Tagged Like Scallions

Computers and the human body should have an allergic relationship. Computers are not a good metaphor for the human brain. They bear even less similarity to the rest of our fleshly existence. But computer technology is relentless in pursuit of a world of pure order. The raggedy, undisciplined human body, and all the stupid things it does, calls out for a debugging programme to correct it. It’s a long-standing fear. Descartes, writing in 1641, thought that humans could become ‘hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs’. As the micro-world of DNA and the genome become the lucrative science of the everyday, our inner, bodily world has its boundaries invaded once more by technology.  In October 2004 the United States Department of Food and Drug Adminstration approved a plan for RFID tags to be placed under patients’ skin. Now they’ll beep on their way into theatre like pizzas at a Tesco’s checkout.

RFID means Radio Frequency Identification. It’s a technology developed, superficially at least, simply to allow things to be tracked. When the Sunday supplements turn towards imagining the future of your home, the central eccentric feature is usually the fridge that will remind you that the milk is about to go out of date. If such a thing were useful at all, it would come about by RFID. A tag on the milk cartoon would be read by the fridge, which, being a computer-chipped version of your worst imaginable flatmate, would then be just busting to tell you that the sell-by date was only two days from now. RFID is ‘revolutionary’, of course. But only because it can use the GPS systems which cars and mobile phones now carry as standard. It seems more likely that it may be a long term way of doing what businesses have desperately desired for years now – to be able to follow the consumer home.

Ironically enough then, the RFID idea is one that has its roots in its exact opposite – that is, in stopping people leaving the house, or at least in knowing when they have gone out to get milk. Electronic tagging of ‘offenders’ was piloted in the UK in Manchester, Reading and Norwich between 1995 and 1997. It was introduced on a wider scale in 1999, and by then it already included using tagging for those aged between 10 and 15 years old. Tagging was made possible initially through the hated Criminal Justice Act of 1991, amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994. So tagging has a longish history. Long enough in Britain to be unremarkable. When Jermaine Pennant played for Birmingham City wearing his tag (he’s a seriously bad driver) it was the first time a Premier League player had worn one in a match – but it was hardly much of a record, since it’s been done several times already in the lower leagues.

Quite why tagging has become so popular is hard to say. Saving money should be the obvious reason. A 2001 Home Office report suggested that 1,950 prison places were ‘saved’ and the net benefit to the Home Office was £36.7 million. I guess this is, in their terms, good money. A year before, though, another bit of Home Office research on tagging 10 to 15 year olds found that, if the whole scheme for juveniles were to be ‘rolled out’ across all of England and Wales then the saving would be £0.03 million per year. Which must be about half a social worker. Not great.

Penal systems are never so simply reduced to economics. They are the places at which societies like to believe that they deal sternly with their own embarrassments. Baroness Blatch, promoting the juvenile scheme in the House of Lords in 1997, gave tagging a nicely shoulders-back, take-responsibility, ‘stakeholder’, New-Labour spin:

[Tagging] will be a means of keeping them at home, off the streets and away from shopping centres, clubs and other places where they may get into trouble. By keeping young people out of harm’s way we believe that the curfew order should be able to prevent young offenders from reoffending and help protect the public … This is at least one opportunity to bring family and child together, enforced though that may be. There may well be positive aspects of that.

The enforcement of family happiness through electronic means seems unlikely to succeed – the BBC tried it in the early days of public service radio, and it didn’t work for them. Still, the judiciary were willing to give it a go on these grounds. The H.O. reports one magistrate who Baroness-Blatched: ‘It is very useful as it imposes on the parents … it enforces what should be parental responsibility, making sure they know where their kids are, what they are doing’. Which may well be true but imagined the imposed mayhem indoors. It’s hardly dealing with a problem – instead it’s just keeping it explosively inside, where decent people won’t have to look at it. And it can backfire. One young offender says of his mates and the tags: ‘They all want one. People was actually going out trying to get in trouble to get a tag’. Subversion of the system or pure idiocy? Impossible to tell, which at least makes it truly anarchic.

Looked at critically, we might think of electronic tagging as surveillance substituting for proper policing – a panopticon for our times. However the electronic tagging of offenders is like most technologies. It gets tested out in peculiar, confined circumstances before widespread commercial use. Just as the internet was developed for the military and the universities, and then came to bear out its universal commercial potential, the tagging  of criminals was an experiment to prepare the ground for more important uses later on. Roger Clarke, an Australian campaigner against tagging, says: ‘We are always going to tag the institutionalised first – because they are prisoners and we have power over them. But we are also going to tag grandma in the senile dementia ward’. Sure enough RFID tags are now ‘in’ patients in the US. Clarke finds himself dismissed as a Luddite Casssandra:

When I spoke about this in 1994 people said I was going to extremes and talking nonsense. Now, less than ten years later they have a commercial product. I cannot understand how naive people are … This is a unique identifier. You will be walking down the street saying hey, this is my number, because your chip is promiscuous and it will talk to any bloody thing that wants to talk to it. It is unbelievable.

Cadavers, the potentially-cadaverous, the criminal, the socially unacceptable. All are being tagged now, bar-coded into order. The ultimate sign of things to come is that since 1st January 2005 the US Department of Defense (who are quite busy) have made it mandatory for RFID tags to be used on everything they get from contractors (they don’t say whether this includes prisoners).

So far, tagging of offenders has only happened on mainland Britain. For us it sometimes looks like an English problem – an insight into the world of borough council estates in places most of us have heard of only through the football results and know only by way of ‘Wife Swap’. But like several penal experiments in history, electronic tagging was (well, kind of) tested in (Northern) Ireland before it was used on the populace of England. After BSE broke in the late 1980s, cattle in Northern Ireland were tagged and traced by computer – by this means they became globally edible again before their mainland British relations. We may not have made the transition from the bovine to the human yet, but if we ever get back to devolved government watch out for it. The suggestion was made in the Assembly in 2002 that the model of juvenile tagging brought in by the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998 should pertain to Northern Ireland. In the same year, and presumably by small coincidence, the Northern Ireland Office issued a report on Crime which suggested the very same thing. So when, one day, we are back up and running as the self-governing, self-loathing people of Northern Ireland we can expect an announcement from Minister for Justice, Gerry Kelly, that all hallions will be tagged like scallions.


[The Vacuum, April 2005]


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