same.
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