All Identity Is Divided Into Three Parts

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.

Cool URIs are Galenic

Paul Madsen, inspired by the popularity of fourfold classifications in ancient Greek philosophy (the four elements, the four humors, etc.) today proposes a “four humors” theory of identifiers:

What are an identifier’s ‘humours’? How about linkability, discoverability, uniquenessability, and memorability?

I’ve been pondering a fourfold theory of my own lately, which is that identity’s role in distributed computing is best understood in terms of Aristotle’s theory of the four causes:

  • material cause = hardware
  • efficient cause = software
  • final cause = specification
  • formal cause = identity

There are well-defined disciplines and technologies corresponding to the first three of these, but not yet the fourth. This fourth branch of computer science is, in my opinion, what the identity community has discovered and is now building.

Identity Lessons in Literature

One of my favorite sections of the OECD’s new working paper on digital identity titled “At a Crossroads: ‘Personhood’ and Digital Identity in the Information Society,” which I discovered via Paul and Kaliya, is the sidebar on page 11 titled “Identity Lessons in Literature.” It begins:

Novelists and dramatists have driven Locke’s points home over and over again: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde presented several persons in one body; Twelfth Night gave us multiple persons in multiple indistinguishable bodies; and the theme of one person in one body appearing to be different bodies goes all the way back to Odysseus in the cave of the Cyclops.

To this list I’d like to add Edgar Allan Poe’s story Morella, first published in 1835. Perhaps the ultimate identity horror story (in literature, anyway), it contains the following passage:

The wild Pantheism of Fichte; the modified Παλιγγενεσια of Pythagoreans; and, above all, the doctrines of Identity as urged by Schelling, were generally the points of discussion presenting the most of beauty to the imaginative Morella. That identity which is termed personal, Mr. Locke, I think, truly defines to consist in the saneness of a rational being. And since by person we understand an intelligent essence having reason, and since there is a consciousness which always accompanies thinking, it is this which makes us all to be that which we call ourselves — thereby distinguishing us from other beings that think, and giving us our personal identity. But the principium individuationis — the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost for ever — was to me, at all times, a consideration of intense interest; not more from the perplexing and exciting nature of its consequences, than from the marked and agitated manner in which Morella mentioned them.

The OECD paper’s epigraph, a passage from Confucius, also has literary significance:

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?” The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”

This story was an important element in the system of Ezra Pound, and the Chinese characters for “rectify names,” 正名, appear several times in his Cantos.

Facebook and Mimetic Desire

The Guardian has outdone itself today. I had already guessed that Facebook is “some kind of extension of the American imperialist programme,” (duh!) but the connection to René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire had completely escaped me:

Thiel’s philosophical mentor is one René Girard of Stanford University, proponent of a theory of human behaviour called mimetic desire. Girard reckons that people are essentially sheep-like and will copy one another without much reflection. The theory would also seem to be proved correct in the case of Thiel’s virtual worlds: the desired object is irrelevant; all you need to know is that human beings will tend to move in flocks. Hence financial bubbles. Hence the enormous popularity of Facebook.

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Journalists aren’t exactly in a position to cast stones, however. As Girard points out on page 26 of his book Job: The Victim of His People:

Words, too, form a crowd; countless, they swirl about the head of the victim, gathering to deliver the coup de grâce … Is it an exaggeration to associate these words with a lynching?

Girard’s answer: “Absolutely not.”

The Internet of Things

Kevin Kelly has a terrific post up on his blog about the Giant Global Graph. In the most comprehensive discussion of Tim Berners-Lee’s recent “computers to documents to data” formulation I’ve seen yet, Kelly demonstrates the sympathy necessary to understand but also the clarity necessary to criticize:

Documents and computers as property are a lot less problematic than data as property. Data is notoriously hard to own. And then there is the slippery notion of identity. If the web knows you are always you, who are you? If the price of total personal service is total personal transparency, is that any different than total personal surveillance?

Kelly also understands that this “slippery notion of identity” will be as much about the identity of things as the identity of people:

You actually want to connect not to the airline’s computer, nor to the airline’s flight page, nor to the flight data, but to the flight itself. Ideally, we would connect to the embedded processing and raw information in the airplane, in your particular seat, at the airport’s slot — the entire complex of items and services we call “the flight.” What we ultimately want is an internet of things.

