Not a Better World

We are nowhere near “making a better world” with digital identity. But research on resistance to it, and especially to the centralised model of digital identification and authentication, offers routes to imagine and build up such a world.

My research field, Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D), has many seminal works to rely on. Dating back to the late 1980s, but with works on computing in low-income countries already published from the 1960s, the field was born with the underlying assumption that ICTs – a novel object, by the time of the field’s foundation – afforded the potential to generate “progress” and prosperity in less wealthy regions of the world. The field’s name effectively includes a finalistic term – it is about ICTs for development, not barely in a context where “development” would be arguably beneficial, at least within the technlology-for-development logic of the early days. The enthusiastic undertones with which the field was born have led ICT4D research to ask, are we making a better world with ICTs?

Thinking of the early days of the field, views on the making of a “better world” were supported by optimistic, but at the same time well-contextualised, stances on what technology could do “for” development. Trying to elicit the unspelled, but core assumptions of the early days of ICT4D, results in at least three statements: first, the idea of “development” now widely contested, in virtue of the colonial undertones its genealogy carried, was born as assumed to be intrinsically good, rather than generating asymmetric benefits and harm on its intended subjects. Second, the idea that ICTs were (at least capable of) being a carrier of such good “development” was dominant, and informed the actions of researchers and practitioners as the new tech-for-development philosophy picked up. Third, the patronising term “developing countries” was taken as good and well usable, with little or no problematisation of its meaning. All of this within a technology-transfer logic where “developing” countries could be, for the good of all, “modernised” through ICTs.

The ICT4D of today, however, looks very different. Thirty-plus years of evolution of the discipline, with many stories of technology transfer and increasingly, of technology being embedded in country politics and citizens’ work, illuminated the extent to which ICTs could “make a better world” for their intended beneficiaries. Stories of digitally induced harm – described by Heeks (2022) as adverse digital incorporation, where technology hurts rather than benefitting its users – contextualised the shift from a logic centred on providing ICTs to the non-connected to one aimed at protecting the connected from the harm that digital connectivity causes on them. From a field centred on “bridging the digital divide”, we got more and more on the way to becoming a field centred on combating the injustices produced, and perpetuated, on already vulnerable people through digitalisation.

Critical research on digital identity belongs to this new, critically informed ICT4D. Or better, it participates in it, illuminating the injustices produced by digital identity systems and the routes to resistance developed on them.

Digital identity research is permeated with stories of harm. To the point that frameworks on the theoretical link between digital identity and human development are used to illustrate the ruptures that such a link meets in practice. To the point that digital identity schemes have been shown, by a recent report by the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, to be linked to human right violations, defying and effectively countering the identity-for-development logic that informs national and supranational digital identity schemes. In its world at the interface among multiple fields, drawing on different theories to make sense of people’s experience of identification, digital identity research is a critical memorandum ow how we are not, in many ways, making a better world with ICTs.

But it is also a memorandum of the opposite. That is, on the shape of the world that can come.

Community health clinic, Malawi, January 2023

Digital identity research is not only about oppression. A large, continuously expanding part of it is about what can be built against systems that reduce people to machine-readable data, which subordinate people’s universal rights to enrolment in a biometric or demographic database. I have just returned from Malawi, where scannable barcodes are being proposed to help Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) capable of independently retrieving patient history. Back in India I have listened to the story of Tamil Nadu, a state where smart cards, usable from multiple household members, have been seen to bypass Aadhaar’ biometric recognition. Resistance does not always take the form of protest that it has taken, for instance, in biometric SIM linking in the Philippines recently. Resistance starts from small acts of solidarity, and from technologies that, more or less directly, challenge the centralised model of digital identification and authentication.

So it is not, in good essence, a “better world” that we are making with digital identity. Exclusions and undue surveillance, culminating in human right violations that can be dangerous and even deadly, are very much produced by it. But ICT4D research is not only about injustice. It is also about resistance, at least in equal measure. And it is through that resistance that the much longed “better world” can be made.

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