In May of 2007, I discovered that Chinese, unlike English, does not use the same word to mean “identity” in both the “card” sense and the “crisis” sense. Those are indeed two different things.
The early days of the free software movement were plagued by a similar ambiguity of the English word “free” until the gratis versus libre distinction (”free as in speech, not as in beer”) became popular.
Today’s digital identity discussion could benefit by making a similar distinction among the various meanings of the word “identity.” I suggest there are three aspects of identity mixed up together in the English word “identity,” and I shall call these aspects I1, I2 and I3.
Examples of I1 entities include phone numbers, domain names, RFID tags, SIM cards, credit cards, bar codes, checks, banknotes, stock certificates, XRIs, URLs, filenames, passports and the like, together with a federation of registries, directories or clearinghouses to which they refer. Also, I1 systems usually include some mechanism to discourage forging, spoofing, counterfeiting and other means of identity debasement. Note that this threefold interdependence of token, registry and security technology appears in all practical I1 systems, even pre-digital and non-digital ones.
However, I1 identities always presume I2 identities which may be described as institutional. A business corporation, for example, is an I2 entity which both defines and is defined by a web of I1 entities which includes accounts, the corporate seal, stock certificates, and so on. Speaking more generally, the efforts of Foucault, Hacking and Searle to understand how language determines “institutional facts” may be understood as the discovery that any identity exists in both I1 and I2 aspects.
Finally, identity always has a third, “narrative” aspect which I call I3. The I3 aspect of a modern monetary system, for example, is “credit” or, more bluntly, the public faith in its soundness. Without this faith, the system’s I1 aspects (e.g., the currency) and its I2 aspects (e.g., the banks) would be meaningless. The corresponding I3 aspect of a business corporation is the firm’s market capitalization. A third example is provided by John Henry Clippinger’s recent book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity, which points out the strategic importance of what he calls “identity narratives” to today’s geopolitical situation. In my terminology, Clippinger here is pointing out the I3 aspect of cultural identity, and his book as a whole shows how this aspect is tied to a culture’s I1 aspects (signaling mechanisms) and I2 aspects (institutions).
Needless to say, creating a theoretical model of identity in general is properly the task of a career, not of a blog post. My intention here is simply to suggest that the ambiguous word “identity” may be slowing down leading-edge discussions just as the ambiguous word “free” once did, and that it may be time once again to introduce some useful terminological distinctions.