Is technological innovation ying or just yang?

Eric Norlin steals the stand-up spotlight with his posting on how I ruffled some of Chris Ceppi's feathers yesterday. Chris says:

Some exaggeration for effect on Identityblog today:

“As much as I think Chris understands policy issues, I don't think anyone could be more wrong than he is in eliding the role of technical innovation in achieving the new architecture Solove is looking for. Legal remedies will not be plausible without the right technological infrastructure. We need everyone to understand this. It is what underlies the historical urgency of the present identity discussion. And it explains why identity architecture must make possible specific capabilities, like formal ways to demonstrate the contract under which a user has made information available. We must think about the long term.”

After consulting Eric Norlin to find out what it means to elide something – thanks Eric! – I believe Kim has gone hyperbolic here on a couple of fronts. First, it is, in fact, possible to be more wrong. I have been myself on several occasions – notably in my early work with the government e-authentication initiative in 2003 when I vastly underestimated the impact privacy concerns would have on the nature and timing of federated identity deployments.

OK. Chris has got me on this. Maybe I should have said “slur over” rather than “elide”… And Chris’ slur was far from the “wrongest” thing in the world… But heck. I'm a technologist. So what was I to make of this bizarre statement:

…the technical innovation surrounding digital identity is best seen as a reform effort.

To me, this is like saying ying is important, yang is a reform effort. Protons are important, electrons are a reform effort. Science is important, art is a reform effort. In my thinking, all aspects of this are important, and equally necessary to reach a successful outcome.

Chris continues:

So, what is the proper role of technical innovation in reforming identity? Given the broad set of powerful stakeholders involved, it would be surprising if technology architects, even those as influential as Kim, settle that issue unilaterally. It is more likely that the role technology plays will not be designed or planned, but will evolve in response to a set of dynamic forces.

Of course I don't believe that an identity infrastructure can be built through unilateral actions. It has been tried before, and failed. In fact, few things in life can be built unilaterally.

This said, technology has its own inevitabilities, quite apart from our consciousness or will. For example, the industrial revolution dramatically changed all the societies it touched, including people and groups who did not want to be changed. The same was true of the introduction of electronic media. The cyber revolution is yet one more example. I would refer readers to Harold Innis (the mentor of Marshall McLuan) and his 1950 book, Empire and Communications.

We need to recognize this to produce good social outcomes. The laws of identity, for example, are an attempt to come to grips with some of these inevitabilities in the particular area of technology I am involved with. The fifth law states that widespread acceptance of an identity infrastructure will depend on it being a metasystem, enabling free choice between multiple technologies run by multiple operators. This approach is the technological design allowing solutions to “evolve in response to a set of dynamic forces” – as Chris himself says.

I salute and embrace Chris’ view that our relation to all the stakeholders of identity (meaning everyone) should be based on “cooperation, curiosity, discovery, openness, respect, trust, and humility.”

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.