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Digital Identity, Like Putting on your Sunday Best

dressed_up

When we talk about internet identity, it seems as though we’re only speaking of consenting adults. We discuss women and men of free will accepting or rejecting products from the open market place of identity. The user of identity products is a consumer, shopping for the best deal on identity– as though it were a suit of clothes. (We can make inferences about the politico-economic environment of such a free agent, but let’s bookmark that for later discussion).

Those of us who are digital immigrants view the Network as something selected, a destination we chose. And as the Network is optional, so too is the digital suit of clothes we call internet identity. For the digital native, the Network merely is. It’s a quality of the environment into which a person is born. It’s a bell that cannot be unrung.

Can internet identity restrict its sphere to the population of adult consumers? Is identity really only a matter of commerce? Sitting across the table from Doc Searls at the recent IIW, we were discussing the future of digital identity. The extent of the lifecycle of digital identity has its origins in the discussions of the adults who’ve freely taken on the responsibility of shepherding the direction of the discussions on identity. Doc quotes Lakoff on the embodied mind, our metaphors– our frameworks for thinking are hard-coded into original equipment manufacturer’s hardware.

…we produce moral metaphors that equate light and up with good and dark and down with bad because we are diurnal animals that walk upright.

When we use the word “we,” we also make assumptions about who we are and who we aren’t. Let’s take a moment and enlarge the set of all those with a digital identity. Each day, some number of people are born and some number of people die. When a baby is born, it is given a name. That name is entered into a database on the Network. At what point does digital identity bind to a new person? Is it at the moment of conception? The quickening? At birth? Or is digital identity more like a contract or an oath with suitability requirements.

I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion

Children begin life as a part of their mother, and then they live within the identity of the family. During the teenage years they go through the painful process of separating and establishing a unique identity. They visit the thrift stores of our culture and try on various suits of clothes in various combinations. An adult identity is fashioned from the iterative process of finding the pieces that seem to work.

Phil Windley told me that he’d reserved gmail addresses for his children. I wonder if a digital native, when thinking of names for a new baby will consider what’s available in the dominant digital identity name spaces. One can imagine the middle name gaining a new prominence in this kind of economy.

At what point do we teach our children about the Network and the digital identity they already have on it? A librarian friend told me that, in addition to teaching children how to find a book in the stacks of the library, she teaches them how to search for things online. Is learning about the Network still an elective course of study for the digital native?

At the other end of the spectrum, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil— what is to become of our digital identity? When our affairs are put in order, will that include signing out of the Network? Shall our last will and testaments specify the dispensation of our blogs, waves and twitter streams? Shall they be withdrawn from the Network (to the extent that anything can be withdrawn) and cremated? Or shall they be embalmed and left as a standing monument to one’s sojourn? Will the digital identities of the next Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean be reincarnated into corporate entities that will continuously animate them as long as they are profitable? Will each person’s 15 minutes of fame be cataloged, indexed and searchable for the rest of eternity? A kind of eternal recurrence of the same?

Martin Heidegger writes about human beings (dasein) as a thrown project. We are thrown into the world and land with a particular trajectory. None of us select the world into which we emerge.

Heidegger proclaimed that we are ‘thrown’ into the world and that our Being-in-the-world is a ‘thrownness’ [Geworfenheit]. To Heidegger this concept is a primordial banality which had long been overlooked by metaphysical conjecture. Humans beings are thrown with neither prior knowledge nor individual option into a world that was there before and will remain there after they are gone.

The digital natives born into this time will pull on digital identity like a well-worn leather jacket. They’ll put on their Sunday best when trying to make a good impression. They’ll wear a t-shirt with a company logo while out for a Saturday jog. They’ll wear an orange vest, picking up trash on the side of the road, doing public service. They’ll carry a handbag whose primary design is the maker’s logo to impress their friends. They’ll resent wearing the uniform of the fast food worker for their first job out of high school. They’ll be proud to wear the uniform of the military of their country. They’ll create fashion out of the thrift shops of the streets of the inner city and watch it reflected on the runways in Paris and Milan. They’ll settle on a comfortable daily uniform and declare that style is too much trouble. They’ll declare that they won’t wear fur because it troubles their conscience. After buying their first custom tailored suit of clothes, they’ll look in the mirror to take in the full effect, and then smile and nod. They will judge and be judged by the clothes they wear.

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