Digital Identity Forum

I was on a panel at the Digital Identity Forum yesterday, organised as usual by David Birch from Consult Hyperion. Much fun was had, and Will Davies gave an excellent talk as usual.

I was more succinct and less interesting – here’s the talk I wrote and, as an experiment, I recorded it and have made a pocast for your listening pleasure, online at the BillCast. And the movie I refer to half way through the talk is up on YouTube.

Notes for a talk

The nature of identity has always been problematic, and philosophers have struggled not only with the logical concept of identity – what does it mean to say that ‘X == X’ or that ‘the morning star is the evening star’ – but with the issue of what consitutes ‘the same person’, what it means to say that ‘he is Dave Birch’. That noted legal philosopher Bill Clinton put it most succintly when noting that ‘it depends what the meaning of “is” is’.

I wake in the morning, and all that attaches me to the person who went to sleep are my memories, yet we know memory is fragmented, error-prone and imperfect.I rise and go about my day, hoping that nothing will happen to challenge that assumption, but all I can really call on in support of my sense of who I am is the network of recollections in the minds of others and physical representations like photographs and written documents, all of which I know could be in error.

Yet over time these create a web of trust, one that reflects the coherence model of truth first put forward in the 1950s by the US philosopher Willard Quine. Instead of looking for a guarantee of identity, a real person underpinning all of our activities and whose presence corresponds to those activities – the old Cartesian or Tarskian model of truth – we fall back on interconnectedness and likelihoods.

When I wake in the morning the hypothesis that I am Bill Thompson is supported and reinforced by most observations, from the way my children greet me as ‘dad’ (though there I rely on an elision between parent and person) to the way my computer recognises a password that I believe only ‘Bill Thompson’ would know.

The fragmenting of identity in the physical world is overcome by the congruent outcomes of the many different tests of identity we encounter and pass during the day. On those rare occasions when I am asked to prove who I am I have cards and picutres and signatures to attest to the fact that ‘Bill Thompson’ and the person in the bank are at least co-extensive if not completely identical, since many of my atoms and attitudes may have changed since the photo was taken or the account opened.

So far, so good. Yet for the last ten years my identity has also stretched out of the physical realm and into the virtual. I am ‘present’ on the Internet, reflected on websites and services like my home page at, and my blog at I am there on Flickr, and MySpace and Youtube. In my edits to Wikipedia and my comments on Slashdot. Identified as the author of articles and postings on the BBC Website,, P2Pnet, the New Statesman website, the Guardian and elsewhere. Photographed and labelled by others, annotated and analysed and quoted.

And of course, there’s Second Life, where I even look a bit like me.

I’m also in a lot of private spaces, like other people’s email inboxes, my bank’s computers and the information systems of the NHS, the Inland Revenue and the VAT office.

There is a Bill Thompson out there. There are many Bill Thompsons out there. But how are they part of me? And what is the relation between the Bill Thompson here in front of you and the one that emerges or – better – can be abstracted from my life online? Can we bring the many aspects together and tie them to one identity, and if so, how?

The identity crisis in the real world was solved psychologically if not philosophically thousands of years ago when the conscious mind emerged as what Stephen Jay Gould calls a ‘non-adaptive sequel’ to the increased complexity of the hominid brain. In the beginning was the ego, and the ego said ‘I am’ – we’ve been working on that core assumption ever since. We attribute mind to others and allow them the same privilege of internal mental states as we believe we see in ourselves, and it’s a good enough model to have had some modest success in building societies and civilisations.

But the identity crisis in the virtual world is new and still awaiting some resolution.

I think that the only way to solve the problem is to follow Wittgenstein and remove the question, and the only way to do that is to collapse the current distinction between online and offline worlds by providing just the sort of tools that we are here to discuss today.

It isn’t only the banks and governments of the world who will thank you for this – we philosophers of mind will be pretty grateful too.

And if you want to understand more clearly some of the problems that are being encountered every day by your schemes and projects, it might be a good idea to look at the work done on identity over the past two thousand years or so by the philosophers and social scientists. You might pick up some useful tips.

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