This profound insight into the nature of digital identity as the pivot between the real and virtual worlds was anticipated earlier this year independently by Kaliya Hamlin and David Birch in contributions on which I commented here.

By the way, Kelly also manages to pack an entire world of meaning into a literally parenthetical aside:

I have learned to be suspicious of any history that comes in threes.

For a book-length exposition of this remark, I recommend The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin.

First III, then WWW, now GGG

Tim Berners-Lee explains that digital identity is really about the WWW’s emerging successor, the GGG:

I called this graph the Semantic Web, but maybe it should have been Giant Global Graph! Any worse than WWWW? Now that the “Semantic Web” term has been established for a long time, I’m not proposing to change it. But let’s think about the graph which it is.

What’s new isn’t the graph itself, he explains, but what the graph connects. The Internet (called near the beginning of his post the International Information Infrastructure, or III) is a graph that connects computers. The Web is a graph that connects documents. What’s emerging now is a graph that connects who and what the documents are about:

So the Net and the Web may both be shaped as something mathematicians call a Graph, but they are at different levels. The Net links computers, the Web links documents.

Now, people are making another mental move. There is realization now, “It’s not the documents, it is the things they are about which are important”. Obvious, really.

Obvious? Sure, in the same way that apples obviously fell out of trees until Isaac Newton started to think about that. Yes, in one sense the GGG really is nothing more than a simple evolutionary step: i.e. giving the “what the documents are about,” or the subjects, their own identifiers:

Then, when I book a flight it is the flight that interests me. Not the flight page on the travel site, or the flight page on the airline site, but the URI (issued by the airlines) of the flight itself.

But a graph connecting digital subjects is, in my opinion, a radically different beast from one that connects digital objects, and in fact foreshadows a Copernican Revolution in computer science to which I have referred elsewhere as subject-oriented programming.

This revolution is still very early in the making, but its central question has already been identified. If, as Berners-Lee says, the progression from III to WWW and now GGG is simply a matter of raising the level of abstraction of the entities linked by the graph, is it necessary to introduce corresponding levels of abstraction in the scheme used to identify those entities?

Ruby XRI Resolver and API Released

Victor Grey and I today announced the first release of barx, an open source XRI resolver and API implemented in Ruby. For the full story I refer you to Victor’s announcement here and here, and also to barx’s home page at

Thanks to Drummond Reed for his enthusiastic support. I’d also like to thank David Recordon and Andy Dale for attending our pre-release demonstration at DIDW Identity Open Space a few weeks ago and for suggesting that we release an API along with the proxy resolver. I hope they’ll be able to tell that we listened.

Finally, many thanks to my friend and colleague Victor Grey for starting this project and letting me work with him on it. It’s been a privilege and a lot of fun, too.

And now, exclusively for readers of this blog: translations of the two non-English phrases found on the barx home page!

  • Inside the mosaic (in Latin): “Beware of the dog!”
  • Under the mosaic (in German, roughly translated): “I’ll work hard, save money, build my own house, sell my dog and do the barking myself!”

She-Geeks of the World, Unite!

I attended a Ruby meetup the other night. There was standing room only; the organizers estimated that over 50 attended.

From time to time, I looked around the room to see how many women were in the audience. Guess how many I saw? Zero. Yech.

Why does this happen? Men don’t like it. Women don’t like it. Everyone realizes that what may work well for Mount Athos does not work well for technology. So what’s up?

Only a Kaliya unconference can get to the bottom of a mystery like this, and fortunately she’s organizing one on this one next month. If you’re reading this while female, please consider attending and help save the world.

And if you haven’t experienced an unconference before — well, you really should.

Sacred Zones

A news item that appeared on American newswires today has led me to think in a new way about identity, both digital and otherwise. The first few paragraphs:

BLANCHARD, Mich. — Some Amish farmers say a state requirement that they tag cattle with electronic chips is a violation of their religious beliefs.

Last year, the state Department of Agriculture announced that Michigan cattle leaving farms must be tagged in the ear with electronic identification as part of an effort to combat bovine tuberculosis.

