Identity Is not a Thing

It is amazing to me how many ways notions of identity are employed and how nebulous identity itself remains.  Consider all of the variations identified in Wikipedia.  Contrast the social-science distinctions of identity with the tacit assumption of identity as a definite thing in “specifications of persons” and the way personally identifiable information (PII) is spoken of as pertaining to identity.  

These different explorations of ‘identity’ demonstrate how difficult a concept it is to pin down. Since identity is a virtual thing, it is impossible to define it empirically. Discussions of identity use the term with different meanings … .  In any case, the concept that an individual has a unique identity developed relatively late in history. [Wikipedia]

I agree that each of us might be distinguishable and identifiable in various contexts, including via manifestations of ourselves in the digital realm: cyberspace.  I don’t think my being identifiable requires there to be an identity, so-called, that is distinguished and is what is identified.  Yet that way of speaking seems to be common. 

I am not my driving license.  I am identifiable with it, to some degree.  I say it was issued to me.  It does not express my identity.  

I also wonder, in the pursuit of some sort of absolute/complete identity, how witness protection programs and anonymity are expected to operate.  Or could it be that there are only trusted legends, not absolute identities, arising in our social existence and experience?

I have come to the conclusion that there is no thing that expresses a unique identity for me.  I propose, therefor, to be rather detached about assertions concerning identity as some comprehensible thing.  I propose to examine how we and others are identifiable, casually or more formally.  At a personal level,

  • How do we recognize, however reliably, activity and presence of others, especially in cyberspace?
  • How are we made known and recognizable to others via activities and presence, especially in cyberspace?

I suggest those questions can be explored satisfactorily without requiring a tangible capture of identity.

The “Identity” cachet is too seductive to be given up.   Just the same, when I encounter such notions as “Identity Theft,” “Identity Management,” and “Identity Ecosystem,” it is useful to consider that such Identity is not a thing.  From that position, apply critical judgment to determination of what is actually involved, identifying what is tangible and useful about those notions, thus grounded.

Identity.  It’s not a thing.  You can’t have it.  You can’t hold it in your hand.  You can’t write it down.  You can’t sell it or buy it.  You can’t transfer it or bequeath it.   You might not even be able to protect or damage it.  And you definitely can’t take it with you.

[update 2014-04-30T16:04Z A lingering typo cried out for removal.
update 2014-04-30T00:26Z: There were some wordings I had to adjust upon seeing them in the published post.]

This entry was posted in Civil Society and Democracy, Computers and Internet, Privacy and Security, Social Networking, trust. Bookmark the permalink.

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