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Category: social graph

The Balance of Identity

This happened some time ago. I’m not sure when. The balance tipped.

It used to be that identity was asserted based on something you knew, something you had, or something you are. Online identity was centered on the individual. “Two factor” was another layer based on the same fundamentals.

Recently, more than a billion unique email addresses and passwords were posted to a hacking forum. Ideal for credential stuffing attacks by malicious hackers. The data was decrypted, the protective hashing removed. The breach was made up of 12 files and 87 gigabytes of plain text.

As a matter of fact, corporations and hackers have more of your identity than you do. They have more control over your identity data than you do. They can extend your identity into the world in more ways than you can. They can suck out the bits that you thought were yours alone.

The balance has shifted. Whatever it was that we thought made up our identity is now mostly in the possession of others. And not just the past, the present and the future as well.

Perhaps there’s some impression that people make upon the world that isn’t stored digitally in some corporation’s database. Maybe there’s some pattern that we repeat that isn’t used in a predictive behavior modeling program designed to increase sales.

Can it shift back the other way? What force would be strong enough to move it that way? Where would that force come from?

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Hymnody of the Network

I came across this piece of music while reading David Byrne's latest post about his new project, Contemporary Color. One of the groups in a competition he was observing performed to a song by Vienna Teng called “The Hymn of Acxiom.” A hymn is a song of praise.

Acxiom is a database company that tracks personal data on the Network. They sell that data to other corporations for a variety of purposes to be used in many contexts. When I was working in online identity, we hired Acxiom to create out-of-band questions as a second factor in user authentication. For instance, you might provide a password and then answer a question from Acxiom. For example, here are three addresses. Have you ever lived at any of them? They can create that kind of question on the fly because they know everything about just about everyone.

Traditionally a hymn is addressed to a deity. The form of this song tells us something about the attitude of the singer. The hymn is also meant to be sung by the community surrounding the deity. Stewart Brand believes that humans have supplanted the gods, and must now act like it, in the face of global warming and other planetary disasters. Certainly humans, as a species, have put a stamp on the fate of the planet and all its inhabitants. But an individual human doesn't have the power of the whole species. And as “gods” is a plural, it doesn't preclude the possibility of others. Say, Acxiom, for instance.

A Hymn of Acxiom

Somebody hears you. You know that, you know that…

Somebody hears you. You know that inside.

Someone is learning the colors of all your moods, to

(say just the right thing and) show that you’re understood.

Here you’re known.

Leave your life open. You don’t have, you don’t have…

Leave your life open. You don’t have to hide.

Someone is gathering every crumb you drop, these

(mindless decisions and) moments you long forgot.

Keep them all.

Let our formulas find your soul.

We’ll divine your artesian source (in your mind),

Marshal feed and force (our machines will)

To design you a perfect love—

Or (better still) a perfect lust.

O how glorious, glorious: a brand new need is born.

Now we possess you. You’ll own that, you’ll own that…

Now we possess you. You’ll own that in time.

Now we will build you an endlessly upward world,

(reach in your pocket) embrace you for all you’re worth.

Is that wrong?

Isn’t this what you want?



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Robots of Taste

The whole reason the feudal stacks of the Network have been tracking everything that you do is to pigeonhole your taste. If the machine knows your taste it can create a virtual simulation of your taste and then quickly scan everything available for purchase and pre-stock your shopping cart with the kind of things a person like you would like.

Things were going along swimmingly with this business model until the personal data stacks learned an uncomfortable fact. Lots of people who have money don't actually have any taste. They're not sure what they like. If you take all the personal data they've spewed across the Network it doesn't add up to any kind of coherent taste. Turns out in many cases the consumer needs to be sold on a kind of taste before they can be sold an end product. The tastelessness of the masses results in a lower return on investment.

