27 July 2006

Will the Real David Weinberger Please Stand Up?

David raises an interesting question about identity over at Joho the Blog:
Identity isn't a continuum with anonymity at one end and documented, certified, authenticated ID on the other. It probably never was and it certainly isn't online. There's a third vertex: Pseudonymity. Pseudonyms online are not midway between anonymity and ID. They're different in kind, but enough on the same plane that any discussion of anonymity and ID that does not include pseudonyms is likely to go wrong.

It's hard to find an exact analog to this in the real world.
[How about costume parties? MF] Social roles aren't really the same as pseudonyms. But that means that we have to be extra special careful to include pseudonyms in our thinking so we don't port inappropriate real world schema into the new virtual world, especially since the porting is being done top down by the traditional fear-based organizations (big corps and governments).
Here's my response:

What David is really asking about (or rather, what I hear him asking about) is the construction of identity. I think that we as a society have become so dependent on the visual and tangible that we mistake construction of identity with visual familiarity. The visual aspect is manifest in everything from the North American/European obsession with body image to the parental fear over our young children trusting familiar strangers in parks. The tangible aspect is revealed in the choice of language - "virtual" used in reference to that which exists in cyberspace, in dichotomous opposition to "real," referring to that which exists in physical space.

David's strawman identity continuum reflects this erroneous dichotomy (i.e., virtual::real mapped onto anonymous::certified-grade-a) which is, I think, an artefact of the former dominance of the visual in modern society. In the UCaPP environment of our contemporary world, the dominant sensation is tactile, not visual (tactile as distinct from tangible); complex networks of relationships are key to the construction of identity.

The problem with social roles (in traditional role theory) is that they tend to be defined as discrete, fragmentary and contingent. Not so when they are considered as complex patterns of effects in relationships (this was the underlying premise of my master's thesis on Role*). In this context, I would understand each instance of pseudonymity as one (among many) emergent identities in the context of a complex environment of relationships, that does not correspond with either a visual, or a nominative (and possibly others already defined by regulatory or legislative agencies, for instance) identity.

I agree wholeheartedly that identity schema porting done by fear-based organizations is problematic in the extreme. The type of derivative identity construction from a set of digiSelves haphazardly gathered against a ground of paranoia and fear gives us the error-filled TSA watchlists, and cases of immoral and illegal detentions and renditions. Sadly, the type of complexity thinking required to solve this conundrum seems to be mutually exclusive with BAH (bureaucratic, administrative, hierarchical) organizations in general, and authoritarian organizations in particular.

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