Felix Stalder on Thu, 26 Mar 1998 16:10:22 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Digital Identities

Digital Identities

Are you multiple yet, or distributed? No? But you are ad hoc, at least, right?

Slowly, the dust begins to settle as we now have all, individually and
collectively, some years of experience in the social spaces created with
networked computers. It is time to (re)examine the central issue that seems
to make these spaces so radically new: the promise of a new identity for
all of us. Over the last couple of years, post-modern theories, new
technologies and popular techno-determinism have been fused under mass
media exposure into a powerful meme: On-line everyone can have a new
identity, experiment with multiple identities and create fluid, ad hoc
expression of Self. The physical aspects of identity seem, in contrast,
rather cumbersome, even repressive because of their complexity and inertia.

In cyberspace, so somewhat paradox the promise, we can finally be who we
really are, or who we really want to be; unlimited by social conventions
and freed from being stereotyped based on unwanted but ever-present aspects
of our physical selves like age, gender, race or physical appearance. New
media are presented as offering a radical new beginning, a conscious
rebirth. The most interesting accounts of fragmented identities are offered
by researchers like Sherry Turkle [Life on the Screen] and Sandy Stone [The
War of Desire and Technology at the End of the Mechanical Age]. The stories
they convey are drawn mostly from spaces like MUDs [Multi User Dungeons,
text-based interactive fantasy settings] and chat lines. Environments,
notably, which have been deliberately set up so that people can safely
indulge in all kinds of role-play. Undoubtably, for some users their
on-line role(s) have become an important aspect of how they experience
their daily lifes and themselves within it.

The idea of new forms of Self is based on the rather obvious fact that
on-line, everything that is the case, for example your identity, has been
actively defined. And in the context of role-play, the act of defining the
on-line persona has been explicitly left to the individual user and her
fantasies. Within the constraints of the rule-based game, of course. This
very specific experience in a single area of cyberspace has been quickly
extrapolated to the space as such. And as the cyberspace grows, so the
argument, we can remake ourselves at convenience to an ever larger extent
-- let there be one, two, many Selves.

Implicitly assumed in this reading is a total separation of the physical
and the electronic world: once you're on-line, you no longer have a body
(my favourite contender for the title as
The-Most-Missleading-Common-Sense-Statement). For some, this means great
hope: Cyberspace is expected to grow to a point where it can reach a
'critical mass', 'self-organize' and 'auto-catalize' into a new existence.
Like so much, J.P. Barlow expressed this most imaginatively. He boldly
seized the opportunity to envision himself as the founding father of this
new nation and wrote a Declaration of Independence.

This was some time ago.

As it now turns out, the assumptions were right: the electronic persona is
made up of arbitrarily defined pieces of data and cyberspace is growing
rapidly. However, the consequences seem to be not exactly those imagined.
Instead of becoming independent, electronic networks mushroom into diverse
aspects of physical life. But this process is not a one-way street.
Cyberspace becomes a part of everyday life at the price that everyday life
becomes a part of cyberspace. Ever more entrances, ports and gates bridge
the gap between the two to an extent where it becomes difficult to
determine were the former ends and the latter begins. Their development
becomes inseparably intertwined. As the doors multiply and some important
aspects of our life settle on the other side, the need to define who, where
and when passes through those doors becomes more urgent. Since so many
elements of our life become organized electronically, those who organize
them feel an increasing need to firmly connect the electronic persona with
the physical person. It's OK to role-play in a virtual star ship
enterprise, but in a virtual bank, they do not like that.

As long as there were only a few pathways into electronic space it was
possible to administrate them by passwords and have the personal records
stored somewhere centrally, where they were kept in more or less
synchronicity with the person's activities.

Now that the doors proliferate not only in numbers, but also in directions
in which they lead, new ways for creating digital identities are being
developed. Identity computers you can (or have to) actually wear. It's
mundane technology, a small chip on a plastic card. Like the phone cards.
Just different. Now these cards are called Multi-Application Smart Cards.
They are much more versatile than their older brothers. They are reloadable
and can hold a variety of independent applications, like your cash, your
long distance phone account, your public transport subscription, health
information, welfare information, access privileges to buildings or on-line
accounts, your frequent-flyer membership, you name it.

What all those applications have in common is that they define the status
of a specific individual within an electronic adminstrational system. Has
she the cash to pay, does he have access to this facility, on which account
can the phone call be billed, what kind of social services is she entitled
to? In short, they create a dynamic personal information to identify an
individual at multiple points of contact with the electronic
infrastructure. Add biometrics [digital finger prints, retina scans etc.]
to the mix and you have a virtually error-free, tight connection of the
electronic data with the physical body.

Multi-application cards, currently in the final stage of lab testing, are
being touted by their promoters as the "ultimate personal technology tool"
(Mondex). They allow to create a platform which is small enough to be truly
wearable so that the users can be expected to carry it always wit them. At
the same time flexible enough to hold a vaste range of dynamic information
which can be regarded as an accurate real-time representation of the

With that, interfacing the individual with an electronic administrational
grid become ever easier. Not only much more points of contact can be
established but also the accuracy of those contacts can be raised. There is
no connection between the platform (the card) and the application and no
connection among the applications which come to reside on one card.
Therefore, which applications will be used can be customized to the
individual, thus represent an extremely large variety of users through a
single format. Global applications like e-cash can reside on one card with
local applications, such as public transport tickets.

It is early days for this kind of digital identities and the "ecology of
smart cards" -- which applications will end up together on one card -- is
still undeveloped today. What is pretty safe to say is that there is a
demand of such a identity technology. There are just to many gates and
doors to be monitored between the physical and electronic world.

Independent of the technical specs, which are not all defined yet, this
type of technology will make the integration of information technology into
every-day life even more seamless. And thus expand the administrational
logic embedded in these technologies considerably because they provide a
flexible, ever present individual digital representation of the individual.

So what? Will this bring about the big brother, finally, or will it enhance
the seamless integration of real people in the electronically mediated
global village, where she is recognized by her own name where ever she
goes? This will  largely depend where in the administrational grid your
persona is situated. In the upper strata of society, the administrational
logic is humble and empowering, here to serve the customers where ever they
go. At the short end of the stick, the purpose of administration is
somewhat different. In an ideologically hostile environment, where social
services are being cut and recipients are generally being viewed as
fraudulent, choices will be evermore predetermined and surveillance
potentials are enormous.

At any rate, the digital identities are more likely to be determined by an
administrational logic which is built, for the better or the worse, on
narrowly defined coherent groups to which the real person can be
sequentially connected. The free creation of identities is, and will be,
only possible where deliberate efforts sustain this more playful side of
the technology.


Declaration of Independence

A good, general introduction to smart cards, by the Scientific American.

Multi-Application Smart Cards


Les faits sont faits.

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