OPINION: The Subjective Identity

27/07/2020  — by Paul Murphy

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash

Anyone who reads my posts regularly knows that I’m somewhat obsessed with identity. I most recently wrote about it in relation to cryptocurrencies here. In that context, I was mostly addressing the idea of legal identity, which I believe is both unnecessary and, in many cases, impossible to agree since each identity only exists from the perspective of a single nation state.

As I wrote last month, I am now also working on a virtual social events platform, Toucan, to fill the vast amount of free time available now that in-person socialising is no longer possible.

Once again, the identity conundrum has raised its head.

Names and Profile Pictures

We decided early on that we could ensure a certain amount of platform security by forcing people to signup via a social media proxy. Signups using a Facebook or Google account makes it much easier for us to control how people behave on the platform. If they misbehave and we kick them out, they’re somewhat stuck. They can create other accounts, but both Facebook and Google make it difficult and intentionally time-consuming. 

Thanks to this decision, we “know” who guests at our events are. Our early customers liked that, and almost immediately asked us to change it. 

For example: ‘I know my name is Michael-Joseph Grokowsky on Facebook, but my friends call me “Grok”.’ 

So we let people edit their display names. 

You can’t use my Facebook profile photo because I’m in a bikini, and I don’t want that to be my avatar at our company social.

So we let people change their profile photos.

We may still know who they are, but now, the other guests at the event may not. Grok might look like a girl in a bikini, and the girl in the bikini might call herself Michael-Joseph. 

Filters and Avatars

A few weeks ago, we started talking about audio and video filters, a combination that would make someone very difficult if not impossible to identify, even during a live video stream.  

We also know that, at some stage, we’ll be allowing people to use 3D avatars at our events. As soon as we decide they need to be photorealistic, someone is going to ask to change their hair colour, their size, or their height.

If photorealism isn’t an option, we’re quickly down the “Ready Player One” rabbit hole. 

In social circumstances, people aren’t so enthusiastic about displaying their “natural” selves. Our ability to “improve” on the self we were born with has only gotten better over time. We began by cutting our hair, wearing clothes, and using make up. That got us pretty far. But now technology is allowing us to present ourselves in ways that make it impossible to tie our representation back to someone identifiable in person.

Image by DKunert from Pixabay

My Own Reservations

This is only puzzling if we forget that humans love to tell stories, especially about themselves. We mostly accept those stories and rarely worry about the artifice. It’s normal. Everyone uses it to some extent. Only the most radical granola-loving back-to-earthers object to make up, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who objected to clothes. If we’re happy to accept these primitive modifications of our selves, we should be happy to accept their more modern equivalent. I almost do, but with reservation.

That reservation is a long discussion, full of ambiguity, but it’s clear and unambiguous that the idea of an objective social identity is nonsense. For those of us trying to create virtual environments where people meet and interact, this is a conundrum. How much can we, and how much should we, police these variants? It’s hard to identify a bright line between putting your best foot forward and full dissimulation. The farther we get on that spectrum the easier it is to defraud without consequences. 

Although not many of us are having to wrestle with these issues yet, we all will eventually. As usual, we’ll adapt. I don’t know how but I have a hunch that relatively soon the idea of an objective identity is going to seem terribly old-fashioned.

Paul Murphy’s software career has primarily focused on financial services and voice. On Wall Street he worked on a broad range of front and back office systems. He then became obsessed with the human voice as interface, building tools and applications that interacted with users over telephones. This obsession culminated in the founding of Clarify, which developed cutting edge speech recognition and language processing software for conversations. With Credmark, Paul is re-entering the finance space because he firmly believes that crypto is the foundation of the next global financial system.

This article does not constitute legal advice.

The opinions expressed in the column above represent the author’s own.

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Tags: crypto | cryptocurrency | identity | identity conundrum | social media | z-syndicate


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