Brad Judy, from the IT Security Office at the University of Colorado at Boulder, attended one of the recent conferences where I discussed the Information Card as a way of reifying identity, and where I went on to characterize the identity metasystem as an “abstraction layer” above existing identity systems. The fact that I referred to the same thing as being a reification from one point of view and an abstraction from another captured his interest. Later he shared these comments:

During a presentation on Infocard and Cardspace, Kim Cameron made a comment about the reification of identity. During a question, I noted that it was interesting to hear a layer of abstraction being referred to as reification. Kim noted that he was mixing contexts and that Infocard/Cardspace was reification for the end-user and abstraction for the IT personnel.

One human's abstraction is another human's reification.

If abstraction can be considered indirection, the old computing saying from David Wheeler may apply: “Any problem in computer science can be solved with another layer of indirection. But that usually will create another problem.” The benefit of abstraction as reification is that the additional problems created might be ones that we are already adept at addressing (we know driver's licenses quite well).

There has long been a gap between technology and humanity that many have worked to bridge. I would argue that for most of the history of computing, the user has had to meet the computer more than half-way – was it ever the natural inclination of humans to punch holes in cards to accomplish a task? Kim gave the example of sending people off for extended periods of word processor training in the early days of word processors, and the virtually non-existent training needed now (a combination of greater ease and early exposure). He also gave the example of explaining command line file management to users and how the visual file folder reified digital file management for the end user. Such GUI concepts certainly opened up the PC to a much broader audience as the bridge between technology and humans passed the half-way point.

Not having been a software architect over the past twenty years, I can't say if the ongoing gap has been the result of the limitations of technology or a mindset that users must meet the computers half-way. The lesson of the PC is that true accessibility by the general population requires technology to meet them 90-95% of the way. (Perhaps this should have always been expected, after all, we never expect This seems to be occurring through the adoption of existing human models/paradigms/methods of use and interaction to software and hardware. While it wasn't the focus of this recent event, two presentations brought this home: tablet PC's and Cardspace.

Tablet PC's, particularly software like OneNote represent the adoption of a long standing human activity to a digital medium. It isn't the first tech to tackle the note-taking and handwriting space, but it reifies and extends in a way that may complete the bridge between the personal computer and the person. A direct representation of paper and pen (a method institutionalized over hundreds of years), extended with the ability to categorize, search, transmit and more. I'm reminded of a statement by a co-worker (not directed at me), “Stop giving me #$&@ing hardcopies, you can't grep paper.” The platform has a lot of possibility with interesting software like MagicPaper/Physics Illustrator. The limited success of “true” tablets (aka. Slates) indicates that decades of computer use with a keyboard, and sometimes mouse, have developed an institutionalize method of use that must be hybridized with traditional methods for the greatest progress.

CardSpace exists to reify the experience of digital identity in a way that links it to an existing model for identity familiar to most users: an identity card. From the visual representation to the concept of identity providers and multiple ID's. The identification “card” is also hundreds of years old, although they have evolved greatly from hand-written letters authenticated by signature or stamp, to the modern passport and drivers license, authenticated by physical attributes and electronic validation. The InfoCard will also likely be a hybrid of this old paradigm and a common computing experience: the password. Although the concept of a password predates modern technology, its use has truly exploded in the past several years. Because InfoCards aren't single, physical objects that can be tightly controlled, they will largely rely on the ubiquitous password for protection (perhaps other techniques will be used, but I expect passwords will protect most InfoCards).

So the IT industry continues to build the largely one-sided bridge, abstracting their way across the gorge. Years of software and hardware have provided the proverbial water under the bridge (not to mention a landscape scattered with half-started and falling bridges). For their part, many people have stretched far from their side to make contact and have found a combination of productivity and frustration. Hopefully not many have fallen into the gorge. Perhaps the golden age of computing is truly just around the bend as the bridge is completed and proven stout (an important point raised by Scott Charney, also at the event).

I'm struck by Brad's perception of Information Cards as a bridge between user perception on the one hand and a technological abstraction (metasystem) on the other.  That's completely right, and it's important to put it in the wider context of other attempts to do the same thing.

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Kim Cameron

Work on identity.