October 05, 2005

The living language of identity

"Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be." Cervantes
As promised last week, Quixote and I are saddled up and off to tilt again at the language problem in the developing digital identity space. Dave Kearns and P.T. Ong, and I, have been on a tear lately about the willful abuse of the word "identity" among other inflammatory words. So, once more into the breach.

We break for a message from our sponsor.

My thoughts on the words and other things Identity, are documented in the various papers that I've posted on my identity page. I encourage reading them, but understand that nobody really wants to dedicate time to 3,000 - 8,000 words at a go.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Language is not a peripheral little pedantic matter. It cuts to the core of the discontent and perpetuates friction for many reasons not the least of which is that language frames discussion. And, at the risk of being drummed out of the top 3,582,082 bloggers -- or being publicly flamed -- I suggest that, unfortunately, the technologists gallantly contributing to the development of (digital) identity solutions have taken control of the language. That is a problem because the technical propriety of the words "identity," "role," "personna," etc., etc. as descriptors of factors and features of the space is immaterial. Within the technical realm, we could just as easily use the words "rabbit," "beeblebrox," and "egg" as any others for specific things, concepts, and actions. The only real condition is that the terms be standardized so that everyone understands what everyone else is doing. Please accept that I am not recommending some weird Orwellian double-speak (there's plenty of that already). I am, however, suggesting a sorting out needs to happen soon.

In the business of identity, particularly as it touches "people," be they the business people "doing" identity, organizations with people and things to identify for specific purposes or roles, consumers and others using and relying on identity credentials to interact using some chosen personna, or anyone else for that matter, the words are more significant. First of all, the words chosen by marketers and business people typically come fully "loaded" to provide the benefit of communications shorthand. Moreover, there are a lot more, different characters in this group and teaching them a new common language from scratch will be much too difficult. (We are, collectively and individually, not nearly as high-ranking on the IQ scale as most coders, architects, and engineers.) It is essential then that we help ourselves by helping the less fortunate to skip up along the learning curve by assigning familiar words in a ready-to-use lexicon.

P.T. is concerned that we've lost this battle because the technologists have, in fact, already appropriated the language and it's too late to change. David (and I) can't disagree, but commisserate that it's a shame to toss away perfectly good words just because somebody else didn't plan far enough ahead in this respect. I'll take that one step further and suggest that the technologists, led by the especially intelligent of the lot (Yes, I'm talking to you, Kim, Phil, et al.), need to put their formidable grey matter to considering and evaluating this situation and the third move beyond.

  • Technologists working on identity are smarter and more adaptable than are the rest of us . . . boneheads.
  • The words "identity," "role," "personna," "credential," etc., etc. have loaded meanings in the wider world that will help -- if they are codified in accordance with say . . . dictionary definitions -- make all this identity stuff more palatable to that wider world.
  • The technical descriptive language is still eminently mouldable and could be changed because the pre-loaded words don't have the same value or impact within the technical milieu as they do in the world of us common business and marketing (let alone) consumer folk.
  • Making sure that some aspects of identity are easily understandable by the thicker parts of the world (us) will help it develop faster and generate more revenue/profit/value for all and sundry.
  • Really cool words that nobody else either understands or can make guesses about provides an excellent shibboleth for the "Identirati."

    So, on behalf of all us dumb, pedantic, non-technical language purists, I bend on one knee and ask you thrice to give up the words you have appropriated and let us use those words as the (English-speaking) world expects and understands them.

    What ho! Is that an army or a herd of sheep, boss?

    Posted by Grayson at October 5, 2005 07:56 AM