April 15, 2004


A New Type of JOHO

I'm continuing to try out new flavors of JOHO. This one is a long-ish article, unsuited to a blog, without any ancillary material. Still feeling my way...

And thanks for all the suggestions and comments about what to do with and about JOHO.


dividing line
There's No "I" in "Identity"
OR: Why Clark Kent Isn't Superman's Secret Identity


A Digital Identity is the representation of a human identity that is used in a distributed network interaction with other machines or people...

A Digital Identity consists of two parts:

1. Who one is (identity)

2. The credentials that one holds (attributes of that identity).

What Is Digital Identity
DigitalID World

The term "identity" was confusing enough in the real world. Its meaning in the digital world is even more ambiguous. Since momentous decisions about the nature of online life hang on this verbal ambiguity, we need to be extra-special careful about the real-world assumptions that are guiding our expectations about digital identity.

So, here's my program. Let's start with the real world meaning of identity. Then let's see if we can use that to clarify identity's digital meaning.

Now, here are my hidden aims:

1. To suggest that we not confuse self and identity.

2. To argue against the idea that since in the real world we go around identifying people all day, identifying people ought to be the default online.

WARNING: I'm going to go the loooong way around to say these obvious things.

Identity in the real world

Ordinary Language philosophy arose as a way out of some vexing problems. For example, we've banged our heads against the wall for thousands of years trying to figure out what "reality" is. What makes something "real"? Is it because it has matter? Is it because it exists independent of our awareness? If so, how could we tell? And is that where headwaiters come from? Many thousands of bored freshmen (and one Woody-Allen-ish gag) later, we're no closer to understanding what makes reality real.

Along come the witty Ordinary Language philosophers. Stop with all the pondering of those special words in philosophy, they say. Instead, they recommend, look at how we use them words in casual conversation, for that's where words get their meaning. For example, "reality" shows up in phrases such as "In reality,..." in which it functions like the word "However." We don't spend thousands of years trying to figure out what "However" is because we know it's just a way of telling listeners that we're about deny what we just said. Only philosophers make the mistake of thinking that "reality" is the name of something. In short: Ordinary Language analysis subverts the attempt to figure out meanings in abstraction from how they are used.

We can argue about whether ordinary language exhausts the meaning of words, yet there is a wisdom in ordinary language that I think can be useful.

So, how do we use "identity" in ordinary language? A proper analysis would gather many examples. And it would carefully differentiate between the full cluster of words: "identity," "ID" "identify," "identification," etc. But I'm a lazy sot so I'll just shoot from the lip.

Like "reality," when we abstractly think about identity, we often treat it as a noun denoting some stable object: My identity is "who I am." Yet, in ordinary language, we generally only use the word when we are going from ignorance to knowledge about someone. "The police did not release the witness's identity," for instance, is different from "The police did not release the witness's dog." A dog is a thing. An identity is the information sufficient for people to figure out which "who" is the witness, typically connecting the "who" with a name and address, but sometimes other information: "Police identified her as Mary Smith of Elmville, an engineer at a local software company."

So, maybe an identity isn't a thing after all. Maybe it's just a way the police talk when they either don't know your name and address, or when they've just figured out your name and address.

Further, just because you have an identity when the police are protecting you doesn't mean that you have an identity when there's no question about who you are; once your identity has become public knowledge and taken for granted, people aren't going to talk about it any more. If you do talk about your "identity," it's likely that you are maintaining multiples because you are a spy or a gangster, and even then you're distinguishing between who you "really are" and your false identity. That's why Superman is Clark Kent's secret identity but Clark Kent isn't Superman's secret identity. Language isn't that neat.

Likewise, we only rarely identify someone. Again, the word only applies (in ordinary language) when there's some doubt about you: I link you to some relevant information about you. The information is relevant to some action that follows from having identified you: I'm going to charge you with a crime, apologize for my rude treatment on the bus, etc.

Finally, notice that "ID" is not simply an abbreviation of "identity." We use the word "ID" to refer to the tokens by which we authenticate that some information about us (name, credit card number, age) is in fact about us and is true.


1. We use the language of identity — "identity," "identify," "ID," etc. — perfectly clearly in ordinary conversations. But, when we then try to think about what constitutes "identity" in the abstract, we start to get lost because we assume that nouns have to name things. Nah. Maybe we don't really have identities in that sense.

