[Dave Birch] The idea that people might be represented by signs rather than names is actually rather an old one, and I’m not saying this just because I went to see the artist currently known as Prince in London last week. From a technical perspective, I can see the obvious advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, there are a lot more signs than there are names and they are a help for the illiterate. On the minus side, it makes issuing identity cards a lot more complicated (although a lot more interesting as well). But I also think that signs carrying a meaning that names do not: I quite like the idea of a sign for my individual persona, a sign for my work persona, a sign for my play persona and so forth. This would have the effect of communicating my persona to counterparties in a rich way, like choosing a pseudonym but acting simultaneously as an identity selector and a mask. Who do you want to be today, so to speak. Since I believe firmly that we have to develop a this richer notion of identity before we can make progress digitising it, the connection between signs, logos, masks and pseudonyms is fascinating.

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As it happens, I have already have a sign, a personal logo. I explain it on my personal web site: it goes back many, many years to a time when a friend of mine was doing a project at art college and had the idea (which I thought crazy at the time, but now it now seems visionary) that in the future because more communication would be visual and personal, so people would need signs. I suppose it’s another example of it being artists, rather than technologists, capturing the essence of the future if not the implementation.

By the way, I thought that the Latin title of the post means “each to his mask”. It wwas taken from an anonymous 16th century portrait cover reproduced in Valentin Groebner’s “Who Are You?: Indentification, Deception and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe)” that I’m reading at the moment. I used it because it thought it was useful to reinforce the point that a sign is a kind of mask in a way that a name (or a digital signature) is not. My sign communicates something about me as that is more than identification, making for a richer interaction. Unfortunately, Latin wasn’t part of the curriculum at my bog standard comprehensive so I had to go and look it up, and I found this explanation in a discussion of Holbein exhibition

In 16th-century Europe, the idea of the portrait was anything but simplistic or trusting. It was an age of suspicion. Courtiers practised a pleasing mask to present to their prince. Princes were encouraged, by Machiavelli, to lie to their subjects. Religious division meant that dissimulating your faith might be essential to stay alive.

A painting that dates from about 1510, and is today attributed to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, in the Uffizi in Florence, makes this anxiety explicit. The portrait is of an unnamed woman, sad, enigmatic; it has been variously called The Veiled Woman and The Nun.

But even more mysteriously, it comes with a “cover”, a painting designed to slip over it and conceal it. This false panel is painted with grotesque reliefs including, disturbingly, a humanoid, flesh-coloured mask with tight lips and black, empty eye-holes. In Latin, a painted inscription reads Sua cuique persona – “To each his own mask.”

To each his own mask. This is a long way from a simple notion of identity, of depiction. We present masks to the world and a portrait is a record not of a self, but a mask, a performance, in which subject and artist conspire. It is a fiction. It is not to be taken at face value.

Would it be classy (or pretentious) for a blog to have a motto? If so, I hereby solemnly claim sua cuique persona for the Digital Identity Forum blog in perpetuity.

These 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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