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05/26/2004 Archived Entry: "Identity and magical thinking"

IDENTITY AND MAGICAL THINKING. The news brings constant reminders of the push toward identity control. You don't have to look far to hear the latest about CAPPS II (which in this case, some valiant Alaskans are fighting) or ID checks for train passengers.

This ID obsession goes on despite ample and continuous evidence that it's either totally useless or seriously flawed. How many people have pointed out that most of the 9-11 terrorists would have easily passed CAPPS scrutiny? But the reality makes no difference.

We already know that facial-recognition systems -- touted as impossible to fool when they were introduced -- have absurd error levels and have never once caught a serious criminal. But that doesn't stop a major urban school district from from subjecting every visitor to facial surveillance, in hopes that some innocent looking mom or dad will turn out to be a pedophile or kidnapper.

The FBI still flubs up with fingerprint recognition -- a system we've been assured for more than a 100 years is infallible. Even while publicly hurting an innocent man in a big way, the FBI puffed up its chest and claimed that its mis-identified fingerprint was "an absolutely incontrovertable match."

Well, "mistakes are made," as our Beloved Leaders say. No system is perfect. But the extreme faith being put into ID and ID technology is something else. It smacks of magical thinking.

Magical thinking is a form of superstition in which you believe you can protect yourself from X by doing Y -- even when there's no relationship between the two. Or you think you can achieve B by doing A.

Magical thinking is a desperate attempt to control what we inherently can't control. To make ourselves feel better in the face of fear. To give ourselves power when we're powerless.

This obsession with ID is right up there. Take CAPPS II, for instance. Its major aim is to verify that the name you're traveling under is your "real" name. Okey dokey. Well, some of us haven't traveled under our "real" names in decades. And we haven't

planted any bombs. Or shot up any crowds. Or used our silverware to hijack any aircraft. And we aren't going to! While Ahmed from Saudi Arabia, who may be traveling with perfectly correct and legitimate ID, might be planning another "glorious" suicide for the cause. Or, for that matter, might not. So what gives? How does knowing a person's name prevent terrorism? Or any other type of crime?

Obviously, several things are going on at different levels:

But over all those levels lies the superstitious fear and the resulting magical belief. It goes like this:

Fascinating, too, how this very modern technological ID fixation harks back to an ancient, folkloric belief common all over the world -- that if a person knows your real name, he has power over you. Turns out to be some truth to the old belief -- although not in quite they way those old tribespeople (or Tolkein's Ents) pictured things. Governments and corporations of the 21st century really do believe that knowing our names gives them power. And with the power of the database, the scanner, and the camera -- it does.

Still, ID tracking won't work any better than a rabbit's foot for creating safety. It won't even work as well as wearing blue suede shoes (because after all, wearing your lucky shoes to a job interview might boost your confidence and lead you to come across better to the interviewer, while ID checks will do nothing).

Like walking a certain way to keep your plane from crashing, ID obsession will "work" sometimes, and in exactly the same way. Because by golly, every time you've taken exactly 43 steps down that jetway, your plane really didn't crash! So every time a plane or train makes it safely to its destination, or every time a parent turns out not to be a pedophile, the ID checkers will cry, "Success!"

Never mind that neither ID checks nor knitting-needle confiscation had anything to do with it.

Of course, magical ID obsession will be satisfying on some of those other levels. It'll make millions of ordinary folk feel better. It'll earn billions for technology marketers. It'll shore up many a bureaucratic fiefdom. And eventually, it will put all power into the hands of those who crave it.

It'll be a power they won't ultimately be able to control. But until it destroys them (as too much centralized power ultimately always does destroy), they'll hang on to it. And to us.

Posted by Claire @ 09:48 AM CST

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