I found myself in the Dublin Airport arrivals terminal recently being funneled into the bright wall of facial recognition machines, eagerly waiting to scan your mug against their database of all the most notorious criminals and terrorists from around the world. My mind couldn’t help drifting back for a moment to the beautiful simplicity of hastily throwing open my passport and handing it to a fed-up security guard behind a desk as high as your chin, and with a quick glance at my prepubescent-esque photo being sent on my merry way home. Yet, with a little bark by the gate-staff to get a move on, I stepped on the green laminate footprints and looked where they asked me to. The whole alien process took just under a minute, but it was stressful, and it left me feeling sorry for the poor people who just couldn’t work the things. However, as I went home the experience had me wondering about what it means to recognise others, and how this relates to arguments surrounding the usage of facial recognition technology. 

We recognise people every day in very simple ways that we often think are unique to ourselves, the smile of your mam or dad, the particular way a friend laughs, the colour of someone’s hair or even little overlooked mannerisms. The notion of recognition is a much-discussed topic in philosophy and is incredibly important socially and for the formation of the sense of self. Recognition always involves a subject/object relationship, whereby the subject (the recogniser) objectifies or in other terms perceptually analyses the other (the recognised) as if they were an object in the world. We actively encounter this interaction every day of our lives unless we live alone like hermits. When we encounter another person, whether we are passing on the street or chatting in a coffee shop, we recognise the other person through a variety of bodily features and social skills. Most importantly, we recognise the other person as an autonomous free-thinking agent that can recognise us along the same lines. When you see common features in the other person, you generally react positively and may become friends for example. 


For many scholars, this interplay is how we develop a sense of self-consciousness. We always stand in relation to the other free-agents and they are always spatially and perceptually in relation to us. We ultimately determine our own selves and our value through our relational interaction with other people. The biggest proponent of this type of theory was the 18th century German philosopher Hegel, who foremost claimed that we gain self-consciousness only by interacting with autonomous subjects. In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ he states; ‘Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized’’. For Hegel, this formation of the self is integral to our ethical and political lives and we continually depend on receiving and dishing out recognition. Even if someone seems as though they lie outside the system, who may even make it their goal to stand out from the crowd (remind you of that Emo phase of yours?), regardless they are still perceived in relation to this very crowd. Without the crowd made up of equally free agents, there would be no full conception of the self for Hegel. This interaction also presupposes a set of norms that we recognise others by, like a sort of check list that can vary from recognising human bodily form to other areas like skin colour that can lead to more pernicious outcomes. This begs the question, who designates these norms?


Within a particular socio-political context, people can become marginalised by certain institutionally or historically established norms or values, recognition can become inadequate which in turn causes misrecognition. This warped form of recognition dehumanises a subject, and strips them of their autonomy in the eyes of the other. The academic and author Franz Fanon describes being forced to profoundly question his own conception of selfhood on a regular basis because of the often-subtle gaze of racism. Hegel also addresses the often-brutal struggle for recognition in what he terms as the master/slave dialectic, whereby the master destroys the notion of mutual recognition with the slave. The establishment of exclusionary norms weighs in heavily on the discussion of facial recognition software used in policing because when using a rigid algorithm to determine recognisable criminality, certain factors need to be taken into account such as whether black people will be targeted far more because of arresting and sentencing biases or predominantly black mugshot databases for example.

At the moment, tech companies are rushing to fill the demand for these sort of ‘antibias’ and ‘recognition’ tools which are based on algorithms and machine learning, a shocking example of this is when in 2016, researchers at a Chinese university claimed they had trained an algorithm to distinguish criminal from noncriminal portraits, through the analyses of particular micro facial features. This poses the threat of other huge companies such as IBM and Amazon creating technology that allows them to make similarly sweeping statements about criminality based upon recognisable physical traits. The question that this situation leaves us with is whether socially constructed institutions can commit acts of general misrecognition, as non-material bodies like the state, the police, and the law can radically alter a subject’s notion of the self and the self’s relationship with the social world. 


Aaron Collier – Philosophy Columnist