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Full Title or Meme

Identity is a real world concept that allows us to associate Identifiers and Attributes to entities, individual or corporate. This term is not definable in sufficient specificity to be of any value in definitions of digital concepts.


There are certainly historical figures with strong identities, Caeser, Alexander the Great or Ghandi come to mined. But it wasn't until John Locke that the ideas of identity and self for all humanity were well articulated.

There is a growing consensus,[1] spurred by the humanitarian crisis created by refugees from conflict zones that every human being deserves the right to an identity irrespective of the political turmoil spreading around the world. This is not a new concern as several works of fiction and of history have explored the burden placed on a person without an identity.[2][3][4][5] But still in early 2019 10 million people were denied citizenship in their own country, mostly because they belonged to a minority group.[6] Without citizenship, it is impossible for then to get papers that give them an identifier they can use in the real world.

Identity in the real world is modeled in the digital world by these four elements or taxa which are able to be fully define:

  1. Identifiers or names that are assigned to a continuing presence in the digital world,
  2. Attributes that are asserted for the entity and may be validated for greater trust,
  3. Behaviors that are recorded about the entity over time,
  4. Inferences that are determined by some intelligent evaluation of the above elements (this has the danger of becoming stereotypes).

To be of value in the digital world it is necessary to assure that an identifier continues to apply to the same real-world entity, even though that entity may change any of the other above elements over time. In this definition the real-world legal name is just an attribute as there are cases where it legitimately changes.

Foundational versus Transactional Identity

UNCITAL found that [7] "it may be useful to take into consideration the distinction between primary determination of identity (also called foundational identity) and secondary determination of identity (also called transactional or functional identity). The primary determination of identity may raise complex issues of status attribution. However, commercial transactions may rely, in full or in part, on a secondary determination of identity. The actual legal consequences of identity verification would be determined by factual and other relevant circumstances of the specific transaction." Or, in common language, you don't need to bring your certificate of incorporation, birth certificate or passport with you on the web.

Identity and Freedom

Elizabeth Anderson, the chair of the Philosophy department at the University of Michigan, thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis for development of a free and fair society.[8]

If you look back at the origins of liberalism, it starts first with a certain settlement about religious difference, Catholics, Protestants—they’re killing each other! Finally, Germany, England, all these places say, We’re tired of these people killing each other, so we’re going to make a peace settlement: religious toleration, live and let live. Then something remarkable happens. People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home, or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains? That is what it is to be free.

The question we all need to ask ourselves today is: How do we maintain our freedom in a society that is so rapidly changing into one where every company can learn everything about everybody who is just using a cell phone going about their daily routine?


  1. Identity has always been a affair of state for taxation, welfare and even work permits.[9] See the wiki page Identity Model for more details on ways that states have forced the establishment of Identifiers for their residents.
  2. It has become too difficult to create any kind of computerized representation of a user to satisfy all the of requirements for identification, privacy and recognition of user identity.
  3. The word "Identity" has been used in some many ways in so many communities that if there is any disagreement between people that involves the word "Identity" the most likely reason is that the two parties have a different understanding about what the word means.

Identity can become Toxic

Most of the effort in Identity Management has focused on individual Users or Enterprises. The other part of Identity involves Identifiers for groups of individuals. As reported in Appiah's book[10] we learn that people tend to identify with others that share some set of Attributes, whether that is bridge players or white men. As that happens humanity's nemesis, tribalism, starts to rise between the people in "our tribe" and "the others". This tribalism is increasing becoming a nemesis of the internet as well. Since any Enterprise that collects Attributes about an Entity on the internet will have strong incentive to segregate those into groups with the same set of Attributes, the danger arises of the creation of stereotypes that can foster tribalism where the Identity of the individual is sublimated into the Identity of the tribe. See the wiki page on Tribal Identifier for more discussion on the positive and negative implicates of tribal identity.

Demand for Recognition

From the other direction, the User can demand recognition as belonging to some Identity group in order to qualify for some preferential treatment. According to Fukuyama, populist nationalism, said to be rooted in economic motivation, actually springs from the demand for recognition and therefore cannot simply be satisfied by economic means. This idea is also explored by Socrates[11] using the Greek word thymos which is evident even in children and dogs, beings whose reactions are not naturally controlled by reason. The term is generally taken to refer to our instinctive response when we feel we’re being disrespected. We bristle. We overreact. The demand for identity cannot be suppressed indefinitely; we must begin to shape identity in a way that supports rather than undermines democracy.[12] Until we forge a universal understanding of human dignity, we will doom ourselves to continuing conflict.

