If your work involves architecting or designing or developing or policymaking for the interweave of people and digital technologies, or researching the consequences, may I invite you to check out my new essay: Human identity — the number one challenge in computer science.
Wonderfully, I've been helped by thirteen reviewers offering more than two hundred questions and suggestions over six months. The work has been funded 🙏🏼 by the AKASHA Foundation, and is co-published with the brilliant Kernel community. Here's a very quick outline ...
Computer science conceptualized digital identity to serve its initial market — selling its wares to governments and large organizations to manage inventories of users, citizens, and customers. Computer science adopted the tenets of legal and bureaucratic identity wholesale, inclined to consider people as just another machine for lack of any imperative to think otherwise at the time.
Digital identity has not been designed to rise up to the roles and operations that the vast majority of other disciplines (e.g. psychology, sociology, cultural studies, history, political science) attribute human identity. It's designed explicitly not to be contextual, malleable, multiple, social, temporary, subjective, dynamic, emergent. Most fundamentally, whereas digital identity is merely a thing to render users legible to the system for authentication, authorization, and/or record keeping, human identity is a socially vital process and sense-making capacity. In short, digital identity as it's currently conceived and operationalised is not what you might call human at all.
This disparity may have been OK(ish) when ‘the digital’ was somewhat detached from ‘the real world’, but we’re at least fifteen years on now from that being the case. 'The digital' is irreversibly fused into the fabric of our lives with the growing pervasiveness of social media, the mass migration from big screens to small ones, and the astonishing growth in the computing and sensory capabilities of those small screen devices. It is inappropriate to continue referring to such devices as phones; they represent our exobrains and exo-peripheral nervous systems. They are our interface into and through 'the digital' just as we are the interface for digital systems into the analogue world.
Regardless, the operations of human identity remain forever essential for dignity, autonomy, cooperation, and flourishing. The exponential expansion of digital identity now being contemplated — cheered on by technologists and policymakers alike — threatens the continued operation of human identity. What are they not yet seeing? How are the celebrated protocols toxic? And how must we proceed from here?
The drawing used at the top of this blog post and for the front cover of the essay © Marc Ngui. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
Timo Hotti says:
I've been thinking about this a lot myself. Some results here:
Executive summary: I think we agree about many things.
14 December 2022 — 11:51 am
Hi Timo, thanks for leaving a comment here. And thanks for leaving a link to your own blog post. Having read your post however I'm not sure that I can say we agree about many things for two major conceptual reasons.
First, you appear to have adopted a working definition of trust (which you refer to as analog trust) that is effectively opposite in a certain way to how the social sciences conceive it. You write as if an official document might imbue trust in a relationship. Rather, trust entails one party making themselves vulnerable to another; i.e. not the attenuation of that vulnerability. Documentary evidence may be provided to lessen the vulnerability, but the trusting relates to the vulnerability itself and not its lessening. Given that trust is the foundation of human community, eradicating its operation entirely is to utterly transform the material nature of society, and one might reasonably suppose not in the best of ways!
Second, your writing pivots on what might be referred to as the legal or bureaucratic notion of identity, part of a category I label noun-like, and not the way in which it works naturally as conceived in overlapping, complementary and contextual ways by every discipline with an interest in the matter that isn't called law or computer science. If "[w]e have a network, where the identities are represented by agents that are properly bound with the real-world entities", then, unconstrained, we are well along the road to a dystopia.
Less importantly but still useful in terms of making progress here I think, you define digital trust in terms of its effects rather than its operation. If Alice may be said in common parlance to trust a technology, the trust is effective between her and those people involved in the design, manufacture and delivery / operation of the technology rather than the technology itself. Trust is a social not a technological construct.
I share your concerns for the concept of SSI trust registries but for different reasons. The flaws you list are based I think on a misunderstanding. The existence of a trust registry is, at the moment at least, an institutional device and does not proscribe individual attestations.
15 December 2022 — 8:57 pm