[Dave Birch] Earlier this week I went along to the Identity Society Open Space meeting up at the top of the BT Tower, which was fun because I’d never been up there before after all these years.  Unlike many people I was talking to at the meeting, I was never taken up it as a kid, before it was closed to the general public because of the threat of terrorism.  Anyway, the Open Space was very interesting even though I only had time to sit in on two of the discussion groups.  I first joined in with the group who were discussing what identity actually is, because I thought that would be a useful basis for further discussions, but in fact it served to remind me that there are many different viewpoints and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so difficult to create a rigorous model for digital identity. Then I sat in on discussion about whether you own your own identity which (setting aside the legal input to the discussion, which was that we hadn’t agreed on what "you", "own" or "identity" meant) also led to enjoyable debate.

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Just for atmosphere, here’s the view from the top of the BT Tower, looking out over Regent’s Park…


Now, many of the initial discussions would be familiar to many people who have been involved in identity debates before, especially people who harbour the same suspicion as me that we haven’t really got to a good definition.  So we began by asking if a hermit dropped his identity card in a forest with no-one else around, would he still have an identity, or something like that.


Then we moved on to consider the simplest (and in many ways the oldest) perspective, which is that your identity is the thing that is the same about you over time.

One or two people put forward the perspective identity only exists in relationships, what is referred to often as the "social identity" and so the debate moved along on fairly familiar lines.

I did rather object at one point to the line of argument about it being "only words", because I do feel that identity is a place where arbitrary technological choices made deep down in the engine room have profound societal implications.  In particular, and reflecting back on Ben Laurie’s phrase concerning "anonymity as the substrate", I feel that uniformed decisions made about basic architecture by people who don’t really understand either the technlogy or its implications (eg, civil servants and management consultants) will have serious consequences for society and therefore the architecture needs profound analysis.

Still, it did take a good ten minutes before anyone mentioned Jung.

I thought one useful strand of the discussion was about whether personal identity transcended biology: in other words, when (in the not too distant future) you upload yourself into a computer as your body dies, would you need to get a new identity card or not?  It’s sounds ridiculous I know, but it’s an interesting thought experiment that helps bring out some very deep-seated feelings about what identity actually is.

I was also interested in the discussion thread about identity as some kind of surface, some kind of impermeable membrane with a real but unknowable identity "underneath".  So, even if you can do some kind of brain scan on me, you could never know exactly (Heisenberg and all that) who I am.  All you can observe is a mathematical projection of my identity on the membrane, but just as cartographic projections always involve some kind of distortion.

In practical terms, I was left feeling that the "virtual identity", "digital identity", "real identity" model that we’ve been using for tackling client problems is good enough for the time being, but may not be quite rich enough to capture all of the aspects of interest in the future.  For now, it’s case closed.

My opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public.
[posted with ecto]

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