The Road to Serfdom

The Road to Serfdom[13] is a book written in the early part of WWII by Friedrich Hayek, where he warns "of the danger of tyranny that inevitably results from government control of economic decision-making through central planning." He further argues that the abandonment of individual identity and classical liberalism inevitably leads to a loss of freedom, the creation of an oppressive society, where the bulk of society identifies with a dictator, resulting in the serfdom of the individual, a tribe of national porportions. Hayek challenged a wide-spread view that fascism was a capitalist reaction against socialism. He argued that fascism and socialism had common roots in central economic planning which focuses exclusively on the health of the state, or in capitalist societies with the Gross National Product, rather than individual identity and well-being. The Road to Serfdom was inspired by the writings of the 19th century French classical liberal thinker Alexis de Tocqueville on the "road to servitude".

Shared Identity

Mankind has evolved to function in a tribal society where every member was expected to sacrifice some of their energy and food resources for the good of the tribe. We could not have survived without this genetic trait. Our societies have prospered in the years since the world wars on the sacrifice of the individual for the good of society. That skill set was honed on the battlefield and brought home by the veterans. All major participants in those wars thrived since 1945 with the ethos that was engendered by the sacrifice of the war times to build an amazing economic powerhouse with the dense web of reciprocal obligations, which gave rise to a strong sense of shared identity.[14] New rifts are tearing apart the fabric of the developed world, both the digital and the real world. Populism has been proposed as a solution in both the digital and the real world. A widespread story has been circulating that the affluent and established populations had establish a stake in cultivating the talents of young strivers like those that built the enterprises that we have today. It was even proposed that corporations were wise enough to understand, like Henry Ford, that the workers had to have a stake in the success of the economy. Thus the corporations were willing to invest for the long term success in the population and their own company. The financial incentives of the past few decades have destroyed that illusion. The identity that we used to share with all our fellow citizens is now tied to every small tribes of like-minded individuals. See the wiki page on Tribal Identifiers for more detailed examination of the positive and negative aspects of on identity bound to the tribe.

Self Worth

But what about the value that many people experience by identifying with a noble cause? Isn't that a benefit to society? Many of the majority communities in the United States have embraced the Identity aspirations of immigrants and people of color in ways that their parents could not have imagined. "The identities that people embrace today are the identities their children will want to escape from tomorrow."[15] Cities, like Chicago, embraced their ethnic enclaves, until they didn't. Seattle has recently renamed "Chinatown" into the "International District". Clearly Identity is a concept that has been in flux at least as long as people of one culture have migrated into regions with different cultures. Eventually things seem to get sorted out, after the people that are invested in the old Culture die off, are killed off, or driven off. For any Identity solution to serve the Common Good, as well as the individual aspirations, it must reinforce both. There are signs that populism will fade and common sense prevail again, but that is not certain, and will not happen unless all are willing to sacrifice something for the Common Good. Some how the people from the technology and business centers, the "smug skilled" as Collier describes them[16] need to create solutions that work for the vast majority of people, and not just those who write code and found companies.


Since an Identity is just a description of a continued presence,


  • Abandon the use of the term Identity in any taxonomy used in computer networking.
  • The term can continue to be used in any ontology that does not need a high level of specificity.
  • Find some constructive way to represent human Identity on the Web that is:
  1. Cognizant of the human desire for privacy (both the desire to be "let alone" and the desire to shield some attributes from public disclosure), and
  2. Cognizant of the human desire for recognition as fully a part of human economic society, and
  3. Cognizant of human individual and commonweal responsibility each for their own destiny.


  2. Edward Everett Hale, The Man Without a Country. (1863-12) ISBN 978-1494225377
  3. Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country. (2007-01-16) ISBN 978-0812977363
  4. Jeff Prebis, Man Without a Country (2015-02-17)
  6. Megan Specia, What it Means to Lack a Nationality or a Country. (2019-02-24) New York Times p. A9
  7. United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, Legal Issues Related to Identity Management and Trust Services. (2018-04) Para. 29
  8. Nathan Heller, The Philosopher Redefining Equality. (2019-01-07) The New Yorker
  9. Establishing identity is a vital, risky and changing business. (2018-12-18) Financial Times
  10. Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018) ISBN 978-1631493836
  11. Plato, Republic. (380BC) ISBN 978-0486411217
  12. Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. (2018) ISBN 978-0374129293
  13. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom. (1944) Routledge ISBN 978-0226320595
  14. Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism. (2018-12-04) Harper ISBN 978-0062748652
  15. Louis Menand, What Identity Demands. (2018-09-03) New Yorker
  16. Reihan Salam, Saving Local Communities in a Globalized World. (2019-0-04) New York Times Book Review p. 10