On the Word 'Identity'


On the way back from a meeting in Salt Lake this afternoon, I was pondering the word 'identity' and the way it is used in the physical world and the way we use it in the world of IT. Something I heard on NPR set off this navel gazing--I can't remember what. Coincidentally, when I got to my office, I found this post from Tim Greyson on the living language of identity. And so, a post...

If I ask my wife, kids, or neighbors "what is identity?" they answer in various ways that I think reduce, at their most basic level, to this: "identity the sum total of who I am...my uniqueness." It includes not only attributes like height, eye color, and so on, but also their personality, hopes, and dreams--everything that makes them them. One way of sussing this out is to ask: do identity twins have different identities? We would say yes, even when we can't tell them apart.

This is quite different of course than the dry technical definition of identity that I used in my book: a collection of attributes, preferences, and traits stored in a computer record. This technical definition serves the technology, but is only the slightest shadow of the natural definition. Certainly the identity record that Amazon has stored and associates with me is only an approximation of a small subset of my true self. And not even a very important subset.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a word having multiple meanings. That happens all the time. But, when the different meanings are not clear from the context and are easily misunderstood by the participants in a conversation, that's a problem. This is precisely the problem Tim is talking about, I think.

When I say "digital identity" to my wife, even after having lived with me while I wrote a book on the subject, she likely to think of something much more sophisticated than a simple computer record. And with good reason. For example, identity theft, which involves computers, makes people feel violated in a way that goes beyond records in databases.

In 1974, the family therapist Salvador Minuchin declared that "The human experience of identity has two elements: a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate." That's another element of natural identity that isn't served well by the technical notion of identity. In the digital world, identity information is stored in silos, but in the physical world, it's almost impossible to keeps subsets of one's identity separated. The relationships matter as much as the properties.

I've been toying with writing another book that would look into this side of identity. The working title I've been carrying around in my head is "Digital Me: Identity and the Internet." As Tim says, words matter, and I think that words about identity matter a lot because it's so fundamental to life in the physical and digital worlds.