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Composite Identity: A Collection of Wholes

African Masks

Lately I’ve been thinking about identity as a composite. There was a point where I was convinced by the reversal of poles – switching from the system-based identity to the user-centered identity. An individual has many roles and she can reveal whichever identity attributes that are necessary for a particular transaction. We think of these fragments of identity as the pieces that make up the whole. But another way to look at it is to think of identity of a composite of wholes. Some elements match exactly, but live in a different name space. It’s probably not a complete list, or maybe it’s too long, but here’s an an initial take on the modes of identity. Each one could be consider a whole identity.

  • Anonymous
  • Citizen
    • City
    • State
    • Nation
    • Journalist
    • Politician
  • Social
    • Public
    • Private / Restricted
    • Artist/Writer
  • Personal
    • Medical
    • Legal
    • Financial
  • Consumer
    • Public
    • Private / Restricted / VRM
  • Business
    • Employer
    • Employee
    • Contractor
    • Proprietor

If identity is composite, should there be a single control point? If there were to be a single point of access to the management of this identity, authentication would have to be both multi-factor and multi-band.

Should we put all our eggs in one basket? With investment portfolios we preach diversification– we seek assets that don’t correlate in changing markets. It’s called covariance, we don’t want everything to go up or down at the same time. If we can’t risk a single control point, then we need to move to multiple control points. And in fact, even the ownership of identity is in question. We hear a lot about “my data” and “my identity,” but there is no data or identity outside the Network. The idea of multiple control points means more than I control my identity from multiple credential sets, it means I share control of my identity with other entities. The power and political economy of an identity is distributed throughout a network of relations. We don’t live in a frictionless plane, we live as mortals, among mortals, in this world that unfolds around us in the stream of time.


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.

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The Network’s Continental Congress: Searls, Gillmor, Windley, Arrington

Mark the week of May 11, 2008 as a milestone in the nascent politics of the Network, attending the Internet Identity Workshop, I had the feeling of participating in a kind of Continental Congress. In this regard, Doc Searls and Phil Windley are statesmen of the Network doing the good work of bringing the small and large states to the table to talk about politics, technology, interstate commerce, identity and inalienable rights. Acknowledgement is also due to Kaliya for her critical role in facilitating the dialogue through the unconference format.

Windley described the early meetings of the IIW as “brawling” among major vendors and protocol authors. A form of what Thomas Hobbes called bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). By the sixth meeting of the IIW it’s become clear that OpenID, Cardspace and SAML are emerging as the dominant forces.

The week was capped by a brawling Gillmor Gang with Robert Scoble and Mike Arrington engaged in heated debate over ownership of identity artifacts. The wall at the back of Marc Canter’s revolutionary garden emerged as an offline visual rough draft of our constitutional articles. Canter also put forward the metaphor of tentacles as the current mode of portability, and this connects directly to my observation of the general transition to rhizomatic power architectures.

Chris Saad injected the data portability meme into the flow and suggested personal Access Control Lists, in the form of a “Sharing OK/Not OK” check box on data you give to individuals or companies. It would be interesting to watch Robert Scoble manually configure a complex ACL on his 20,000+ friends (Scoble rushes in where Angels fear to tread).

The one thread I would contribute to the conversation is the idea of data liquidity. Think of data as a financial asset, as cash it is at its most simple and portable; the other end of the spectrum might be venture capital where it is complex and liquidity events are highly limited. We trade liquidity for potentially higher value when we park our data at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter or Yahoo.

  You can hear for yourself here:

In the general argument about identity and user data, Steve Gillmor has played the role of Alexander Hamilton. He argues that because we own our data, we don’t need to petition for rights not surrendered, or for exceptions to powers which were not granted. Hamilton objected to the Bill of Rights on the following grounds:

Bills of rights are in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince. Such was “Magna Charta“, obtained by the Barons, swords in hand, from King John.

Hamilton continued:

I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and in the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers which are not granted; and on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?

These are dynamic times akin to the days in 1787 when the Federalist Papers were authored. Hamilton, Madison and Jay (under the pseudonym “Publius“) often published between three and four essays per week. Doc Searls just announced at the Berkman@10 event: The Publius Project is a “compilation of ‘essays and conversations about constitutional moments on the Net’ at the singular moment that happens to be now.” There was a moment in all this when I thought we were laying down cow paths onto paved roads, but Doc has connected the dots at just the right moment.

During the process of thinking and writing about the week that was, a song kept playing in the background of my thoughts. The song is called “Playmate” and was written in 1894 by Philip Wingate. I first heard it in the film Reds, and more recently in The Savages. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about it that expresses the emotional and human center of these constitutional conversations.

I don’t want to play in your yard,
I don’t like you anymore,
You’ll be sorry when you see me,
Sliding down our cellar door,
You can’t holler down our rainbarrel,
You can’t climb our apple tree,
I don’t want to play in your yard,
If you won’t be good to me.


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My Identity is a Sledgehammer

My Head was a Sledgehammer by Richard Foreman

Perhaps the problem with online identity is with the word itself. The word carries a big payload, Freud might say it’s overdetermined, in the same way as a dream image. And as we chase online identity, we go charging down corridors to find a hall of mirrors.

The theater and writing of Richard Foreman forced its way into the conversation as I tried to deepen the question. Especially his play “My Head was a Sledgehammer,” and this bit of dialogue:

In  a certain play entitled “My Head Was a Sledgehammer,” a certain character falls deeply in love with his mirror image, although his mirror image doesn’t resemble him in many important ways. But is a much more beautiful image…

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is the intersection of a world filled with ambiguity and a world purged of ambiguity. Encoding identity and attempting to make all its attributes visible, discrete and parsable is a form of extreme technological optimism with a hidden set of metaphysical assumptions.

Ben Brantley, in his review of Foreman’s play says:

Ultimately, there are no concrete answers in this endlessly mutating universe. Mr. Foreman, as always, seems far more interested in journeys than in destinations, in the intransitive rather than the transitive. And if “Sledgehammer” has a moral, it seems to be that to try to reduce life to a formula is to deny its confounding multiplicity.

When we wade out from the shallow waters we promptly get out of our depth. When we think of online identity perhaps we need something simpler. I’m me, and my online identity is a sledgehammer I use for certain tasks.

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