That has drawn some resistance from the Amish, who typically shun technology, The Grand Rapids Press reported Sunday. In April, Glen Mast and other Amish farmers appeared before the state Senate Appropriations Committee, urging it to block the program.

“We’re never happier than when we’re just left alone,” said Mast, whose farm in Isabella County operates without electricity. “That’s all we’re asking.”

State officials say the ability to trace food sources is increasingly important in the global economy.

But more important to the smooth functioning of the “global economy”, I would argue, is the ancient legal doctrine known to the eminently practical Romans as res extra commercium, closely related to that of res sacrae: the idea that some things in life are not for sale, and that these things thus “set apart” are the substance of the sacred itself.

Recent discoveries concerning the neuroscience of identity, described by John Henry Clippinger in his recent book A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity, indicate that science is beginning to understand why any form of global governance that elides cultural identity in the name of commerce will know no peace.

The Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa bases his entire philosophy of global governance, which he calls “symbiosis”, on a concept of “sacred zones” comprised of small areas of the economy that are spared from globalization in order to preserve cultural identity:

What I mean by “symbiosis” is a relationship of mutual need — while competition, opposition, and struggle continue. How can mutually opposing, different qualities and aims exist in symbiosis? A concept of sacred zones is, I believe, the key.


Protecting the diversity of life means protecting the diversity of culture, and actively underwriting such diversity. A symbiotic order is an order in which we recognize others’ differences — and their sacred zones — and compete on that basis. Economic activity can be objectively measured, but the same standards cannot be applied to culture, religion, or lifestyle.

Communities so attuned to the sacred that they can honestly say “We’re never happier than when we’re just left alone” will never be more than a tiny minority like the Amish, nor will the “sacred zones” claimed by Kurokawa, such as the Japanese rice industry and sumo, ever amount to more than a tiny fraction of the “global economy”. The “global economy” will surely survive if it spares these few things from the “laws of the market”, but not if it tramples them.

I wish the Amish of Michigan well in their struggle to be left alone.

It’s Not Easy Being Memed

Oh, no. Eugene Eric Kim has tagged me with the infamous “random facts” meme.

Fortunately, he has softened the blow with kind words, and especially so by placing me among illustrious company including digital identity’s own Pamela Dingle.

It wouldn’t be a meme if there weren’t something to repeat verbatim, and in this case it’s the Rules of This Meme:

  • Post these rules before you give your facts.
  • List eight random facts about yourself.
  • At the end of your post, choose (tag) eight people and list their names, linking to them.
  • Leave a comment on their blog, letting them know they’ve been tagged.

So, here are Eight Random Facts about me:

  1. “Kermit” is my real, legal first name. It’s Irish Celtic and a variant of “Dermot”, so I should probably spell it “Kiarmait” or something. My last name, “Snelson”, is English and so is my ancestry.
  2. Michael Dell, Greg Papadopoulos and I attended the same high school.
  3. George Bush (yep, that one) and I had the same pediatrician.
  4. I’ve been told that I resemble Steve Case. He’s older, taller and richer than I, but otherwise I’d have to agree.
  5. I love to eat out and that’s a good thing, because I eat out every meal. Restaurants where I’ve had good times include Carlos’ in Highland Park (IL), the Herbfarm in Woodinville (WA), Rover’s in Seattle, the Conway Pub & Eatery in Conway (WA), and Harold’s Chicken Shack in Chicago.
  6. I love bookstores, and most of my travels end up being bookstore crawls. My favorites are the Seminary Co-op in Chicago, Bolerium in San Francisco, Foyles in London and H.P.Willi in Tübingen.
  7. My taste in music is insanely eclectic. If there’s anybody else out there with a CD collection that includes box sets of Dean Martin, Isang Yun and M. S. Subbulakshmi, I’d like to hear from you. My favorite band at the moment is De-Phazz. As the name suggests, they are from Heidelberg.
  8. My second-favorite place in the world is Big Bend National Park in Texas. (As some of you have probably already deduced from items #2 and #3, I’m originally from Texas.) My all-time favorite place in the world isn’t nearly so big and remote, so I’ll keep that one to myself.

Now for the fun part: tagging my own eight victims. My selection criteria: we are not well-acquainted in real life, nor have we necessarily even met, but I read your blog regularly and have developed a keen interest in your work: