A few nights ago, I was graciously treated to the group dinner at the Identity North conference, in Toronto. I had the opportunity to reacquaint with people I hadn’t seen since DigitalID World, in San Francisco, many years ago. Returning readers might recall writings I’d done years ago on this subject (located here). Last night was the first chance in a long time to be in the presence of a cluster of identity-thinking folks. It was a most enjoyable deja vu. Many new faces but it was almost like I hadn’t been redirected in my own work activities for six or seven years.
My assessment, based on a mere few hours and a limited number of conversations that captured the observer-participant essence of the day’s proceedings–not the actual event itself, is that the entire space remains stubbornly in neutral. The demand and opportunity has grown from a dull background buzz to a full-throated roar in many parts of the commercial/social world. The technology has become more reliable and entrenched. The discussion is more polished (like the difference between a cocktail napkin drawing and a PowerPoint slide, if you know what I mean). But beneath the polish the discussion still feels like a walk through a Middle Eastern bazaar.
That sounds negative, and I suppose it is. Basically, what I saw was a lot of passionate people with passionate opinions (almost) violently agreeing with each other… but not. The challenge that was most significant six years ago persists: there seems to be an almost near absence of agreed definition for what constitute the objects, intents, and activities of this sector. It’s still way too loose, a condition that makes it possible to both agree and disagree at the same time on just about everything.
If one were to read the scribblings I pointed to above, one would notice a decided bent toward a philosophical argument. I think that is a critical first step in practically anything, which today comes out in popular trade paperbacks as Start with Why or The Power of Why. But, at the end of the day, that is the domain of academics and long-dead “thinkers.” By this point in the development of “digital identity,” a much more practical and pedestrian perspective has to be applied. The fulsome debates about angels, pins, and polkas that I love so much are a circular cotillion. To get pragmatic everything needs to be define, whether everyone likes it or not.
Let me provide an example.
One of the discussions I had was with Dick Hardt, a man of passionate opinions who I can appreciate and respect because of that. This is not to say that I agree with Dick. A discussion I had with him and a few others is indicative though. We talked about what is or constitutes identity, provoked by a comment made to Dick that address (of residence) was not part of identity, which bled into an inquisition of the purpose of the identity.
If I have captured Mr. Hardt’s position even close to correctly, he believes that identity is the sum of all (transient) traits attributable to an individual over the course of that person’s life, all of which constitutes a prevailing identity. That being, the “handle” by which an individual can be identified in any given circumstance. Any subset–or perhaps any given related attribute–thereby constitutes part of an individual’s “identity.”
My own thoughts were rusty and stagnant from disuse. Though I think my arguments got more on point as the discussion wore on, I didn’t do a counterpoint much justice. It was later, in my hotel room, that pieces started falling back into place. (For instance, Dick, you cannot change the colour of your eyes: you can represent them as a different colour with contact lenses but that blue hue under your eyebrows tends to persist for you as an individual.) What I was inelegantly trying to get across is that the issue being argued–whether an attribute is a feature of or a fundamental element of identity–is pointless and unproductive.
Let’s use an example devoid of people to put this into bold relief.
We were standing amid tables for 12 at the Rosewood Supper Club. So let’s assume there is a salt shaker on the table. It is relatively non-descript: glass, silver top with holes in it, white substance inside. Being alone, this salt shaker is relatively easily identified as (a) a class of thing, and (b) as an individual, unique thing. Simple. Now let’s assume that I have purloined that salt shaker as my own AND that it is now amidst the salt shakers from all the other tables (wait staff having collected table settings to clear away the other tables). I want to have my salt shaker to take home for my collection, but I can’t be sure which one it is. Because they all look essentially alike and the salt content is not of concern to me, I might review the full set and pick the one that is the best sample. Again, relatively straight forward. If I really wanted to get the one that had been on my table, I could try to remember that its lid was undented and it was less than half full of salt.
