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Biometric capitalism and the future of history

- Keith Breckenridge

Young South Africans, today, have compelling reasons to read voraciously in the history of this continent.

Professor Keith Breckenridge delivered his inaugural lecture in the Senate Room, Solomon Mahlangu House, Wits University on Tuesday, 16 May 2016. This is an extract from that lecture:

South African historical scholarship, and the Humanities in general, have reached an intellectual impasse.

This moment can be described in many ways, but it is characterised, overall, by an obvious narrowness of research ambitions, the collapse of comparative inquiry, a preoccupation with pathos and, above all, a general failure of broad historiographical curiosity.

The causes of this predicament are many – it is a product of the earlier success of Marxist historicism across the Humanities and Social Sciences, the resource predicaments that confront South African universities in general, and the general weakness of our intellectual culture.

Nor are we alone in this. Across the anglophone world, historians are losing an intellectual battle to disciplines that rely on mathematical reasoning to understand and shape society.

In general terms the problem can usefully be described as a flight from the book-driven by a carefully engineered distraction economy controlled by Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook, whose combined value now exceeds $2 trillion.

Yet the condition is also clearly escapable: the Internet can also be a source of extremely valuable forms of long-form reading.

Biometric capitalism

I suggest a methodology for liberating ourselves by returning to the core questions that animated historians in the 20th century.

One example is the debate between Archie Mafeje and Harold Wolpe in 1980 that shows that South African scholars have engaged these global questions before.

Close attention to the economics of capitalism in the present, and in the future, draws out the significance – and the analytical and political power – of historical research.

South Africa and many of the other countries on this continent are currently being transformed by a new form of biometric capitalism.

Most African countries are rapidly being remade under the pressures of rapid demographic growth – with populations rising from 250 million to 1.2 billion over the last 50 years, projected to double again by 2050 and redouble before the end of the century – combined with intractable conflicts over boundaries, domestic and international national security demands, and the offerings of multi-lateral donors and international data-processing corporations.

Much of this turn to enhanced forms of state 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 unusually lethargic and constrained registration systems to their post-colonial successors, administrative infrastructures 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, such as 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 national identification database and commercial credit risk scoring apparatus derived from South Africa – a combination that aims to transform all citizens into appropriate subjects for automated 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.

While almost all African countries are experiencing similar technological transformations, the political outcomes differ in each case, and they are determined by history.

Young South Africans, today, have compelling reasons to read voraciously in the history of this continent.

About Keith Breckenridge

Keith Breckenridge is a Professor and Deputy Director in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER).

He is one of the editors of the Journal of African History and writes about the cultural and economic history of South Africa, particularly the gold mining industry, the state and the development of information systems. 

Breckenridge studied at Wits and Johns Hopkins Universities and completed his PhD at Northwestern University in 1995.

His book, Biometric State: the Global Politics of Identification and Surveillance in South Africa, 1850 to the Present (Cambridge, 2014), shows  how the South African obsession with Francis Galton's universal fingerprint identity registration served as a 20th century incubator for the current systems of biometric citizenship being developed throughout the global South. 

In 2017 the book was awarded the inaugural Humanities Book Award by the Academy of Science of South Africa. 

He has published widely on South African cultural and economic history with papers in Africa, the American Historical Review, Comparative Studies in Society and History, History Workshop, the Journal of Southern African Studies and Public Culture.

In 2012, with Simon Szreter, he edited Registration and Recognition: Documenting the Person in World History published by Oxford University Press and the British Academy, a volume of essays which examines the workings and failures of civil registration in 20 different regions and periods around the world.

He teaches an Honours / Masters course in Political Studies on "The State in Africa" and he has a B1 rating from the National Research Foundation.