This paper is still being worked on. I submitted it to the 2014 ID360 Conference hosted by the Center for Identity at the University of Texas at Austin and was sent to present it there until I had to back out because I was still sick from attending the NSTIC meeting in San Jose 2 weeks before. Another version will be submitted for final publication – so your comments are welcome.
I was attending a day long think tank called Forces Shaping the Future of Identity hosted by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and facilitated by the Institute for the Future. A man in the audience pipped up “Are we going to Define what we mean by Identity?” I smiled :). One can’t go very far in a conversation about identity before someone asks “that” question. It always is asked when space is opened up to discuss the topic.
I have been engaged with communities of technology professionals and with forward looking civil society organizations circling around the question what is Identity for over 10 years. The simple one-liner comprehensive definition that I use is Identity is socially constructed and contextual. However it’s just one line. This paper is a Field Guide covering core concepts along with a visual language to represent them so we can talk about it in a meaningful way across the whole lifecycle from cradle to grave, both online and off and in other times. It builds on the model we used for the Field Guide to Trust Models that I co-wrote last year for the ID360 Conference.
This is Part 1:
What is Identity?
Identity is socially constructed and contextual.
Our sense of self arises first from our social interactions with our family of origin. Humans are unique animals in that 80% of our brain growth happens outside of the womb in the first three years of life. Our family of origin is within the context of a community and in this age broader society that ultimately reaches to be global in scope.
The names we have, identifier systems, attributes that are articulated all depend on our context and from there the social constructions that define these.
Sense of Self
We are told who we are by our family – they give us a name and share with us who we are.
When does it begin? When people recognize you?
When are we recognized as a person? Different cultures have different traditions.
I have had a connection with the 3HO Sikh community. When a woman is 120 days pregnant there is a celebration to welcome the spirit of the child into the community. Women who give birth in that tradition stay at home and don’t go out for 40 days after the child is born.
Self as a Part of Something Greater
We are defined by who we are connected to. Our identities as part of something greater. Children seek to understand their environment to understand where they fit in. An example from my childhood is one my first memories. I remember a Canada Day Celebration we attended in Hastings Park. Being Canadian is to be mutli-cultural. The day had different ethnic communities performing on a stage different folk dances while dressed in traditional dress. At some point they handed out Canadian flags on 30 centimeter (12 inch) flag poles with a stand made out of shiny gold colored plastic in a box. It symbolizes this point in time where I understood myself to be part of something bigger to be part of the nation I was born in along with understanding some key values.
Projection of Self
We begin to understand who we are by projecting ourselves into these contexts we find ourselves and learning from the response – shaping ourselves.
There is an African saying/word – Ubuntu – I am because you are. We are the authors of each other.
Context of Observation
The context of observation matters for shaping our identities. It defines the scope of our freedom expression our ability to make choices about context.
There are three different types of observation that are quite different.
Being Seen – a mutual act. I see you, You see me. We see each other.
Being Watched – this is where one is observed but it is not known by the observee. However it is known to the observee that they might be watched for example walking down one’s street, one knows that one could be seen by any of one’s neighbors looking out their window. One also knows that being inside of one’s own home prevents one from being watched. When walking into a store one knows that the storekeeper will see us, watch us in the store and we know that when we leave the store they will not be able to watch us. When we return to the same store they will likely recognize us (because we are returning in the same body) and know something about us based on prior interactions. In time a relationship of knowing might develop.
It should be noted that our bodies in physical space give away attributes about us that we can not proactively hide. Because we live in a society that is full of implicit bias the experiences of different types of people is different in the world. Banaji’s work on implicit bias is a starting point. Following the Trayvon Martin verdict the president gave a speech where he said that before he was president he regularly was shadowed while shopping in stores because he was stereotyped. My partner had this happen to him this fall while shopping at Old Navy and it was not the first time.
Being Stalked – This is what happens when the watching shifts from an appropriate happenstance window of time. To watching over time and space – to following and monitoring our behavior without our knowledge.
Self in Small Society
I have often heard it said that with the advent of what appears to be ubiquitous digital identity and the fact that we can be “seen” is just like it was when we lived in small societies.
In small societies it is said that there is no privacy – everyone knows everyone’s business. Their is another layer there is a relational human connection that weaves the people in this context together.
They know each other, they can understand when they are seen and know they are being watched as the move about town.
In a a small society you also know when you are not being watched when you are in your own home with your blinds drawn.
A mesh-network of relationships that form over life and inter-generationally that inform identity and role in the society.
Self in Mass Society
The self of is shaped by living in a mass society.
