Digital Identities

Felix Stalder

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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 individual.

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

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