As a nation of individuals, we are bred to believe that an array of products can be tailored to match our unique taste. The products that gather beneath our freak flag will much different than someone else's. All we require is the capital to cause the presents to materialize beneath the tree. With the millions of products circling round us, we need a refined sense of taste such that as many consumables as possible can be packed on to our taste buds.

If we can't develop a taste on our own, we'll need to purchase a few from a pre-packaged selection. Tastes accessorized with shelves up to the moon with a spot for everything and every thing needing a spot. Taste, you see, must be optimized. Simple tastes are fine for the unsophisticated, but they leave one at such a disadvantage in the age of technology.

Once you've purchased your taste the whole world comes into focus. Faced with a shelf full of soft drinks in the supermarket, you have clarity on whether Coke or Pepsi is the real thing. It's helpful if you've got your Google Glass affixed to your face so you can receive real-time updates on the state of your taste.

For the most part there's no need to keep the fruit of your taste on physical media cluttering up your house. That's what the cloud is for, your stuff is just a click away. Your taste is already conveniently stored in the cloud–think of it as a custom set of shelves made to fit your stuff perfectly. As long as you can afford to keep the engines stoked, the hunger pangs of your taste can be satiated. And you can rest assured you've invested in the optimal configuration for consumption.

As you watch the wheel of your desire spin faster and faster, it's natural to feel a little superfluous. You wonder if you stepped away would things continue whirring away. The desiring machine only requires fuel, with sufficient capital you could keep any number of plates in the air. Flipping channels from this set of pre-packaged tastes to the next.

Your Network profile shows off the set of tastes you've acquired. It tells the world that you're the kind of person who likes this stuff and not that stuff. You've optimized the filters to let in the good tasting stuff and spit out the disgusting stuff. In the higher realms of your taste you travel via negativa, here you simply separate yourself and point a finger at things that represent bad taste.

The Network stacks have a stake in binding your profile to the “real” you. If they can get it to stick, then they've got you. The binding agent is made stronger by the number of ties across a diverse set of relations. If they can erase the trace of the glue then it's a short distance to the idea that there's no outside. As in “there's no outside of Google.”

But there's always a gap. You look at the set of digitally encoded tastes you've posted to represent your world view and you can't help but notice it's not you. When people admire the profile, you identify with it. When they revile it, you distance yourself, talk about its inaccuracy. If you were to walk away today, you could create a whole new profile that might look like an entirely different person.


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The Mind’s Eye: Black Boxes and Time Machines


There was a moment in time when the internal cinema of the mind opened its doors for business and began selling tickets. It might have been in 1798 when “Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems” by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was published. This cinema of the mind was invoked through the use of unrhymed iambic pentameter, or blank verse. Squiggles of black ink sequenced in a particular rhythm were put down across rows on a sheet of paper. They were designed to induce hallucinations, to operate like a time machine that brought you back to a moment of powerful feeling — pried open your eyes and allowed you to witness that scene as it actually comes to exist in your mind.


From the Preface to the “Lyrical Ballads” by William Wordsworth:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

“Spots of time” was the phrase Wordsworth used to describe these powerful feelings that welled up spontaneously, overflowing any effort of reason to contain or define them. Contemplated from a tranquil distance, these are the springs the feed the continuing power of poetry. Defying entropy, these moments don’t strike and fade to nothingness. As Freud would later note, they become constitutive of our identity — in both our joy and our madness. They are the personal identity that persists through time and one source of poetry.

From William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude” (1805 edition):

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.


One of the pleasures of the murder mystery genre is this quality of inducing an internal vision of a past moment of intense passion. The detective surveys the scene of the murder and attempts to reconstruct the events. Witnesses are interviewed, asked to tell what happened. As the witness recounts her memory of the event her eyes shift their focus inward. The internal cinema fills her mind’s eye; she sees those moments around the crime as though they are occurring right now. She puts the vision on a loop and attempts to put it into words. In her face we can see the emotions evoked by remembrance and a reflection of the power of emotions from the event itself. The witness’s words evoke a vision in the mind’s eye — for both us and the detective. As each witness tells some piece of the story, we replay the vision, adding details, attempting to piece together a coherent narrative to replace the mystery.


