Community and Privacy

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Full Title or Meme

Can a digital community form and still accommodate human Privacy?




Two important aspects of any ecosystem of Trusted Identities in Cyberspace are the community of users and the privacy of users. It is typical for Identifiers in cyberspace to be generated within a community of users (e.g. that can be used to provide context for web sites that rely on these identities. The historical basis for the concept of a pattern language is work on community and privacy from visionaries in the architecture of our physical world. In order to enable a clear description of the patterns in the virtual architectures provided on the internet, a language to represent the abstract components of the identity ecosystem can provide the same clarity as it did in with physical components. This page discusses the historical basis and the components for the original pattern language.

Historical Basis for the Pattern Language

Architects' attempt to accommodate both Community and Privacy

This section describes the work of architects Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander[1] in creating a new way of addressing the challenges of modern communities. While they were focused on the design of physical space, the pattern language that grew from this collaboration is general enough to allow the ID Ecosystem to create patterns that focus on combining the best of community and privacy in cyberspace. In the introduction Kenneth Rexroth calls this effort an "exercise in biotechnical engineering" and "an exercise in creation of constructive humanism." These are all goals that an ID ecosystem should aspire to achieve: engineering a constructive humanism for the action of establishing connections in cyberspace. Specifically this is a call to prepare the world to move beyond civilization to the next era, which will be as different from civilization as civilization was from the previous era. "Above all [of the changes wroth by technological advances] a precious ingredient of the past is in danger of rapid extinction: privacy, that marvelous compound of withdrawal, self-reliance, solitude, quiet, contemplation, and concentration. It is the contention [of the authors] that only through the restored opportunity for firsthand experience that privacy gives, can health and sanity be brought back to the world of the mass culture." They propose a new architecture to "provide special domains for all degrees of privacy and all degrees of community". It must be obvious to even the most casual observer of internet usage that the community part is growing very rapidly now, outstripping the concomitant growth of the privacy part. Any successful pattern language must be able to accommodate both parts in equal measure.

Understanding how any ecosystem can build sustainable societies requires a science like Ecological Anthropology to report on the methods that will nurture the inhabitants of that ecosystem. The goal of the pattern language for the ID Ecosystem is to enable the description of identity components that can be put together in such a way as allow communities of interest to form sustainable ecosystems. Some communities are forced to work together, such as the employees of any successful enterprise. Other communities are voluntary, such as the ID Ecosystem. Within each community the individual entities must agree that it is better to be a part of the community than it is to be excluded, otherwise the community cannot sustain itself. Richard Dawkins called the element of cultural transmission a "meme". Each pattern needs to have a meme in the form of an idea or way of constructing the identity component that the pattern describes. The success of each pattern will be judged solely on the number of times the pattern is used in implementing a successful component of the ID ecosystem.

Technology problems have grown in complexity to the point where a single designer will not have all of the resources necessary for a solution. To magnify the capacity of designers of identity components the ID Ecosystem needs to provide force multipliers that give the designer the help needed to create solutions which are compliant with the rest of the ecosystem. By partitioning the task into small components and providing patterns for each component we hope to enable designers with the force multipliers that will enable them to turn out solutions that meet both their business needs and Compliance with the ecosystem as it continues to develop. For this method to succeed it is necessary that designer first try to partition their business problem into byte sized chunks that are amenable to solution by a single human being. The most powerful capability that any designer or architect can bring to the problem is the ability to state the problem so clearly that the statement by itself can provide guidance to finding the solution. Where the designer finds problems that are not addressed by the existing patterns created in an ID Ecosystem, we can only hope that they have the foresight to forward them to us for inclusion in the next iteration of our directory of patterns.

What must the ID Ecosystem Provide? (Quoted directly from their book)

The designer's commitment must, however, be a reasoned one that seeks to formulate a more explicit direction for environmental design. The easy devices of pseudo artistry and the "ghastly good taste" of the market place, to use John Betjeman's phrase, have not, it has become evident, been good enough.

The designer's return to his own willful freedom is perhaps a desperate attempt to reassert the humanism that man sometimes seems in danger of losing while he is making gains in science and technology. But in practice, unfortunately, this approach appears to produce little more than decorative shapes that leave the new problems unsolved.

In conclusion

The authors end their book with this quote: "Civilized man must give high priority to the development of a unified field of environmental control in which art will once again be tempered by the purposeful discipline of science, and science be inspired by the insights of art. This amalgam could produce a comprehensive design that would not only accommodate Community and Privacy but would celebrate both in the Architecture of a new Humanism." The recent explosion of social media on the internet has given new meaning to the concept of community. It seems like a good time to try to swing the pendulum back bringing a better balance to the ecosystem with a similar burst of Innovation in enabling privacy of the sort envisioned by these authors.

Components of the Pattern Language

One distinction that was made abundantly clear by the authors was that the "joints" between public and private spaces, between the circulation patterns in one transportation mode and other, must be very carefully made and maintained. Specifically a person needs both public and private spaces. A person needs to know when then are moving between those spaces. And circulation within one transport mode must be distinct and complete in the sense that the person can function well regardless of the transport method chosen as well as move from mode to the other. Now the transport modes in the internet appear to be quite different from those in the physical world, but they have developed their own methods and "rules of the road." Specially we can use the following to "navigate" from one environment to the other: email, hyperlinked web documents, static documents like: pictures, PDFs or spread sheets and many others that are only now developing their own protocols like social media. As each new communication mode matures it develops its own peculiar codes of conduct, just as the American "wild west" developed codes of conduct. As the new environments stabilize, the code of conduct are codified into Ethics and regulations to protect the weaker members of society from the stronger. A nature tension between security and liberty continues to establish a "level playing field" were everyone can expect to thrive. So here we are in the ID ecosystem with the same tension between community and privacy as have been faced in the establishment of societies in the physical world. All we can hope is that the process converges quickly enough to enable both community and privacy without too many ugly compromises.

Barriers and Locks

In the physical world the joints between the public and various private part of any dwelling need a good architecture to assure that cross contamination by: strangers, noise, smells, dirt, modesty and other physical attributes was controlled. The conditions that apply in each realm must be maintained even as people move between the realms with relative ease. Locks between physical realms serve functions like airlocks on high altitude planes, or the familiar canal locks between channels with water a different heights. While the transition points between different realms in the internet may not appear to have much purpose at first, reflections on community and privacy reveal those transition to be critical to Civil Society. Something that is all too rare in the internet today.

Corporations and government networks learned the importance of network separation many years ago. Even now when deperimeterization of the corporate network with personal device seems to be the paradigm for enterprise computer, the separation of corporate networks to isolate high value assets is gaining adherents in all large enterprises as shown in this link.


Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander explored the intersection of community and privacy. The following link shows how to adapt their concepts to ID management.
  1. Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy, Towards a new Architecture of Humanism. Doubleday & Company (1963) ISBN 978-0385034760