Informational identity: from analog to digital

By Felix Stalder
published in Korunk, April 2000 which has translated this text into Hungarian.

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For centuries most people have had two related but nevertheless distinct elements that made up their identity. One physical, based on their presence, on direct interaction in the physical reality of daily life; the other informational, based on written records which identified them as single individuals. Now, centering around the Internet, new technologies are being introduced which are about create an additional type of identity: the digital identity.

Historically, the church was the first institution one to keep such records. Later their role as the central authority was assumed by governments. In these records individuals have been identified through all kinds of variables, starting with the most basic data such as name, date and place of birth, name of parents, to more sophisticated information, such as education, profession, medical and criminal history, taxes and many more. What information is being collected is determined by the agenda of the institutional collector and its ability to carry out their agenda. A church parish has different information needs and resources than the police or a hospital.

Taken together, such records create an identity, that is, the image of an individually identifiable person, and this image determines, by and large, how the organization which keeps the records deals with the person identified by the records. The reason why such records are created is because they constitute instruments of power which resides in the hands of those who have access to of these records. Through the creation of an informational identity, it is possible simplify and categorize an otherwise infinitely complex world, and apply standard procedures to all members of a given category. Rather than having to deal with everyone on a case-by-case basis, the record keeper can deal with groups and aggregates, thus with enormous amounts of people.

As the state expanded throughout the 20th century, its record-keeping systems grew to enormous proportions. In order to deal with the entirety of the population effectively, and with each individual on many different levels, the informational identity had to be relatively fine-grained. Effectively, for each individual grew a shadow, or data-image: a set of files, some known other secret, that documented each life, and suggested ways of administrating it. In the caves of bureaucracies, these shadows were more real than physical reality. They determined each individual's position within the administrational matrix and the deeper this matrix reached into the social fabric, the more important the informational identity became. In places where the administrational matrix is all dominant at borders, in prisons or hospitals, for example the record-based identity can override the physical identity, should there be an apparent discrepancy between the two. Just try crossing borders without a valid passport.

Until very recently, this dataimage that each individual created in the administrational matrix, was encoded in analog media: paper files of all sorts, photos, various documents and even physical samples. The material nature of analog records imposed strict characteristics on the information system in which they were kept, and on the social institutions which were built around these systems. The larger the record systems, the more distinctly they are shaped by their material nature.

Paper-based information is time-consuming to transport from one place to another, thus an effective record system requires centralization. Centralization is also required because duplication of records is to be avoided to minimize the work of keeping the entries up-to-date and maintaining internal consistency. Even with a minimum of duplication, keeping a large record system up-to-date is extremely work-intensive. All information has to be entered manually into the system. The more detailed the records are, the more people have to be employed to gather and process the necessary information. The more people, however, are gathering information, the more difficult it becomes it handle the endless flood of paper records. Even what was arguably one of the most advanced and best staffed record systems, the East German secret police, was ultimately unable to effectively carry out its ambitious program of establishing a detailed informational identity for everyone. Internal breakdown because of information overload threatened to diminish its vicious efficiency.

Paper-based systems and the informational identities created in them tend not only to be centralized and very work intensive, but they also tend to be static. Once an internal structure of an analog archive is established, it becomes increasingly difficult to change it, since the structure petrifies under more and more layers of physical documents. The bigger the record system grows, the more powerful but, at the same time, the less flexible it becomes. The German sociologist Max Weber, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, called the result of this trend the "iron cage of bureaucracy."

Since such paper-based systems were centralized and required large, slow institutions, their reach was essentially limited to the interaction between the individual and these institutions. This effectively guaranteed a certain balance between the physical and the informational identity. But this is changing.

As more and more of even our daily interactions become mediated through large computer-based systems, a new form of identity is emerging: the digital identity. Digital identity can be defined as the digital information that creates the image of an individually identifiable person. This type of identity is no longer bound by the characteristic nature of a paper-based record system. The digital identity, then, is potentially something very different from a traditional, analog informational identity.

