Phil Windley claims that a technology stack consisting of self-sovereign identity (SSI) and related technologies has all the qualities of generativity. He does so in his latest blog post with reference to Jonathan Zittrain’s 2006 paper The Generative Internet. It’s a well-known and well-respected reference I offered among others in 2019 on using the adjective generative in the context of identity.
Zittrain qualifies technological generativity as a function of its “capacity for leverage across a range of tasks, adaptability to a range of different tasks, ease of mastery, and accessibility.”
Phil recommends the paper in support of his argument.
I recommend the paper to counter Phil’s broader argument and to underline the purpose and value of generative identity.
The post Generative identity — beyond self-sovereignty (2nd September) has spawned a lot of conversation in private channels and on the ProjectVRM Harvard mailing list ... some 15,000 words in exchanges with more than a dozen people active in ‘digital identity’. This post is dedicated to the most salient parts by way of making a contribution from a distance to the 29th Internet Identity Workshop (IIW) taking place this week at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Living eight time zones away, I have not yet had the opportunity to attend an IIW, and this occasion is no exception unfortunately.
This is a call to action. Whether it succeeds or not in that respect will depend in good part on how well I’ve been able to communicate the severity of the problem with the current trajectory — in terms of our psychological, societal, and ecological health — and how well I’ve been able to make the ethical case for the urgency of interdisciplinarity. Beyond that, it is in the hands of those leading the ‘identity community’.
On the basis that the video of me walking around in front of my slides isn't all that visually exciting(!), here's a cut my colleague Joshua Long was good enough to produce, showing just the slides with the audio.
I'm going to outline three ways to think about digital identity to help move the conversation forward in line with the AKASHA Foundation's purpose. I'm not claiming any neat taxonomy per se, just exploring very different degrees of nuance with radically distinct implications.
Relating to how personal and group identity is manifest online, naively
Relating to how personal and group identity is manifest online, expertly
Relating to how we might employ digital technologies to transform society's accommodations of and approaches to identity, generatively.
It seems from observation alone that quite a few technologists work in this mode, excited to be bringing pre-digital bureaucratized identity into the digital age.
The topic is so-called digital identity, a term that could be mistaken for how personal and group identity is manifest online, but actually relates to how we might employ digital technologies to transform society's accommodations of and approaches to identity.
It is not a challenge that anyone might describe as readily "solvable", as my recent webinar for SSImeetup makes plain. If anything, it is a fine exemplar for H.L. Mencken's witticism:
For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
This paper is an important contribution towards navigating this complexity appropriately. I do however identify a major problem — and therefore opportunity — relating to the conceptualizations of identity the authors have made their object. It appears they are intent on engineering for the trickiest yet perhaps the most societally important conceptualization, but then present it as a solution to a more mundane conceptualization, and one that desperately needs the balance of the former to mitigate its innate harmful potential.
I finish with a brief explanation of the AKASHA Foundation's work here. As you can imagine, this is core to our purpose.
Aldous Huxley (1937) regarded the decentralization of industry and government necessary for a better society. Norbert Wiener’s insights (1950) into the dynamics and ethics of humans and large computer systems hinted at the advantages. Marshall McLuhan (1962) anticipated a shift from the centralized mechanical age to the decentralized electronic age, coining the term global village as shorthand for such a welcome outcome. E.F. Schumacher (1973) considered decentralization allied with freedom and one of “the truths revealed by nature’s living processes”. Steven Levy’s hacker ethic (1984) includes the tenet “mistrust authority – promote decentralization”. And Nicholas Negroponte (1995) regards decentralization as one of the four cardinal virtues of the information society (alongside globalization, harmonization and empowerment).
When centralization is mediated by an organization, governmental or corporate, its best interests must be aligned perfectly and continuously with the parties subject to its gravity in the mediating context – otherwise decentralization must be preferred to avoid the appropriation and erosion of those parties' valuable agency. Importantly, decentralization demands decentralization at every level without exception for any exception would be centralization. By definition.