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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Control: the unstated logic of technological advancement


There have been some stories in the news over the last couple days that might be of interest to folks who read some of the recent posts on here. First, we have more developments in the application of vein and biometric identification.

Reuters reports that "Japan's Hitachi Ltd. said on Tuesday it aimed for 100 billion yen in sales of its finger vein authentication systems over the three years to March 2009, up from several billion yen a year now." That's quite an increase. Hitachi points out that finger vein ID systems, which can be as tiny as a matchbook, are much smaller than iris identification systems.

An AP article, however, touts the benefits of iris identification: "Iridian Technologies Inc., based in Morristown, N.J., has developed a smaller camera that costs under $1,000 and can photograph the iris of a user 18 inches away..." In Colombia, banks increasingly use fingerprint identification. Almost one quarter of the customers at Colombia's fifth-largest bank, BanCafe, registered to use the new technology when fingerprint ATMs were installed. Fingerprint transactions now make up fifteen percent of the banks total. The technology has so far made limited gains in the United States.

Researched continue to push forward, with technology driving need, since the security is not really lacking in the current ATM system. "If I'm a thief and I've got the card, I still don't have your PIN number, so how could they use it?" said Connie Steele, 57, of West Milton, Ohio. Despite the lack of a pressing need for the new technology, the AP reports:
Supporters of the technologies are confident that bank customers eventually will accept the new ATMs.

"The real holy grail in biometrics," said Jim Block, Diebold's director of global advanced technology, "is let's get rid of the PIN so no one has anything to steal anymore."
While ATM security is the argument being advanced here, it's not the real reason for advancing the technology.
Later this year, NCR plans to begin selling finger readers to stores for use by employees and customers who volunteer. The technology is designed to speed up checkout and to prevent theft. The scans verify which cashiers are operating the registers in case there is missing cash and the identity of managers who approve customer checks.
The real purpose is to further reduce the space that the system does not control and cannot account for or regulate. It's important to note that despite the general claim that technology is neutral, we see here that, as in most cases like this, there is in fact an often unstated value judgement implicit in its application. Who says that stealing from the register is wrong? Or that it is always wrong? And, of course, speeding up checkout will increase the exploitation of cashiers by increasing their workload, and it will likely shrink the number required while also de-skilling them and making them easier to replace. This reduces their ability to bring their collective power to bear on management to resolve grievances by withholding their labor. That means no more raises.

Further, the reduction of the opportunities for acquiring cash without the state or capital knowing reduces the freedom we all have. Non-payment of taxes will become increasingly difficult, along with black market or under the table transactions. Unofficial income will become increasingly suspect and at the same time easier to detect. Perhaps more importantly, the amount of flexibility that we have with regard to method and time of payment will be reduced as well, as technological systems generally require very specific categorization of inputs. We've all experienced trying to do something on a computer that ought to be really simple but just isn't possible because of the programming or hardware. And, finally, revolutionary movements very often require less than legal methods for acquiring cash to fund their operations.

But, we'll eventually accept it, the experts say. Of course, will we have a choice? In this case, as in almost every case, technologies are applied to our lives without even the slightest bit of democratic input from those affected. If we don't want them, we'll get used to them. Just because a small technophiliac power-mad elite wants it, the rest of us must get used to it.

The article, "Teen Learns He Can Serve Without Joining Military," posted on the Kansas City InfoZine webpage offers more insights on non-lethal military technology. It opens,
Sixteen-year-old Travon A. Turner always dreamed of working for the Defense Department as an engineer, creating nonlethal weapons for the military. But he thought that dream would never become reality because he didn't want to serve in the armed forces.

Turner didn't know DoD had civilian employees until he heard Air Force Col. James J. "JJ" Campbell talking about the civilian work force in remarks during "Viva Technology Day," at the 17th annual conference of the Hispanic Engineer National Achievement Awards Corporation.
This article doesn't really need much analysis. The text and quotes speak mostly for themselves.
He said the Viva Technology event was fun because he worked on an electronics project with students from other schools. "The ideas they had were ideas that most people wouldn't think about," Turner said. "We made a project about changing the molecules of water by taking out the two parts of hydrogen and leaving the oxygen. Then we combined the oxygen molecules to provide people with air when there are not any trees left. But there is a bunch of water, and they can just convert the water into air."
Science will save us once science has destroyed all the trees, or, as Turner himself says, "If there's a problem, there's an engineer to solve it." The converse is also true. Turner talks about what he wants to do once he's working for the Department of Defense:
"I'm not interested in weapons for killing people, I'm interested in nonlethal defense weapons, such as weapons that can shut down cars," Turner said. "I want to invent the types of weapons that will protect the United States and other countries without killing people."
Poor Turner. Again, we see technology being portrayed in a neutral way when in fact it carries with it massive value judgements. First and foremost in this case is the legitimacy of governments using this technology, which presumes a legitimacy of their goals. It shouldn't be a radical statement to suggest that there ought to be a democratic debate on those goals. It shouldn't surprise us, though, that what pathetic little debate there is about US policy goals seems absolutely gigantic compared to the debate we are having about the means planned with which to achieve them.

Getting into more specifics, the Independent UK reports on the new generation of non-lethal crowd control weapons. Ominously titled "Revealed: police's new supergun will blast rioters off their feet," it mentions several new technologies. As usual, the political issues are left out of the debate, and the justifications for the weapons, beyond the vaguely tactical ("to disperse mobs or disable enemy troops") get no press, but the underlying logic is again one of control.

The article is worth reading to see what the capitalists and the state are developing for the future, but I thought the most telling quote was this one: "Modern technologies have also made it much easier to create new arms..." The more we research, the easier it is to research. The more technology we have, the easier it is to make more weapons. Note that the quote does not say, "modern WEAPONS technologies." This is the whole system we're talking about. Weapons technology cannot be isolated away from the rest of it, as some would have us believe. One kind of research benefits another.

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