Written for Omidyar Network's Good ID project and first published to the project's blog.

good id

I love the way Derek Parfit introduces his book Reasons and Persons:

“We are particular people. I have my life to live, you have yours. What do these facts involve? What makes me the same person throughout my life, and a different person from you? And what is the importance of these facts? What is the importance of the unity of each life, and of the distinction between different lives, and different persons?”

The more you study it, the more you realize that identity is a tricky concept to grasp. There are many different ideas to describe what it is and what it does, but Parfit's emphasis of its innate social nature appeals to me. After all, what good can identity serve should you find yourself all alone on that fabled desert island, apart from different persons?

My identities form with others, as theirs are formed with others and with me. It's a product of relationships.

And those relationships? They're established and defined through interactions.

If per chance you have only considered identity on what might be described an individualistic basis – atomistic perhaps – dedicated to the enumeration and differentiation of individuals, then the assertions here may sound odd. Until that is you ask who might seek to know an identity, to make the distinction and for what purpose, at which juncture you’ve arrived smack in the middle of an interaction signifying a relationship. Whether your intent is to establish identity out of difference or difference out of identity (Grossberg), your subject only makes sense in the context of social relationships.

While I'm the same person throughout my life, I am also different. What do I share for example, socially speaking, with the little chap tottering off to his first day at school in the 1970s? Indeed, I feel different from just a few years ago, and fully expect to feel different again in the future. In fact, the way I conceive my own identity can vary from one context to another in the very same day. That's living. Being. Becoming.

Given this entanglement beyond ourselves, so to speak, let's look at identity by not looking at identity directly. Let's look in between.

We have already established that identity and relationships need each other. They cannot be said to exist to all intents and purposes without each other. Additionally, we've also noted that relationships involve interactions, which social scientists and information theorists will tell you entails the exchange of information.

Identity. Relationships. Information.

Together, these constitute a triarchy that Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers argue are the essential conditions and domains of organizing — which in human terms includes what we call society.

The domains are mutually constitutive and inseparable. In plainer language, they prop each other up.

  • Relationships are formed with information exchange between identifying (and always evolving) individuals in identifying (and always evolving) organizations
  • Identities assemble from whom we know (relationships) and what we do (entailing personally and socially material information)
  • Information is contextual to individuals in relationships.

the triarchy

This conceptual mutualism is unsurprising. The naturalist, environmental philosopher and so-called "Father of the US National Parks," John Muir, famously noted:

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

In a similar vein, the anthropologist, social scientist, and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson enjoined us not to focus on any thing as if it could ever be considered in isolation, but on "the pattern which connects."

Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.

At the AKASHA Foundation — a non-profit born at the intersection of blockchain and collective intelligence — we don't then work on identity per se, or indeed "digital identity" as it's become popular to say. We work in between (on the blue arrows in the diagram above), and aspire to do so with the interdisciplinary rigor that Gregory Bateson considered essential.

For example, our emerging framework for the assembling and reassembling of social networks (to use the popular term) is dedicated to the conditions required to support the emergence of collective intelligence rather than social networking per se. It's very much blue arrows all the way.

And whereas the General Data Protection Regulation's definition of and focus on personal data places it directly in the information domain (circle) here, our research explores what we call interpersonal data.

Interpersonal data surrounds us at all scales, nesting and interpenetrating, privacy preserving, and socially meaningful. "Intelligence" is invited to the data rather than have the data go to the "intelligence." It is distributed and disintermediating, and it is about mutual value creation not property rights. The corresponding architecture is neither individualistic nor collectivized.

The following table provides a quick comparison of the two concepts:

Personal data Interpersonal data
legal natural
data subjects humans +
node-centric edge-centric
control agency
tree-like rhizomatic
facsimile cache
privacy privacy + collective intelligence

Note the node-centric attribute of personal data, i.e. residing in the information domain (circle), and the edge-centric attribute of interpersonal data, i.e. "living" and moving between.

One can adopt either personal or interpersonal data in one’s approach to identity, an addition perhaps to Jonathan Donner’s "sliders" offering alternative perspectives to illuminate the nuances of talking about identity let alone designing for it.

Good ID

Omidyar Network has presented its view of Good ID as "empowering individuals with privacy, security, and user control, and addressing power, exclusion, discrimination, surveillance, consent, and other key issues of our time."

Among a less discerning audience my immediate response would communicate wholehearted support. Here however I would also add a recommendation to augment the description of Good ID to encompass the relational, social context I have described.

I believe Good ID must distinguish between the controlling and inherently dangerous conceptualizations of identity we label noun-like, and the contextual, agency-enhancing and psychologically safer verb-like forms. Good ID system design should emanate from the "in betweenness" of the identity, relationships, and information triarchy. Good ID co-emerges with interpersonal data.

To find out more, you might enjoy this webinar for the self-sovereign identity (SSI) meetup in April 2019.

Please do get in touch if you would like to talk in between — that would be really good.

Image credit: boypoolrhizome, copyright Mark Ingham, reproduced with permission.