Some time ago I wrote a blog post asking the question “Who are you really?” It didn’t come to any real conclusion, it only expressed the fact that it was a topic I had been thinking about. I didn’t immediately stop thinking about it, but it drifted out of the forefront of my thoughts to the point that I still haven’t really got a good conclusion. But I have been reminded of the topic recently by an article on LWN about issues Debian is facing with key signing. Now the issues that Debian is facing very much reflect the issues I had that led to my previous blog post. How do you trust an identity? What value does that identity hold in itself, and what value can you ascribe to associated details.
This leads me to lean more and more towards the idea that we place too much value on a single physical body as the “true” identity, and all other aspects are chained to this. To an open source project the value of the identity isn’t in a warm body, but in the contributions they make. Now the discussion within the debian project appears to be headed that way, and this I think is the correct way to handle that. But this also raises a question of trust. Our society has largely developed systems of trust based around individual interactions, and it is easier to build trust if these interactions are face to face. Many would probably argue that this means I am wrong to like the movement away from chaining online digital identities to physical people, but I would like to suggest that fewer of our face to face interactions are the sort that should build trust, or are with the entities that we should be trusting. Banking is done increasingly online, and even when it isn’t the person at the bank you deal with is likely to have very little discretion to alter the possible outcomes much. Trusting the bank clerk works in the bank’s favour, but a trustworthy bank clerk doesn’t mean the bank is trustworthy. Similarly supermarkets, ISPs, Utility providers, etc, are all large organisations that manipulate our ingrained trust mechanisms to make it easier to take our custom, but they don’t build trust in us based on the individual interactions we have, but rather through data-mining done by credit reference agencies, and information about us on public record. This I think demonstrates that our current trust mechanisms have failed individuals, and we need to build new ones, and we may as well do so in a way that allows us to separate our identities, such that they can be trusted for what they are, and not who we are, or who we were.
I think the obvious conclusion to all this is that I believe we should all have as many, or as few, identities as we are comfortable maintaining. These identities should stand or fall on their own merits, and that we need to find new ways to develop trust online that are appropriate to whatever activities we value online. I don’t know what these mechanisms for trust should be, or how they should look, but I do believe developing them is not beyond the wit of humanity.
I still haven’t really got a firm idea of how I think these disparate identities should be formed, or how they could be used. I also worry this is a sign that I may be slipping back into behaviours that I found to be damaging to my mental health. On the former I’m sure more developments will help push my thoughts in the right direction, on the later I shall keep an eye on it, but my compartmentalisation in the past came out of a bad place, and I don’t think these ideas do, I’m not trying to hold aspects of my life apart artificially, but trying to recognise where the natural boundaries lie.