Archive for April, 2009

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Identity in China: Square Pegs, Round Holes


This morning over a cup of tea and the NY Times, I discovered a major new Identity System. On the edges we argue about user-centered identity, aggregated/fragmented identity across social networks, or the meaning of custodial identity and its role in commercial or financial transactions. Sharon LaFraniere, of the NY Times, writes about bestowing names, the written Chinese language and databases — and a new identity system for China’s 1.3 Billion citizens.


By law, every Chinese citizen must carry an identity card– the legacy system is a handwritten card. The government is transitioning to a computer-readable card that will feature a color photo and an embedded microchip containing data including: home address, work history, background, ethnicity, religion and medical insurance. Within this transition we can observe what is lost as we move from the handwritten to the computer-readable.

Let’s start with some numbers:

  • There are roughly 55,000 written Chinese characters
  • China’s Public Security Bureau database is programmed to read 32,252 Chinese characters
  • A government linguistics official has suggested that the new standardized list will only include 8,000 characters
  • About 3,500 characters are in everyday use

Although China has a large population, it has very few surnames:

  • 100 surnames cover 85% of China’s population
  • 70,000 surnames cover 90% of the U.S.’s population

Because many people have identical surnames, it has become common to bestow an unusual given name to create a unique identity.

“Government officials suggest that names have gotten out of hand, with too many parents picking the most obscure characters they can find or even making up characters, like linguistic fashion accessories. But many Chinese couples take pride in searching the rich archives of classical Chinese to find a distinctive, pleasing name, partly to help their children stand out in a society with strikingly few surnames.”

While the Chinese writing system may be one of the most difficult in which to manage data, it is also the oldest system of writing in continuous use. Since these new identity databases can’t read unusual characters, the government will be asking people to change their names to something machine readable. Given a logographic written language, a handwritten identity card could accommodate an infinite variety. Alphabetic writing systems don’t have this problem as they attempt to convey phonemes rather than morphemes.

This story surfaces a number of issues with regard to technology and identity. The first and most obvious is what personal data should be contained on a government-issued identity card– who controls that data and who has access to it. A more subtle issue is: what is possible with language (written and spoken) as humans use it, and what is possible within the subset of “language” that machines can “understand.” If your name can’t be parsed by the Government’s identity database do you exist? And further, should you change your name to suit the system? Should the landscape change its features to accomodate the limited technology of map making? And if you’re creating an Internet Identity system, should it be in English? Should it be national or global? How should it relate to writing systems, the marks we make to suggest things or states of the world?

What does the technology of identity reveal about the identity of technology?

Names, Spaces, Name Spaces


Language is coarse, filled with misunderstandings, hidden meanings, used by anybody for any purpose whatsoever. Language provides transit for information, misinformation, thoughts, images, vague feelings, strong emotion and indications of a vague direction. Many different signifiers can point to the same signified. And the signified is a use, a way of life, that assembles itself variously under different contexts.

Our craving for clarity gives rise to second-order languages, controlled vocabularies that attempt to rule out all ambiguity. A single signifier unequivocally bound to a single signified is an extension of Euclidean geometry to the properties of physical space.

An implication of Einstein‘s theory of general relativity is that Euclidean geometry is a good approximation to the properties of physical space only if the gravitational field is not too strong.

Unique spacial coordinates describe a single location. Names are substituted for numbers, or letters, in the Name Space. In the spheres of mathematics, logic, physics and computer programming unique objects are a requirement. To the extent that the system is without friction, noise or ambiguity, it will operate outside of time– a perfect perpetual motion machine. By definition the system must be closed, new elements would upset the delicate balance.

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations


When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language somehow too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed? –And how strange that we should be able to do anything at all with the one we have!

In giving explanations I already have to use language full-blown (not some sort of preparatory, provisional one); this by itself shows that I can adduce only exterior facts about language.

Yes, but then how can these explanations satisfy us? –Well, your very questions were framed in this language; they had to be expressed in this language, if there was anything to ask!

And your scruples are misunderstandings.

Your questions refer to words; so I have to talk about words.

You say: the point isn’t the word, but its meaning, and you think of the meaning as a thing of the same kind as the word, though also different from the word. Here the word, there the meaning. The money, and the cow that you can buy with it. (But contrast: money, and its use.)


One might think: if philosophy speaks of the use of the word “philosophy” there must be a second-order philosophy. But it is not so: it is, rather, like the case of orthography, which deals with the word “orthography” among others without then being second-order.

