Biometric Capitalism: Africa in the 21st Century

Colloquium | April 4 | 3:30-5 p.m. | 575 McCone Hall

 Keith Breckenridge, University of Witwatersrand

 Department of Geography

A new and distinctive type of capitalism is currently taking form on the African continent. States are being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth, persistent conflicts over boundaries, domestic and global national security demands, the gifts of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations, and a pervasive effort to create new forms of electronic collateral. Much of this turn to enhanced forms of digital surveillance is common to societies across the globe, but the economic and institutional forms on the African continent are unusual. The British, French and Portuguese colonial states bequeathed lethargic and constrained registration systems to their post-colonial successors -- government administrations that did little to record births, deaths, marriages or property. This administrative condition has changed little, or deteriorated, over the last half-century. Automated biometric identification systems, aimed chiefly at adults, present these states with apparently simple and cost-effective alternatives to the difficult and expensive projects of civil registration. This is especially the case because in many African countries – the paper discusses Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria – commercial banks are offering to bear the costs of building centralised biometric population registers. In doing so they have explicitly in mind the development of an unusual combination of centralised national identification databases and commercial credit risk scoring apparatuses -- an informational union that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects of automated biographical debt appraisal. This is remarkable in comparison with the earlier histories of identification and registration, and with the legal and administrative arrangements for physical and virtual forms of property that exist on the continent, but it also bears many of the earlier features of "hegemony on a shoe-string."

 jsmandel@berkeley.edu, 510-642-3903