From simple identity assertions to… identity ontology

Weaverluke is a remarkable read any day. There Luke Razzel deals with digital identity at a much higher level than I do – exploring its uses, meaning and possibilities. If you don't know Weaverluke, you might start with this piece on systems that could calculate the ontological distance between digital subjects.

Luke imagines a multi-dimensional network model of identity (as relationships) that could be built on top of an infrastructure for privacy and collaboration of the kind we are discussing at identityblog.

“In the sense that to perceive ourselves as unique individuals, I must perceive you as not me, and vice-versa, you and I inevitably have different ontologies. And, according to our differing experiences in life, we will invariably have developed many other ontological differences such as “my friends”, “my family”, “my self-image”, “my moral values”, “the one true religion” (optional!) and so on.

“Given that we recreate our personal and communal ontologies within the identity net, and that those ontologies are inevitably mutually divergent, it seems to me that distance in the identity net can most usefully be used to express ontological distance between the nodes of the network. In simple terms, we can then explore identity as an expression of ontological distance between two entities.”

Luke then explores what this might mean in different contexts, be they mundane or even sexual, leading him to examine the factors mitigating the indiscriminate release of information. Thinking about the technical infrastructure we are talking about here, he says:

“What are the implications for contemporarily-practical applications of digital identity? Kim Cameron's focus on identity assertions as a do-able goal is, I feel, just right. Microformats—small data-structures for a specific purpose, such as expressing identity attributes, for example—seem to be the most effective way right now to enable two entities to inter-operate their ontologies within a specific remit, agreeing on the smallest-practical patch of common ontological ground for the purpose.”

Reading this I was reminded of Doc Searls‘ admonitions about how near the beginning we are in terms of the arc that will describe identity in cyberspace. I totally agree. Our current tools are cavemen's flints. People like Luke – and the social computing movement as a whole – make it clear that we are just taking our first steps on the way to new cyberworlds. Can we remember to build a metasystem which takes as its first premise that it must be a vehicle for evolution? Speaking of which, Luke then says:

“We can presumably anticipate a Darwinian contest between rival identity microformats leading to the evolution of a few or many common microformats for digital identity. As for context-dependence for the disclosure of identity attributes, I understand this as being absolutely in tune with the notion, expressed above, of identity as a wholly subjective property that arises from within relationship.”

The Darwinian contest can only happen once there is an ecology. When we talk of an identity metasystem which is both polycentric and polymorphous we refer to a system creating precisely such an ecology, and allowing the “rivalry for microformats” through which new concepts like “ontological distance” can be turned into reality.

My key takeaway is that we should keep our assumptions about how the identity metasystem will be used out of the system itself. Our assumptions may be right, but they are not the only right assumptions. That is why I keep pushing things like “how you believe a claim” or “whether a claim is true” to the level above the metasystem itself, where various possible approaches can be tried. Of course, you need answers to those questions, and products that provide those answers. But we mustn't mix them up with the metasystem and its characteristics.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.