In these cases, the “identity” of the specific salt shaker was not especially material until the last instant. Even then, I wouldn’t be heart-broken if I got the wrong one. The attributes of the salt shakers: material flaws and marring, salt content, where they had been and where they were now are all, arguably and if one could trace it all, part of the “identity” of that salt shaker if one pursues the line of thought that every attribute is intrinsically part of identity. That said, while true its not really relevant in this case.
So let’s change the situation a bit. These salt shakers have now been put into the storage area (and I did not grab “mine,” though I did manage to put my name on its bottom). In the storage area, the seven essentially identical salt shakers are comingled with another 200 similar shakers. Unfortunately, the previous owner of those shakers before the supper club had used them to hold and distribute arsenic. The management of the supper club agreed that I could have “my” shaker and I’ve been told that I can ask a busboy to go to the stockroom and get “my” shaker for me. Management told me I could have the shaker on the condition that I sprinkled its content into a bowl of soup and ate it. This, now, poses a challenge and risk. But I REALLY want the shaker.
So I have to place some faith in the busboy to establish the correct shaker when he goes to the stock room. When he comes back, I will have a shaker. In this case, though, I’m not interested in whether it qualifies as a member of the class “shaker,” or if it is a shaker that appears to be the one that I acquired. It has to be THE shaker. That’s what I need: certainty that I’ve got the exact right thing. The consequences could be fairly high otherwise.
What does this silly scenario tell us? It’s silly only inasmuch as the thing is a shaker and not a person. Otherwise, it is almost completely equivalent to our desires vis a vis “digital identity” and online activity–excepting, of course, that most salt shakers are not terribly concerned about their privacy.
What the scenario tells us, first and foremost, is that nobody is practically interested in identity. Nobody cares if some small and special group of attributes about a thing constitute its “identity” or if a full historical listing of attributes from time to time is required. What everyone cares about, at any given time, is the THING. That’s right. In the case of digital identity about people, it’s well to remember that what we care about is the unique individual (shaker) that we are engaged with online. We don’t care that we are engaged with a cluster of attributes because arguably many could have the same set of attributes. We’re interested in THAT ONE unique entity. And, frankly, we don’t care how that is assured.
“Assurance” is the other matter. We want to be “assured” that we have the right thing in our sights. We seek some measure of certainty because that’s how the human mind (and business) works. The gap between certainty and “what is” is known as risk. That gap is covered by money in one way or another; ask an actuary or life insurance executive.
So, circling back around to my point, I think the entire sector and people working in it would be well served if there were some definitions made and agreed to, and some conventions accepted.
1. The thing we’re interested in is the unique individual. A unique individual has a certain set of unchanging features that constitute who (s)he is. These are the core of the identity per se.
2. “Identity” is a construct that represents a way to “identify” such a unique individual based on attributes that are attached to that unique individual.
3. “Attributes” are those elements and identifiers attached to an individual that make it feasible to point to a desired target individual. Note that here I get a little weasely because some attributes might point to a class rather than an individual. Attributes can be permanent (e.g., eye colour and fingerprints) or transient (i.e., address); most are transient. The triangulation toward certainty about the individual is based on a set of attributes that are or can be attached to a unique individual.
4. Credential (digital or otherwise) is a verified artefact that allows a secondary entity to place some measure of faith in an assertion that a unique individual and an attribute are (presently) connected. For any given purpose, this credential will afford greater or lesser certainty about the unique individual. The point being that, like for the salt shaker, some times imperfect assurance is satisfactory. (In the gym, I might be identified as the guy in the blue shorts–or sweating profusely. At the bank this might be neither satisfactory nor sufficient–or true for that matter.)
The long and the short of it is that until the digital identity cognoscenti lay down reasonable definitions and stop allowing all discussions to float around haphazardly, the pragmatic development we all hope for will be delayed by agreed disagreement.
BTW: I retain the right to amend the example based on feedback and on rethinking as it plays out. There could be ongoing evolution to the details of the example I created (which, by the way, probably works better amid rounds of banquet tables…)