The question of Internet Identity ends up being a tussle about binding organic and synthetic agents to a name space with the force of law. (Local law must submit to Federal law.)  This intersection of human forms of life and unambiguous computing systems surfaces in the rise of social networks and the attempts of the semantic web movement to sanctify a second-order language. The most common example of this is the issue of claiming a username within the namespace of a particular service.

“You’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents. I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.” — Bob Dylan

Every John Smith cannot be John Smith within a namespace. In point of fact, the user with the username John Smith need not even be called John Smith. She might be Jane Doe. The “words” or “names” in the username are not actually words, they have an orthogonal relationship to language, they only need to function within the context of a particular computer program and its data schemas.

Oprah Winfrey recently joined the Twitter network. One of her first questions to Ev Williams was about how someone else could twitter as Oprah without actually being Oprah. Oprah’s name is a brand that is protected by the force of law.

In addition, Oprah is a member of Actor’s Equity which requires that each member have a unique professional name. Archibald Leach, Betty Joan Perske, Caryn Johnson, Frances Gumm and many others invented new identities for the unique namespace/brandspace of show business.

Remember: your professional name is your identity in a complex and ever-changing industry, and you may use it for 70 years – choose wisely!

The power of a username isn’t its value as a unique identifier within a computing system, it’s the value it has within a system of signifiers in our language as we speak it– in the rough and tumble world of everyday language. The value of the username “Oprah” was established through years of hard work outside of the communications system in which it was claimed. In Oprah’s case, a path was cleared for her by system admins to claim a particular name that matched her brand. Ashton Kutcher made a different choice with his username– his brand gave a unique string of letters a special value. (Username as code name, or nickname.)

As real life becomes entwined ever more deeply with the Network, it must accomodate– as Wittgenstein would call it, language full-blown, and life full-blown. A provisional or preparatory life that places arbitrary restrictions over its full depth starts out as comedy, but quickly becomes much more serious.

Continuous Orientation in the Land of the Midnight Sun


I remember there times when I was younger that I could stay up very late watching television. Everyone else had gone to bed, and I was by myself, bathed in the blue glow surrounded by darkness. It was a guilty pleasure. Usually it was some late night movie from the 1940s. I consider these experiences as part of my visual and cultural education.

When the movie was over, the broadcast day ended. To cap things off there were some announcements and then the ceremonial showing of the film “High Flight.” I remember the images of a jet plane flying, dancing through the clouds, while an overwrought poem was read in an earnest, solemn voice. It was the marker, the ceremony at the end of night. Then perhaps, a brief test pattern– and the oblivion of snow blending with my oncoming dreams.

Static on your television is random emissions of electrons from the cathode of your CRT onto the phosphor screen. Cosmic rays, (not really rays but protons or alpha particles), penetrate our atmosphere with extreme uniformity and the density is fairly well known. There is a statistical probability, then, that some of the dots on your screen are caused by them. But you can never know which ones.

That sort of ending has been pushed to the edges. In the center, the city never sleeps, the eye is unblinking, the sun shines brightly at midnight. Consciousness, or a form of it, no longer flashes its wakefulness as dawn breaks across the spinning time zones, receding as the night grows dark. The waking life and dreaming life blend in a Network that is always lit up– sleeping with the lights on.

“sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled”
-George Santayana

While you slept, the storytellers continued unwinding their threads. The story continued to unfold– and as you awake you find yourself walking into a program already in progress. But is it really any different than any other day? Didn’t the world always already spin millions of different stories outside of your earshot? It’s the points of connection, the spots where your story connects with the stories of others– that’s the bit that matters. That’s the web of connections now visible in real time.

1953: Real Time, Real People

The other night I was watching a Turner Classic Movies tribute to the photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. They showed his New York Trilogy: Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops and Weddings and Babies. The opening sequence of Weddings and Babies influenced a generation of filmmakers. It’s utter magic. Engel and his wife, Ruth Orkin, specialized in capturing real life in both their documentary photographs and the three fictional films they made together.

Engel’s films are both an art and a technology story. He wanted to get close to people, he wanted to shoot from inside the crowd on location. So he built a custom 35mm movie camera that would allow him to do just that– capture real people in real time while moving among them. The technical advances, if you can call them advances, inspired both D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers to create custom 16mm cameras for their film documentaries. John Cassavetes, Truffaut and the French New Wave owe their existence to the techniques and the economics of production pioneered by Engel.

Engel’s less expensive filmmaking technology retained all the beauty and richness of black and white photography. His ability to frame a shot, tell a story, capture the real essence of a person, edit a sequence could partake of all the richness of the medium. Today’s digital technology has reduced costs even more, where is the richness of the medium retained? Where is our Morris Engel?

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