October 10, 2005

The word "Identity" may not be the problem . . .

P.T. Ong has come out of his corner swinging with some excellent questions of Phil Windley and the industry, hoping to point out and clarify the definitional challenges he, Dave Kearns, and I have been flogging mercilessly over the past weeks (If a tree falls . . .). It's worth looking at the questions, regardless of which side of the debate you're on, because they put into bold relief the challenge of the language and any attempts to move forward effectively. I think Phil's post (On the word 'Identity' which he comes to via Johannes Ernst's support for Phil's position that there is a challenge in defining identity: Phil Windley puts his finger on why defining "Digital Identity" is hard.) is merely the catalyst for these questions, because by reading through the post itself, Phil is showing concern for the ontology of our developing industry. And that is half the battle.

The next stop is Kim Cameron's Digital Identity Weblog. Kim is critical to this part of the debate for various reasons, not the least of which are:

  • He's very smart (and Canadian -- but that's redundant, I think).
  • He's respected, having led the writing and distribution of "The Laws of Identity" and infiltrated the top echelons of pretty much every group of identity activists and developers.
  • He's influential, noting in a recent post that c|net has ranked his blog as one of the top 100.
  • He's at the centre of the developmental storm -- toiling at Microsoft, the most likely contender to extend digital identity to the masses.
  • He's a genuinely nice guy (and Canadian -- but that's redundant, I think) based on what little I know of him.
  • He's made a post on his blog (Digital toys CAN have digital identities) that is the most significant and obvious indication of where and how this lexical problem comes from.

    My post that triggered (or at least way synchronous with Phil's navel gazing about the language of identity) is just below: The living language of identity. In it I crassly begged the technologists -- naming Kim and Phil as exemplars -- to choose other language and leave the loaded words like identity outside the technical sphere. David Kearns, almost simultaneously found a bizarre use of the term "digital identity" on an XBox game, and "screamed" out that this was a perfect example of why and how the term digital identity was getting fucked up beyond recognition and value. (Well, he didn't actually say that, but that's how I read it.) In any event, Kim's post referred to in the last bullet above is an apology for the use of the term "digital identity" in a game. He says,"

    "***** Top Spin 2
    "One of the top Xbox sports games, in both sales and popularity returns for another victory on Xbox 360. Everything you loved about Top Spin is back and made even better. The peerless player-creator is reborn with the powerful DigitalIdentity that truly puts you in the game. Experience the pro tour in venues that are alive and dynamic with environmental elements that react to your play. Characters are even more stunning with the addition of HD technology and the inclusion of the top players in the world like Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt and Roger Federer. Put it all online and you once again have the greatest tennis game ever created.

    "Digital Identity - Create realistic player models and customize them with the highest level of details. Hairstyles, shirts, shorts, shoes, etc. allow you to create a player with your look and your style. Coupled with the ability to taunt your opponents with different attitudes, Top Spin 2 truly gives your player his own Digital Identity ()

    I'm fascinated by the line, "Coupled with the ability to taunt your opponents with different attitudes". Could this technology have broad applicability to a number of professional uses???

    Anyway, I think these player models - and all other virtual entities - are, in fact, examples of digital identities.

    People learn a lot about the world by playing with toys. And its not just kids who learn this way.

    The emergence of digital identity toys tell us that we are using the right name, not the wrong one. They represent an important step forward on the road to Craig Burton's "ubiquity".