2. We talk about identities generally when we are trying to go from doubt to knowledge, connecting a thing or person to information about that thing or person. We make that connection for the sake of its consequences.

Identity in the online world

There's tons to be thought and said about what it means to be a person on line. I don't mean to dismiss such talk as a mistake that ordinary language analysis could solve. Not at all. I'm just not going to talk about this issue here.

When we hear "digital identity," we naturally expect it to have some relationship to "identity" in the real world. But, "identity" doesn't have a "natural" meaning in the digital world because language hasn't had time to get ordinary in cyberspace. So, we thrash about, trying to get a precise definition of a word that simply doesn't have one yet. We bring the word to explicitness and fall into the same trap as philosophers considering the term: We tend to think that identities are things: My online identity is my "who."

Rather than importing the philosopher's sense of the term, why not be guided by its ordinary language meaning in the real world? In the real world, we use "identity" when we're trying to (1) go from doubt to knowledge (2) by connecting something at hand to other information (3) in order to accomplish something. Isn't that what digital identity is? Or am I confused again?

There is a disanalogy, of course. In the real world, identification connects a person to further information. But within the digital world, there's only information, so digital ID connects one bundle of information with another; e.g., the information on this form can be trusted because it accords with information from some trusted source. Nevertheless, with digital ID, the real world person is still there, just indirectly: It's my credit card number or my address to which the goods will be shipped. So, while the initial information is information, it's still tied to the person.

[In fact, it may be the case that the equation is switched with digital identity. In the real world, I identify a person by connecting her to some information about her. In the digital world, I identify some information by connecting it (indirectly) to the person. But I just thought of this before hitting the "send" button so I'm not confident there's anything to this.]

So, what does the ordinary language meaning of "identity" in the real world suggest about digital identity?

1. In the real world, we don't identify everyone. We only identify those about whom we have doubts that we have to resolve for some purpose. Identifying is not the default in the real world. Nor, IMO, should it be online.

2. Real world identifying is the connecting of the thing/person at hand with information relevant to our purpose. There is nothing in this process about a "real self" that has "properties." In the same way, digital identification is about connecting what's in hand with other information we need for some purpose. That's the sense in which there's no "I" in "identity."

3. The cluster of information that gets connected to what's at hand should be limited to what's needed to accomplish the purpose of the identification. But the purposes of, say, a merchant and customer are at odds in this regard: merchants like to know lots more about customers than is required to complete a sale because merchants want a relationship, not a mere transaction. That's not what we mean by "identification," though. That's more like "investigation." Digital ID ought to be used to refer to connecting what's at hand to the minimum set of information.

4. In the real world, an ID is a unique token that is evidence that some other information about a person is true: A driver's license connects you to permission to drive and to a birth date, etc. It'd help people like me not be so confused if "digital ID" meant the same thing.

5. In the real world, not every case of going from doubt to certainty by connecting myself to other information is a matter of identification. For example, I can get out of the parking lot for free by showing a ticket that's been stamped by one of the merchants. That connects me to other information (that I made a purchase) but doesn't identify me. We should strive to keep the same range of options online; I should have to identify myself only when there is some legitimate reason to.

We have evolved a careful, subtle set of usages for the terms of identification. We've done so because they serve important social purposes. Let's hope that in bringing "identity" to the digital world, we're guided by the nuances shown in ordinary language, not by the ham-fisted assumptions we bandy about in our real world thinking.


1. This essay arose in response to a correspondence with Timothy Bouma. In one of his comments on a late draft, he says: "...identity is required when two or more things need to be considered as being different from each other, and these different things need to be treated differently." Good point. That's why I don't have to show personal ID to get the parking ticket discount: I am a member of the class of people who bought something in the mall, and that's the only relevant distinction. This may be a useful principle for digital life: We should only have to identify ourselves to the level of distinction that justifies a difference in treatment. (Shall we title this "Bouma's Law"?)

2. I blogged the question that is this piece's subtitle and, of course, found out that the question has been considered in depth by Superman fanboys. See Seth Finkelstein's comment on my blog's comment board. Is there no question that goes unanswered on the Web?

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