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Digital Identity, Like Putting on your Sunday Best


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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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?

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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.

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Relying Party: Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That

The recent Internet Identity Workshop ended on a high note with many of the participants saying it was one of the best identity events in years. While there many moments of discovery, I had a vaguely uncomfortable feeling about the discussion. In that respect, my feeling was not in sync with the general mood.

I had the opportunity to chat with Kevin Marks, David Recordon and Steve Gillmor about the state of the “Open Stack” and the overall roadmap for OpenID. You can view the conversation on TechCrunchIT. Kevin does a great job of advocating for the Agile / Extreme Programming approach to engineering an open standards approach to “identity.” His approach advocates building the smallest useful piece in an open standard that can inter-operate with the other parts of the open stack. Kevin uses the elegant phrase: “the pieces become composable.” A software engineering project can use the parts that make sense for the task at hand.

While building the “smallest useful piece” allows one to focus on a “do-able task” within the large primordial soup of identity, it does need to unfold within a general roadmap to really be considered “useful.” Recordon offered the observation that no company wants to reveal its product roadmaps. I imagine steps that don’t betray direction.

Becoming an OpenID provider doesn’t really change the status quo. It gives millions of users an OpenID, but not many of them know what that means. Smaller websites becoming relying parties doesn’t change the balance of power. Is the destination a world wide web where I can use my Microsoft credentials to log in to Google? Will we arrive at a place where any credential set can be offered up at any website for the purpose of user authentication. Many small websites are becoming relying parties, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Users rejected the idea of a single platform providing an identity model for the entire Network. Reviewing the goals and objectives of Hailstorm, it shows a strong resonance with today’s Identity community.

“HailStorm” is designed to place individuals at the center of their computing experience and take control over the technology in their lives and better protect the privacy of their personal information. “HailStorm” services will allow unprecedented collaboration and integration between the users’ devices, their software and their personal data. With “HailStorm”, users will have even greater and more specific control over what people, businesses and technologies have access to their personal information.

“HailStorm” technologies help simplify the way people use technology. Instead of concentrating around a specific device, application, service or network, “HailStorm” services are oriented around people. They give users control of their own data and information, protecting personal information and requiring the consent of the individual with respect to who can access the information, what they can do with it and how long they have that permission to do so.

There’s a sense in which the Open Standards Identity Stack is trying to recreate Mark Lucovsky and Bob Muglia’s vision with composable parts. At the time, no one could parse the language coming out of Microsoft. The concepts couldn’t bridge the gap in trust, and perhaps it was the wrong architecture in which to build that vision. Perhaps Live Mesh will fair better than Hailstorm, this time Microsoft is more in tune with the ocean in which it swims and has embraced the ideas of Open Standards and composable parts within the Network.

The current Identity movement thrives on the ambiguity of the concept. There’s a lot of room to move and therefore a lot of terrain to discover. The more I think about Identity, the more the concept of Difference forces its way into the conversation. Perhaps we call it entropy, change or time; but Differance is at the core of what we call life. And even Identity has Difference hidden within its shadows. The depth of identity does not reside with the proposition A = A; but rather in the idea that A is A. “A” is the “A” that flows through the real-time stream and is utterly changed and somehow still the same.

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