    I'll deal below with Burton's "ubiquity" and why it's a red herring in this discussion right now. More significantly is the obvious and diametrically opposed views that Kim and I hold viz. digital identity. (And, I should note, that I just read David Kearn's response to Kim's post. You should too, here: Identity is my racket.) Let me be clear:

  • Kim takes a technologist's point of view on this which lets him assess the fantasy world virtual entity creations as a valid digital identities. That may way well be so. They are, these players in the games, certainly entities within their games and would have identities. They are given, as the promotional copy suggests, various quirks and features that make them unique in the game. I agree completely. As constructs within a fantasy game (have I italicized enough to make my point?) which are apparently unique and characterized by defining attributes, "digital" identities manifest digitally. No problem. But the god that created them and endowed them with their features (i.e., the player) and the government (i.e., the players that accept that unique entity and its identity) have determined that one unique game "entity" for the sake of the game. There is no further mention about that entity determining that it can have various other identities -- inside or outside the game -- to present itself to the game and its players. I don't play online games, but I would suspect that regardless of the hairstyle the player gives to the "entity" in the game, in order to keep the score for that entity, it can not change from its singular, unique "being." Ergo, my point gets made: doesn't matter about the context (and I agree that toys and models are an excellent way to learn about reality), an identity or whatever word is chosen, there has to be ONE; whatever personna (or whatever word you chose to indicate a role or partial view of an identity (a unique being)), they must tie to that one identity for game integrity.
  • The world I'm concerned about may be significantly larger than the one that Kim is focused on. And that is not meant to be diminishing or otherwise condescending. Kim, as a technologist and architect of an identity structure and solution has to be primarily concerned not to "boil the ocean." That is, the field of view that he and others building the foundation for a workable technology platform that can expand, be standardized, and reach user ubiquity must restrict themselves to are those workable chunks that allow for progress. This reality is why for the past several years, solutions have focused substantially on the enterprise view of roles, etc. and assumed away the nastiness of contractual relations, liability, etc., etc. It has to be done that way or everything would stall for want of how to begin. I, on the other hand, being a little dumber and not building a workable technical capability (am I repeating myself again?), have the luxury of looking further ahead and beyond the immediate context. I don't solve intractable challenges of how systems will communicate and present claims, etc. That gives me a lot more time to think about the implications of (digital) identity within a system that is not purely online, but is, in fact, integrally integrated with our real world (as opposed to the simulated xBox world ;-) that is at the heart of this relief). That freedom to philosophize puts me -- like Kearns, Ong, et al -- into a questioning of the language that is framing the development. If the language arrogantly appropriated by us -- by which I mean 'you' ;-) -- developers of (digital) identity is inconsistent with the accepted meaning in common usage within the broader context (i.e., real life) into which digital identity will eventually fall, then we do a great disservice to the future.
  • For some reason Kim feels that "the emergence of digital identity toys tell us that we are using the right name, not the wrong one." There is nothing in the logic to support that conclusion in my view. If what Kim means is that the emergence of toys that accept the creation of representative digital "identity" (whatever that is) for online use (which I interpret to mean the creation of little avatars in the game that are pale shadows of their game-playing dweebs), OK. I agree. We are collectively on the right track. There is nothing in the game or the marketing language used to promote it, including "digital identity," that suggests that the words and phrasing is being used to anything but great ultimate disadvantage for human identity itself.

    As for Craig Burton's crying "ubiquity," I don't think anyone could argue with the (brief) position and logic. Of course open, standardized identity architectures and protocols, and so forth, are essential to reach ubiquitous of an identity system. And only a ubiquitious identity system will release all the potential capability and value of the system. Look around you today at what exists for identity in the "real world." How much of a stretch is Craig's position. [Admission: I have no idea from a technology perspective just what a leap this might be. So, maybe it is revelation, I don't know.] I'm going to presume that Craig Burton is a very smart guy and if this seems like something wise and revealing to him, I'll accept it.

    In this context, discussing the language of identity in the exchanges among all those usual suspects linked to here, it's a red herring. It doesn't mean anything at all. But now I too have linked to Craig Burton and hopefully he'll look at the Technorati trackback and read this post. And, more hopefully, he'll link back with a scathing flame -- and my readership will go up and the Identirati will be forced to no longer simply ignore any of this.

    Maybe not.

    Posted by Grayson at October 10, 2005 03:13 PM