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The global ambitions of the biometric anti-bank: Net1, lockin and the technologies of African financialisation

Keith Breckenridge

International Review of Applied Economics, 2019, vol. 33, issue 1, 93-118

Abstract: This paper follows the development of Net1 UEPS—the firm that, until recently, delivered social grants to a third of the South African population—from its origins in the precocious interbank networking systems that developed here in the early 1980s to its position as the outstanding international agent of biometric banking for the world’s poor. The paper shows that an unrelenting engineering effort lay behind the company’s growing infrastructural dominance. Two decades ago Shapiro and Varian labelled this strategy lockin, and the paper shows that Net1 followed their suggestions to the letter until the very recent public debacle that shattered the company’s control over its South African market. The paper also suggests that networked financialisation should be understood as the product of carefully and consistently engineered technological interventions designed to address political and economic interests in the face of political and legal constraints and regulation. This is to argue for a return to the idea of soft determinism in the study of financialisation: that key technological changes are motivated by and support political interests.

Date: 2019
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DOI: 10.1080/02692171.2019.1523836

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