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Tag: online identity

One Key, Offline and Online, to Open All the Doors

Many keys on a key ring

When I was in high school, I used to have long conversations with the principal in his office. I wasn’t there because I’d misbehaved, I sought him out because he was one of the most interesting people in the school. It was a K through 12 Alternative School, so there were lots of interesting people around.

One afternoon we got to talking about keys. I said that the janitor seemed to be one of the most powerful people in the school. He had a key ring with what looked like a hundred keys. This appeared to give him access to all the locked doors on the premises. The Principal smiled and pulled out a key from his pocket. “This key,” he said, “opens every door in the school.” Now that’s a powerful key.

That’s the vision that haunts the internet identity movement — one key to rule them all. But is one key the right number? We have more than one key in our offline lives. We mitigate risk by having different kinds of keys. The key to my car can only be duplicated by the manufacturer. My house key can be duplicated by the hardware store down the street. I give copies to close friends, in case I lose my set. Keys are access tools, they don’t correspond to identity or personas in the offline world.

Would I really want one key that I could use to access everything in my life — both online and offline? How many keys should I have? One way to answer the question is to say, the right number of keys is determined by the size of my pocket.

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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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