We developed systems using the technology of paper and bureaucratic record keeping of the state as way to give abstract identity to citizens to provide them services. This began first with the pensions given to civil war veterans. In the 1930’s a system was developed to support people paying for and getting Social Security benefits. The advent of cars as machines that people operate gave rise to the development of licensing of people to be able to drive the vehicles. These all assigned people numbers by the state so they can present themselves to the state at a future time and be recognized. It is vital to remember that we are not our government issued paperwork. We are people with our own identities, our own relational lives in our communities. We must not mistake how identity in mass society operates for what it is a system, a set of technologies to manage identity in mass society.
Self in Communities
Communities provide the middle ground in between the Small Society and Mass Society modalities of Identity. Communities of interest, communities of practice and geography give us the freedom to move between different contexts and develop different aspects of ourselves. This type of contextual movement and flexibility is part of what it mean to live in cities and particularly large cities. Where people in one context would not necessarily share other contexts. The freedom to move between different contexts exists in the digital real. The internet enabled those in more remote locations to also participate in communities of interest and practice well beyond what they could access via their local geography. We need to work to ensure the freedom to move between communities is not implicitly eroded in the digital realm. One key way to do this is to ensure that people have the freedom to use non-corelateable identifiers (pseudonyms) across different contexts they do not want linked.
Self in relationship to Employers
The power relationship between an employee and an employer is quite clear. The employer does the vetting of potential new employees. They are hired and given access to the employers systems to do work for them. When the employee was no longer working for a company because of any number of reasons – retirement, resignation, termination – the employer revokes the employees ability to access those services. This power relationship is NOT the same of an individual citizen’s relative to their government or the power relationship of a person relative to communities they participate in. In both cases the person has an inherent identity that can not be “revoked”.
Power and Context
The Self in a Small society is embedded in a social mesh one can not escape. There is no “other place” and one is defined in that society and because it is so small one can not leave.
The self in a Mass society is in a power relationship with the state. Where one has rights but one also must use the identification system they issue and manage to interact and connect with it.
The self in community gets to navigate a myriad of different ones each with its own social constructions and how power operates and flows within it. (egalitarian, religions, social) communities, work places (traditional owner, worker | worker owners | holocracy).
The start of all our conversations about people’s identity comes from being embodied beings. The beauty of the digital realm is that we can abstract ourselves from our bodies and via digital identities interact via digital media. This gives us the freedom to connect to communities beyond those we could access in our local geographic location.
Atoms and Bits
Atoms and Bits are different. The difference between them is still not well understood.
- “Atoms” Physical things can only be in one place at one time.
- “Bits” Can be replicated and be in two or more places at once.
Atoms – We each have only one physical body. Our physical bodies can only be in one physical place at once. It is recognizable by other humans we meet and interact with. Because it is persistent we can be re-recognized and relationships can grow and evolve based on this. When we move between contexts in physical space – we can be recognized in different ones and connections made across them. We also have social norms, taboos and laws that help us maintain social graces.
Bits – When we create digital representations of ourselves we get to extend ourselves – our presences to multiple places at the same time. We can use a digital identity that is strongly linked to the identity(ies) and contexts we use/have in the physical world. We also have the freedom to create a digital representation that steps out of the identity we occupy in the physical realm.
We can be an elf or an ork in a online game.
We can cloak our gender or choose to be a different gender.
We can cloak our race or choose to be a different one when we represent ourselves online.
We can interact on a level playing field when in the physical realm we are confined to a wheel chair.
These identities we create and inhabit online are not “fake” or “false” or “not real”. They are representations of the self. The digital realm is an abstraction and gives us the freedom to articulate different aspects of ourselves outside of the physical world.
In the digital realm because it is en-coded means that our our movements around digital space leave trails, records of the meta-data generated when we click, type, post a photo, pay for a song do basically anything online. We leave these behind and the systems that we interact with collect them and reconstruct them to develop a digital dossier of us. This behavior if it happened in the world of atoms in the physical space would be considered stalking. We have a stalker economy where our second selves are owned by corporations and used to judge us and target things at us.
Power in Space & Relationships
The freedom of people to transend aspects of identity from the physical world is disruptive to some of default power dynamics.
The push back against Google+’s requirement for the use of “real names” was lead by women and others who use the freedom of the digital realm to step out of the bias they experience in the physical world.
The people who were pro-real name were largely white men from privileged positions in the technology industry and implicitly through the support of the policies wanted the default privileges they enjoyed in the physical realm to continue into the digital.
Shape of Space
In the physical world we understand how different physical spaces work in terms of how big they are, how many people are in them, what the norms and terms and conditions are. We know that based on these we have a social understanding.
The challenge in the digital world is that the space is shaped by code and defined by the makers of the contexts. These contexts can change at their will. As has happened repeatedly with Facebook’s changing settings for who could see what personal information. This instability creates mistrust particularly by vulnerable people in these systems.
The commercial consumer web spaces currently have a structure where they collect so much information about us via their practices of stalking us digitally. They have enormous power over us.