Prints in the Sand of Time: The Construction of Uniqueness before Biometric Authentication
What is the story of constructing uniqueness in India prior to the arrival of biometric authentication, with all its hybrid predicates such as digital fingerprinting, iris, voice and facial recognition? Can this history be narrated merely by tracing sporadic moments spurred by new research and administrative interest in fingerprinting and anthropometry? Alongside these advances, it is critical that we also examine how ‘uniqueness’ entered the realm of documentation, leaving its prints in the sand of time. Where India lacked an elaborate centralized system of fingerprint registration along the lines of apartheid South Africa, fingerprinting made its way in an enduring sense, into the world of pensions and jail warrants. Simultaneously, it is critical to note that the birth of postcolonial modernity was tied up with the mandate to verify families at the dawn of Partition – in this sense, uniqueness was manifest in cross-indexing families and ration cards through practices such as serial numbers, counterfoils and indents. We will see how technologies did not necessarily emerge consecutively but concomitantly as witnessed in the intersecting post-Partition uses of photography and serial numbers. The talk will conclude by looking at the early trends of biometric identification in the 90s across disparate realms of food distribution, election, and immigration, with a couple of conjectures on what prompted the post-2000 turn to cloud and number-based authentication.