Archive for August, 2008

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Digital Identity: Ceremonies of the Mask

African Masks

Part of the ceremony of digital identity is binding identity artifacts to the person. There’s a sense in which these artifacts become real extensions of a person. They are augmentations, but the binding is very real. Think about how it feels to lose your keys, your wallet, your favorite pen. The human factors around digital identity remain an undiscovered country.

While listening to Dick Hardt talk about his Firefox plugin Sxipper to Phil Windley on Technometria, I began to think about anonymizers. These services are used to obscure a person entry point into the Network. I can see a future point where our relationship with identity becomes more sophisticated, we could use Sxipper to do three things.

  • Jack into the Network anonymously
  • Manage our personas and roles as we interact with various digital agents on the Network
  • Keep track of common interactions and compile them into macros

Sxipper, or some similar tool, will be on your phone, on your USB fob, a key on your keychain– it becomes your entry point to the Network. There’s a sense in which this relationship is more sophisticated, but at the same time more primitive. We will be consciously donning masks to present ourselves in the social space of the Network. The Network was largely populated by publications and transaction scripts; it’s starting to be populated by people.

Imagine that world, and then imagine losing your keys. The feeling of absence, a part of you gone missing, unmasked. The vows taken in the binding ceremony have been broken.

Micro-Objects: I have no mouth and I must scream

I have no mouth and I must scream

The analogy to Harlan Ellison’s classic story isn’t there at all. But somehow the phrase fits anyway. As I think about Jessie Stay’s post about the implementation of the “in_reply_to_status_id” parameter in Twitter, and the matching of the metadata element by Identi.ca, I keep coming back to J.L. Austin’s idea of the speech act. This new parameter is a connector that enables a network of conversation. The elements of a conversation are not objects, but rather speech acts of the subject.

“What does it matter who is speaking,” someone said. “What does it matter who is speaking.”

Samuel Beckett
Stories and Texts for Nothing

The 140 character limit of the Tweet and the Dent ties the form to the SMS. The SMS is tied to the phone and the transmission of voice. It’s the writing that’s closest to speech and the performative utterance. The Tweet/Dent is the combination of the speaker and the spoken. Identity is implied. When a micro-object speaks, does it remain an object like any other object?

Root Identity: Mesh Identity

Real ID Act

I blame the terrorists. The movement to create national identity cards was given fuel by the attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent formation of the Department of Homeland Security. The “concept” is that by issuing government sponsored official identity documentation we would introduce a control point in the process of differentiating “us” from “them.” There is a lively debate about whether such a system could be spoofed to somehow allow “them” to acquire identity cards and pass themselves off as authentically one of “us.” There’s no question that such an identity card would create a glaring single point of failure– the program meant to get the ball rolling is called the Real ID Act.

Personal identity is the sameness of a same person in different moments in time.

A simple frame for understanding the potential problems with the proposal requires focusing on the idea of the One and the Many. (those seeking extra credit can explore Hegel vs. Locke and review the STI’s white paper on Digital identity.) Can one national root identity be made strong and authoritative enough to be the foundation for all digital identity instances? In the future, will you have a single root identity provisioned by your government? Will you co-own your identity with your government, or will they have a 51% controlling interest when it comes to anything important?

Digital Identity is a man-made thing, an artifact, that refers to a person, and is different from a person.

An alternative vision is based on user-centric ownership and assertion of identity. The claims an individual makes to establish her identity and reputation are validated by many different sources, both strong and weak. Rather than a single root, the foundation is rhizomatic, or a mesh of validated relationships and reputation. A government issued identity card can, and does, have a role in the mesh — the question is whether it should be authoritative or simply continue to contribute to the whole.

Yes, but how does an Identity Mesh help us fight the terrorists? Well, no one thing will be a silver bullet. But you could argue that assembling a complete meshed identity across multiple active relationships would be more difficult than compromising a single authoritative root identity. The conversation about personhood and identity systems is taking place in the context of Homeland Security. The unintended consequences of selecting this tactic to enhance our national security are vast. Ask George Orwell.

As we discuss how to mesh together identity across social networks there’s a shadow falling from overhead. While the concept of a metaverse doesn’t seem in the offing, we are starting to create an augmented reality through the combination of these services. Identity will be at the foundation and creating that foundation will be a political process not a technical one. In fact, the political must limit the technical if we are to preserve the inalienable rights of our democracy.

The Razor and the Blade: Kumbaya Economics

There are a number of narratives located in the words “open source.” The most dominant narrative is the story about software development and maintenance through tightly coordinated iterations via inputs from a potentially unlimited and unbounded number of interested parties. The economics of open source require the diversification of the carriers of value from the traditional modes. I’ve purposefully begun this exploration with economics rather than the concept of free access to source code.

It’s the idea of “free” that has expanded to connect up with other “free narratives” to create confusion. It’s a kind of utopian vision: free beer, free speech, free love, free software. A binary opposition is generated that pits free + generosity against price + greed. The moral elements of the equation rise to the surface when comparing alternative software solutions. There’s a utopian narrative that has attached itself to open source software and simultaneously detached itself from any rational economics. It’s a story of free beer rather than free speech, and is utopian in its original meaning of “no place.”

Safety Razor

Chris Anderson has focused the conversation with his forthcoming book called “Free.” The emerging economic model he describes is woven from value transactions across multiple delivery and product modes– some free others at a cost. This blend results in a sustainable economic system. It’s the combined value of the whole set that matters, not the percentage of free delivery modes vs. pay delivery modes. And as we move further into the attention-gesture economy, the methods of payment will be more diversified as well. One-hundred-percent free in all modes, for all time, is simply a method of incurring debt. At some point the system has to come back into balance, either through the addition of a revenue component or bankruptcy. Hobbyist or enthusiast systems work through the attention-gesture economy, but so do services like The Google.

There are thousands of open source projects, but the ones that combine well with commercial projects are the most active and well supported. The number of active projects is actually quite small. Entrepreneurs are constantly searching for new combinations to produce excess value at viable margins. As products become more modular, value migrates to design. Apple’s operating system combines open source infrastructure with a highly-customized human interface. The combination creates superior value.

There’s a temptation to believe that all the players in a commercial market should contribute openly to the commons– that we should all come together and sing kumbaya. The fact that every new digital product will contain some form of open source module doesn’t change the competitive landscape. Companies may sing kumbaya, but they still wield the razor and the blade, and that’s as it should be.

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