A ‘real’ transaction must be captured in ink. It must be written down in the form of a contract (or treaty). Then both of the parties must abide by it. The signature seals the oath and represents an authentication of the intentions of the parties. The wet-ink signature serves both as an affirmation of personal identity and a binding agent of the identity to the logical propositions in the document. If we stop for a moment and take a look at our lives, we’ll see that these agreements are rapidly moving from static ‘ink on paper’ documents kept in filing cabinets to dynamic service contracts on the Network.
Imagine the physicality of the myriad of written agreement to which you’re subject— where do they exist? Can you see a series of manila folders containing your documents in filing cabinets, in offices, in buildings, in some number of cities far away? In many cases, the documents conveying the wet-ink signatures have been scanned, and the originals destroyed. To the extent that agreements and transaction records can be represented electronically and digitally they will be. This is a matter of the economics of storage and retrieval rather than the power of networked electronic information.
We see ourselves as a unified whole. I am ‘me,’ wherever I am. Wavy Gravy put it this way:
Always remember, wherever you go there you are, so be here now…
However, more and more, the authorized version of our selves is located in a series of databases networked within the Cloud. That data authorizes us to vote, work, travel, purchase, sell, own property and so on. As our social streams are tied to transactional data items, a much higher definition electronic picture of our ‘identities’ begins to come into focus. These words: vote, work, purchase, own— these activities are our main connectors to our society, our economy and the possibility of a private life. There’s a sense in which our personal identity can be reduced to the set of transactional verbs we’re authorized to use within the Network.
The locus of our authorized identity is shifting to this virtual data constellation. Because we’d like to be whoever we are, wherever we go. We’d like the dots connected and the right bits of data to travel between the stars of the constellation. There are some, like Tim Berners-Lee for example, who imagine a future where authorized software agents will act on behalf of an individual (and their constellation of data) to interact with other sets of structured data distributed around the rest of the Network. These service contracts will be binding for ourselves and our software agents. What is imagined is not just an extension and augmentation of our nervous system to electronic media, but an extension of our will.
We imagine ourselves at the center of this complex set of threads spinning out into and connecting within the Network. Some of the threads are at our command, others—by virtue of various contracts, command us. Imagine if the binding was broken, if you became separated from the digital representation of yourself, which entity would have more authority— which would be considered more ‘real?’ Which has more authority over your identity, your physical body or its electronic representation? Can we really say, on balance, that more of the Network will be at our command when the artifacts of authorization reside within the Network, rather than on our person. This movement of the locus of identity is not a choice we will make, it’s a slow change in the ecology of our environment, an adaptive moment.