Identity of What?

Everything needs a digital identity.

This comes from a new book that I am writing, so I thought I would put it out here to get your feedback (for which I thank you in advance). I think it’s a useful way of helping people to think about digital identity but I’m not the target market, if you see what I mean. Anyway…


Identity of What?

We know that notions of identity will have to change to enable society to function in the post-industrial paradigm. But there is more to the subject than that. When we think about identity and identification we generally tend to think about people, as in the examples above. Sometimes we think about companies, but most of the time regulators, lawmakers and the public tend to think about people. However, people are a rather small subset of the general category of “things that will need to be identified in the always-on and always-connected world of future”.

Instead of just thinking about people and companies then, we need a bigger picture to help us to formulate digital identity concepts in context. Drawing up this bigger picture was, as it happens, an activity that directly stimulated some of the ideas for this book. The bigger picture I drew up is this:

As shown here, a simple way to start thinking about the identity big picture, sufficient for our purposes, is to begin by dividing the universe into two categories: things that exist and things that do not exist.

Things that exist are things like me, my toaster and my cat. Easy.

Things that do not exist need a little more explanation. Back to Harari  and the cognitive revolution again. He frames this revolution as the point at which “history declared its independence from biology” because human beings gained the ability to think about things that do not exist, such as Citibank. He writes that

“Corporations do not exist in nature any more than Catholicism or human rights. These are stories. Lawyers are shamen who tell stranger tales”.

Indeed, limited liability corporations (LLCs) are one of our species’ most ingenious inventions and strangest of tales. They are an important example of the things that do not exist that will need identities, but there are others. Artificial intelligences, for example.

If my conception of the future reputation economy is even approximately right then, as we shall see, the ability to recognise all of these things (that is, things that do exist and things that do not exist), to form relationships with them and produce communicable reputations from these relationships generates a workable paradigm. We can then use this paradigm to think clearly about problems and to communicate effectively to create practical solutions.

We can subdivide these basic categories further to give us a useful framework to refine our thinking and, indeed, the first part of this book.

Things That Exist

Things that exist can quite easily be subdivided into things that are living and things that are not living. Things that are living can quite easily be subdivided into people and everything else, with the possible exceptions of viruses which are a sort of grey area that we can skip over for the purposes of this discussion. I need an identity and so does my toaster.

Things That Do Not Exist

Things that do not exist can quite easily be divided, building on the distinction noted earlier, into things that are legal constructs and things that are not legal constructs. Not illegal, but extra-legal. Thus, in my head at least, there is a distinction between the identity of the company, an identity that can take part in contracts and transactions, and the identity of a “smart” “contract” which is something entirely different.

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As an aside, I can certainly imagine a future in which certain kinds of artificial intelligences are given legal personhood and the ability to form contracts but I cannot imagine a future in which the same status is afforded to apps on a blockchain, as was proposed to the legislature of Malta. That really is a discussion for another day though.

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