In film versions of murder mysteries, the eyes of the detective are the key to understanding the kind of thing that will have to be imagined to solve the crime. The world-weary detective in a film noir has seen it all. The character of his eyes gives us a sense of what he could imagine. As he loads the witness’s stories into the projector of his mind’s eye, he must let them induce whatever visions may come. Often we can see how this process of envisioning has taken its toll on the face and eyes of the detective. In others, say the Miss Marple mysteries, we see an incongruous contrast between the seemingly normal countenance of the detective and the eyes that can imagine horrific events of violence. The internal capacity of a dark and powerful imagination doesn’t always correspond with the external physique of an action hero.


There’s a moment when everything clicks. Often it’s a moment that seems to be a break in the story. The detective, exhausted from gazing at the movie he’s constructed, turns off the projector and re-enters the world. An off-hand remark, a simple gesture, a common object seen in a new light offers the analogy that the provides the key. The puzzle pieces of the internal vision sliding around the detective’s head suddenly form a pattern with the ring of truth. This marks the beginning of the end of the story. Often at this point all the suspects and witnesses are gathered together in a room for a recitation of the detective’s vision. “Now you’re probably all wondering why I brought you here today.” Validation takes the form of the murderer making a break for the door.


In the future in which we currently reside, this method of scraping a valid account out of the internal memories of unreliable witnesses begins to seem horribly inefficient. Imagine, if you will, how it might go. The detective arrives on the scene of the murder. The victim is positively identified and the paperwork is filed.


The panel reviews the particulars of the crime and determines whether or not the victim’s black box should be released to the detective and which time machine privileges should be granted. The black box is the victim’s personal network cloud, along with all it’s corporate, medical and government cloud counterparts. This includes a stream of all commercial and financial transactions, social media transactions, voice and text mobile communications, location and personal quantification data. A unique identifier is generated to tie all the person’s data streams together into a single life stream. When loaded into the black box player, the detective can replay the victim’s life from any arbitrary point in time prior to the murder up until the time of death and after. Some data streams don’t require a living subject. The victim’s social graph and location data is used to aggregate all still and video photography relevant to the time in question. A list of additional persons of interest is generated through a strong tie / weak tie analysis of the people the victim came into contact with.


The persons-of-interest list is submitted to the panel for approval. Once approved, this gives the detective the ability to more fully explore what happened along multiple vectors. When the additional black boxes are loaded into the time machine, the detective can travel through multiple vectors and get a real 360 view of the event. The additional data really increases the resolution of the time travel experience. For murder investigations the data also includes all digital communications with built-in auto-erase functions and any sort of strong encryption.


With the data set constructed, the detective initiates the search algorithm. Based on analysis of motive, opportunity and other risk factors the top three suspects with the highest probability are identified. The paperwork is filed to allow the detective to show the prime suspects the highest probability version playback of what occurred. Each suspect is hooked up to biometric measuring machines and shown the playback. Through an automated analysis of the biofeedback the most probable murderer is identified and charged with the crime. The detective then converts the data set to an evidence set for the district attorney. The evidence set includes provenances and audit trails for all the data included.


Physicists disagree about whether time travel is possible. Given the speed of light and the size of the universe, it’s certainly possible to view ancient events as though they are happening in the current moment. Just go out on a clear night and look at the stars. But seeing old light isn’t the same as traveling to the time in which the image in that light was created. Whether or not time travel is possible in the physical universe, it’s now possible through the large repositories of time stamped stream data that we’re collecting — these so-called haystacks.


On the other hand, these are just words on a page. They’re designed to cause you to imagine a particular future, to view a movie on your internal cinema screen. They may just be a thought experiment — mere ephemera of the moment. You know, the stuff that dreams are made of.

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