Looking at the Internet, it is evident that this new information system is characterized by great fluidity, relatively more open access, and the lack a central authority. Individuals can directly influence (parts) of the information which represent them. Thus, the emerging digital identity is located somewhere between the physical identity and the record-based informational identity. Similar to the physical identity, the individual actively participates shaping it. On the other hand, the individual is absent and his or her representation can be created not only the person him/herself but also by others about the individual.

Contrary to the physical identity nearly all aspects of the digital identity of the information that is being assembled to create the image of an individual person can be influenced and changed. Consequently, optimistic hopes have been voiced that a new freedom would emerge through digital identities: a free, unrestricted creation by the person who is represented: A man can assume the identity of a woman, a child that of an adult and so on. The somewhat arbitrary constraints of the physical can be overcome to express the "true" personality, or at least the identity that the creator wants at a particular moment. On the Internet, so goes the somewhat paradoxical promise, we can finally be who we really are, or who we really want to be; unlimited by social conventions and free 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. As the Internet grows, so does the hope that we can remake ourselves at convenience to an even larger extent. Implicitly assumed in this reading is a total separation of the physical and the electronic world, as expressed in slogans such as: "Once you're on-line, you no longer have a body." Given their fluidity digital media open up new venues to experiment with identity that would have been entirely unimaginable on the physical world.

However, this is only one side of the coin of digital identity. Paradoxically, the same fluid nature of digital information also allows third parties to create identities that are far more powerful and detailed than the old paper-based information identities created by large organizations. The link between the informational and the physical can be established much more closely than ever before. As the Internet becomes a part of everyday life, everyday life becomes part of the Internet. 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 when, where and who 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 digital with the physical. Until now you have been using the term digital persona. I would stick to it for the sake of coherence with the physical person.

The doors between the physical and the digital proliferate not only in numbers, but also in the directions to which they lead almost daily we invent new uses for the Internet. And, in parallel new ways for creating digital identities are being developed. Databases become interconnected and automatically fed with amounts of data that would have been impossible to handle on paper. Technologies are employed that can track people on-line far more precisely that it is possible to track people's movement and behaviour in the physical world. But so far, it remains a problem how to make the link between the digital and the physical.

A relatively recent approach to creating digital identities that reliably link the body to the information are wearable "identity computers", so small that one can be expected to carry them around most of the time. This sounds more futuristic than it is. Rather, it's a mundane technology, a small chip on a plastic card. Just like the phone cards. But different. 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 money, various accounts, subscriptions, health information, access privileges to buildings, on-line accounts, et cetera. What all those applications have in common is that they define the status of a specific individual within a now electronic administrational matrix, be it electronic commerce, justice or health system. Does the person have the cash to pay, does she have access to this facility, on which account can the phone call be billed, what kind of services is she entitled to access or receive? In short, such cards create a dynamic personal information profile to identify an individual at multiple points of contact with the electronic infrastructure. Adding to the technology biometric capabilities the digital capturing of bodily information that uniquely identifies a person, for example through finger prints it becomes possible to have a virtually error-free, tight connection between the electronic data and the physical body.

With that, interfacing the individual with an electronic administrational grid will become ever easier. Not only much more points of contact can be established, but also the accuracy of those contacts can be raised. Furthermore, there is no direct connection between the platform (the card) and the application, and no connection amongst the applications located on one card. Therefore, the applications can be customized to the individual, thus representing an extremely large variety of users within a single, thus possibly omni-present 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 unknown today. What is pretty safe to say is that there is, and will be a growing demand of such an identity technology, since there are so many gates and doors to be monitored between the physical and electronic world.

At this moment, digital identities on the Internet are still rather fluid and the influence of the individual to actively create and control his or her on-line representation is considerable. However, new technologies increasingly wrestle away from the individual the control over the digital identity and place it in the hand of those who introduce technologies such as smart cards: usually commercial and governmental institutions.. These institutions need no longer be necessarily monolithic and centralized. Now even medium-sized computers can manage larger amounts of information than very large paper-based systems were able to process. Decentralized but often interconnected, the fine-grained and nearly digital identity is emerging that is reflects, and impacts on, an ever larger number of daily communications of most people. The struggle over the control of the digital identity between individuals seeking freedom and the institutions seeking administrational control is ongoing. The balance that will be achieved is bound to influence deeply the quality of our lifes as we become more dependent on technology.

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