LJ Archive


Freedom and Identity

Doc Searls

Issue #217, May 2012

It's time for the former to liberate the latter.

Two big things happen for me this month (May 2012). One is that my first book comes out. (That is, the first one written by me alone, with no co-authors.) The title is The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge. The publisher is Harvard Business Review Press, and the publication date is May Day. The other is IIW, the Internet Identity Workshop in Mountain View, California. It's also on May Day, plus the two days following. This will be our fourteenth IIW (we have two each year). Like the others, it will be an unconference, long on conversation, collaboration and hacking, and short on BS (no speakers, no panels, no keynotes, no booths). And I'm sure it will be, as all of them are, better and more productive than the last one.

There is a thread that runs between these two things—the book and identity—going back to 1994, when Phil Hughes began vetting the idea of doing a magazine about free software. That magazine is the one you're reading now.

Since the beginning of that thread, two things have been clear. One is that freedom and identity are both personal. The other is that neither are simple. “Free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man”, Flannery O'Connor wrote (in Wise Blood). “Freedom cannot be conceived simply.” Same for identity. Writes Michael Ventura (in Shadow Dancing in the USA):

...there may be no more important project of our time than displacing the fiction of monopersonality. This fiction is the notion that each person has a central and unified “I” which determines his or her acts. “I” have been writing this to say that I don't think people experience life that way. I do think they experience language that way, and hence are doomed to speak about life in structures contrary to their experience.

The “fiction of monopersonality” struck home for me when I read that passage in the early 1980s. Who I was to my mother, my wife, my kids, my readers, my co-workers—and even to my self in different settings—was different. What we call sanity is unifying all our different identities behind a first-person pronoun: “I”, “me”, “my” or “mine”. Even our names are more varied than those. In my own case I am “Doc” to some people, “David” to others, “Dave” to others, “Searls” to others, and “dsearls” or “@dsearls” on the Web. In Junior High, I was “Sleepy”. (Thus, I have shared nicknames with two of the Seven Dwarfs.) Ventura's point is not just that monopersonality is fiction and that we experience life and language differently, but that who we are is context-dependent, and there are many of those, most of which take the form of relationships with others, all of which come and go—and change along the way.

I recently listened to a tape of a conversation I had with my mother many years ago. I found myself wishing that I could not only talk to her again, but also that I could again be who I was with her. But I couldn't, because that part of me—the son-self in my portfolio of polypersonal identities—died when she left the planet in 2003. I was already in my fifties by then, but I was still her son: to her, and to me. My father, with whom I also had a fun and loving relationship, died in 1979, half my life ago. So I am now nobody's son.

My wife and I have wedding rings inside each of which is inscribed “the couple decides”. Who I am as a husband is a member of a relationship that has an identity of its own, but one sustained by two sovereign selves.

We hold these identity-defining contexts like cards in a hand, and we play them all differently. Where it gets complicated is with the cards—often literal ones—that are loaned to us. These are what Devon Lofretto (posting on the ProjectVRM list) calls “administrative” identities. In my wallet I have administrative identities from the State of California, United Airlines, Harvard University, the Automobile Club of Southern California, VISA, Costco/American Express, Chase Bank and Blue Cross. Not in my wallet, but in my possession, are other administrative identities from Hudson County, New Jersey (where I was born), UC Santa Barbara and dozens of retail establishments. If you count the hundreds of login/password combinations recalled by my browsers, I total several hundred administrative identities in all. None of them are who I am in the deepest and most original sense: the one that was born free. That is, none of them are what Devon calls my “sovereign source” identity, because the administrator of that identity provides the whole context, starting with what they call me, which often aligns with what my parents named me, but doesn't always. In either case, the a priori responsibility is theirs, not mine. We are not a couple, and the couple can decide only what the administrative party alone allows it to decide.

Solving the conflict between sovereign source and administrative identities has been the primary challenge for digital identity development from the start. Because we are so accustomed to being a zillion namespaces in a vast administrative sphere (now as large as the Web itself), we acquiesce to the insanity of it. In fact, we actually mistake the normative nature of this insanity for its opposite. That's why we keep trying to come up with ways to manage multiple logins and passwords—or to create yet another administrative system (the largest of which today are Google, Facebook and Apple)—rather than to replace the whole crazy system with one that builds upward from our sovereign source identities.

Albert Einstein said no problem can be solved at the level of consciousness that created it. That means we can't meet the challenge of fully enabling sovereign source identity at the administrative level. It just can't be done. There is no administrative answer to the identity mess.

Yes, we do need administrative compliance to whatever answers we come up with. But our answers need to come from our free, sovereign and independent selves. Devon lays out our challenge this way: “How can you administer an identity ecosystem if you cannot properly define sovereign source authority? Understanding the structural power of John Hancock should be a job requirement in the American government.”

We may not have defined “sovereign source” yet, but we have experienced it, and that helps. Wrote Walt Whitman:

You make too much of articulation.

Encompass worlds but never try to encompass me. I crowd your noisiest talk by looking toward you.

Writing and talk do not prove me. I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face. With the hush of my lips I confound the topmost skeptic.


