Envisioning Technology through Discourse:
A case study of biometrics in the National Identity Scheme in the United Kingdom
Aaron K. Martin
Information Systems and Innovation Group Department of Management London School of Economics and Political Science
Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy September 2011 1
I certify that the thesis I have presented for examination for the PhD degree of the London School of Economics and Political Science is solely my own work. The copyright of this thesis rests with the author. Quotation from it is permitted, provided that full acknowledgement is made. This thesis may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of the author. I warrant that this authorization does not, to the best of my belief, infringe the rights of any third party.
Envisioning technology through discourse: A case study of biometrics in the National Identity Scheme in the United Kingdom Abstract Around the globe, governments are pursuing policies that depend on information technology (IT). The United Kingdom’s National Identity Scheme was a government proposal for a national identity system, based on biometrics. These proposals for biometrics provide us with an opportunity to explore the diverse and shifting discourses that accompany the attempted diffusion of a controversial IT innovation. This thesis offers a longitudinal case study of these visionary discourses. I begin with a critical review of the literature on biometrics, drawing attention to the lack of in-depth studies that explore the discursive and organizational dynamics accompanying their implementation on a national scale. I then devise a theoretical framework to study these speculative and future-directed discourses based on concepts and ideas from organizing visions theory, the sociology of expectations, and critical approaches to studying the public’s understanding of technology. A methodological discussion ensues in which I explain my research approach and methods for data collection and analysis, including techniques for critical discourse analysis. After briefly introducing the case study, I proceed to the two-part analysis. First is an analysis of government actors’ discourses on biometrics, revolving around formal policy communications; second is an analysis of media discourses and parliamentary debates around certain critical moments for biometrics in the Scheme. The analysis reveals how the uncertain concept of biometrics provided a strategic rhetorical device whereby government spokespeople were able to offer a flexible yet incomplete vision for the technology. I contend that, despite
being distinctive and offering some practical value to the proposals for national identity cards, the government’s discourses on biometrics remained insufficiently intelligible, uninformative, and implausible. The concluding discussion explains the unraveling visions for biometrics in the case, offers a theoretical contribution based on the case analysis, and provides insights about discourses on the ‘publics’ of new technology such as biometrics.
In completing this PhD, I have relied on the support and love of many wonderful people, without whom I would not have been able to see this project through. First and foremost, I want to thank my supervisor, Edgar Whitley, for his relentless encouragement and guidance. Thank you for believing in me and being there during times of need and uncertainty. You have been a beacon of assurance the past five years. I hope this is just the beginning of a long and rewarding relationship. Next I want to express my utmost gratitude to Gus Hosein, who has been an amazing teacher, colleague, and friend. You have gone out of your way to help me during this trying period. I cannot thank you enough for your expertise, generosity, and companionship. You truly are an inspiration. I also want to thank my PhD examiners, Professor Martin Bauer and...
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