I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter's compass,

I know that I am august. I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood. I see that the elementary laws never apologize.

Strong stuff. But can we make that into what the wonks call “policy”?

No, we can't, because the wonks' answer will be an administrative one. But most of us here aren't wonks. Instead, we write code. Here in Hackerland, we change practice, not law.

When John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence, he was declaring the independence of a nation with a signature that also declared his sovereign self. He presented his plenum and proof in script several decades before Whitman declared his own in verse.

My goal for the last six years has been to change practice through inventions that mother necessity. The practice I've worked to change is how you and I relate to administrative entities—especially vendors. I started ProjectVRM at Harvard's Berkman Center in 2006 to encourage development of tools that made individuals independent of administrative entities—and better able to engage with them, in our own ways, and on our own terms.

For example, I see no need today for the government to create “do not track” laws, or to mandate “no track” buttons on Web sites (both of which are policy solutions), when we also can create easy ways for individuals to specify “do not track” as a binding obligation in a relationship with any entity. I can say this with confidence because there are now more than 30 development projects listed on the ProjectVRM Wiki (cyber.law.harvard.edu/projectvrm), all providing code or services that give individuals their own ways to engage with other parties.

Nearly all those projects are flying under the radar of both the mainstream media and VCs, both of which remain in thrall of vendor sports (for example, Google vs. Facebook) and continue to think that the social matters more than the personal. But that won't last long. In a post titled “The Nature of the Firm and Work Markets” (www.avc.com/a_vc/2012/03/the-nature-of-the-firm-and-work-markets.html), the VC Fred Wilson wrote:

In The Nature of the Firm, Coase investigates why “individuals choose to form partnerships, companies and other business entities rather than trading bilaterally through contracts on a market.”

Coase argues that transaction costs that make “trading bilaterally through contracts” expensive spur the organization of firms. And if those transaction costs could be eliminated, more individuals would choose to trade with each other rather than forming partnerships, companies and other business entities.

Enter the Internet and having a computer in your pocket into this model and things change. Technology has been causing these transaction costs to drop precipitously for years now and the result is we have seen the emergence of work markets in which “individuals trade bilaterally through contracts”.

Our firm is seeing these work markets sprout up all around us and if there is a single investment theme that is dominating our deal flow right now, this would be it.

In fact, Fred's firm, Union Square Ventures, is already invested in at least one VRM company (Getabl.com). In that same piece, Fred sources a post by his colleague Christina Cacioppo (www.usv.com/2011/11/what-comes-next.php). She writes:

One reason to create firms is the coordination and signaling problems of situations with imperfect information and transaction costs. As technology increases information flows and decreases transaction costs, individuals can leave their old employers and strike out on their own. Their livelihoods will still depend on providing valuable services in exchange for fees, but they'll do so as freelancers—and on their own, they'll capture more of the value generated by their work....

These free agents, disaggregated and newly empowered, can promote and sustain themselves with new tools....

Sound familiar? How many Linux Journal readers (especially ones who write code) began doing this long ago? Christina also visits the subject of identity:

Between identified, liberated individuals and the nameless, faceless drones of Mechanical Turk lies identity: does it matter who performs the task at hand? If the worker's background, skills, or experience matter, there's likely to be higher variance in demand for a particular person's services, and free agents will be sought after and chosen by reputation on services built for those purposes. Less-skilled people are likely better suited for tasks for which identity doesn't matter, and other marketplaces that don't include a concept of reputation will provide access to a global pool of workers.

In other words, there is a growing distinction between dronework by faceless sources of simple labor and distinctive constructive work by truly free (and faceful) agents. This post is for the latter.

To get full respect for the free agents that all of us were born as, the freedom-loving hackers among us need to help build the tools that give our sovereign sources full authority over the administrative namespaces currently managed by second and third parties. (We're the first parties here.)

A number of these tools are already in the works, and many of them are open source. Singly's Locker Project (lockerproject.org), for example, is an open-source personal data locker on which apps are already being built. Individuals (or their friendly programmers) can write rules for managing relationships through countless potentially interrelated events on the Net, using KRL (kinetic rules language), written by Phil Windley (windley.com). KRL and its rules engine are both open source (at GitHub). On the legal front, Joe Andrieu, Judi Clark and Iain Henderson (along with more than 40 others) have been working on an Information Sharing Agreement (kantarainitiative.org/confluence/display/infosharing) that treats sovereign and administrative identities as equals from the start. The group and its work are both open. Drummond Reed and colleagues at Connect.me have been working on the Respect Trust Framework (connect.me/c/trust)—built around freely made assertions by sovereign individuals regarding the trustworthiness of others—which is listed with the Open Identity Exchange (OIX) and hosted by the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium. That's open too. (That is, if others want to use the same framework, they can. Individuals' data is also their own.)

These developers will be at IIW. Same will go, I hope, for the VCs I just mentioned as well. (Christina and her colleague Brad Burnham were both at the last IIW.) So, if you're up for raising the Barn of the Sovereign Self with the rest of us, come give us even more to celebrate on May Day.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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