Monday, April 27, 2015

The Mutual Constraints of Identity and Social Fabric – Part 5 –Future of Identity in the Digital Environment

…the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered, but a direct participation in an experience. The whole tendency of modern communication whether in the press, in advertizing or in the high arts is towards participation in a process, rather than the apprehension of concepts. And this major revolution, intimately linked to technology, is one whose consequences have not begun to be studied although they have begun to be felt.
McLuhan 1951 - Essential McLuhan(1995)

I’ve been making the case that industrial social-political economies have required some form of ubiquitous anonymity. The comfort, expectation and now right of anonymity has played a key role of a constraint shaping the construction of personal identity. The other side of a society that is at ease with ubiquitous anonymity (e.g. at ease in crowds, transact with strangers, etc.) is a complementary need for a range of institutions that provide certification of identity and accreditation of reputation and background. For example, birth certificate, driver’s license, education and professional credentials, credit history, country of origin and travel experience, and so on. Without institutions that provide formal certifications of identity comfort and trust with ubiquitous anonymity would not be possible. 

Similarly, anonymous transactions could not be enabled without the trust inherent in the institutions that provide for standards (e.g. a pound of weight is a pound of weight, a dollar is a dollar, etc.); institutions of recourse (e.g. police, courts, justice, due process, food inspections, health and safety standards, medical and drug standards, etc.); and professional institutions (e.g. credentials, ethical and conduct codes, etc.). These institutions and the framework they provide, form a foundation for a widespread trust that enables many forms of social interactions and economic transactions. In effect these institutions reduce the friction of social exchange. Included in the institutional framework are additional means of oversight to ensure the institutions themselves are sustained as legitimate and trustworthy.

The overwhelming number of anonymous interactions and exchanges are essentially ‘trustless’ because they are embedded in a context of institutions that we can generally trust. For example, in buying an item in a store we generally don’t have to trust the merchant, nor does the merchant have to trust us – we both trust the currency (and supporting institutions). Nor do we need a personalized network to support us (e.g. a clan to exact revenge in the case of bad faith).

Thus, the constraints on our identity are two-fold. On one hand the requirement of anonymity as a sort of stripping from social fabric that enable ‘trustless’ transaction within market-based and other complex economies. On the other hand a complex and market-based economy also requires new forms of freezing the identity of people in different domains – such as occupational/educational credentials, citizenship, residence, etc. 

Perhaps we can engage in another way to reason through the complexity of the shift from industrial scarcity-based economics inherently dependent on some form of anonymity, toward an economics appropriate to the digital environment. Consider that the price mechanism must carry 'good enough' (nothing is ever perfect) information so that the market can allocate scarce resources to where they will be of most value. This of course requires that most people have the means to express what is valuable to them so the market (via price) can allocate efficiently.

The means to express what is valuable, is some form of currency (essentially a circulation of IOUs). However, when the playing field is not equal enough, people don't have the means to express what is valuable and the market can therefore no longer be efficient. The industrial market system is based on scarcity which also entails that the institution of property rights enables secure transactional exchange of rights to scarce goods – I give my money then I get your good. My money becomes your property – your good becomes my property.

Property rights around scarce goods work because the scare goods are rival – only one person can use it at a time. Furthermore property rights work well when goods are excludable – that we can efficiently/effectively prevent others from using the good (our property). But not all things are excludable – for example we all share the atmosphere and we can’t exclude others from breathing the air we breathe nor from the carbon we exhale/produce. Another example, a book is excludable - I can prevent you from reading the book - but its knowledge is non-rival - you can read the book and neither the book nor I (its owner) are diminished - we lose nothing when someone else reads it.

Given these simple examples, it is clear that with the right conditions a price mechanism and property rights can work extremely well to enable self-organized allocation of scarce, rival, and excludable goods (services are more complex). However, these same mechanisms also make it much more difficult to grasp the ephemeral nature of currency as simply way to enable the accounting and circulation of IOUs – credits and debits.

Two key questions: Is an economic system designed for scarcity adequate to deal with the emerging economy of abundance or to attractor of efficiency integral to the digital environment? Is the institutional framework of an industrial economy adequate to a zero-marginal cost economy – one that also entails exponential marginal value and opportunity?

The concept of property rights is the embodiment of a concept of individuals as isolated, atomistic, selfish (only self-interested) - we all know intellectually that this is pathologically flawed but it was a necessary narrative (illusion) that enabled us to break out of a tribal constraint - it was necessary to enable individuals to develop and pursue an individual path.

The reality however, is that to be human is to be social – all value, language, culture arises in social conditions – all our individual achievement depend on the achievement of others (not just the shoulders of giants). As Graeber (2012) points out, the original Indo-European words for - 'Sin' 'Guilt' and 'Debt' are synonyms. That means we weren't born in original sin (as Judeo-Christians define it) but we were all definitely born with 'Original Debt' – Debt to mother, family, society, the platform of our economy, etc.

An institutional framework geared to abundance and seizing opportunity must be different – first with abundance – property rights to ensure excludability may be less important. When an economy is approaching a condition of near-zero marginal costs (ZMC), property rights may seem inefficient by having to institute transaction costs that encumber access and allocation (usually by imposing a belief in an artificial scarcity is equivalent to real scarcity). 

We are not only in a ZMC economy (ZMCE), we are also in a condition of accelerating change and innovation. In such condition the health of the economy necessarily involves ensuring the development of better capacities for the generation and seizing of opportunity. To do this requires a foundation where more people that can take safe-fail risks enabling a faster and more extensive social computing of the opportunity space can be explored (e.g. an exploration of the problem-solution space).

In the conditions integral to the ZMCE, increasingly reliant on innovation, the key to wealth is enabling the best productivity of people (This is what Adam Smith defined as wealth - The productive capacity of people that is the measure and embodiment of wealth).

As has been noted Graeber (2012) accounting is the original form of sustaining social fabric and is more mechanisms of pricing. Price presupposes a sort of negotiated discrete transaction in time and place that is effective as a means for self-organized allocation of scarce resources. But what is the price of stuff in a ZMCE? How can future opportunity be priced in the present (without a speculative gamble) and without foreclosing on unknowable adjacent possibles – or more positively stated – enabling the unleashing and grasping of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. order positive externalities, exaptations, affordances?

The important question – Is how do we enable the unleashing of productive capacity of people in those domains of abundance - of ZMCE - of the world of non-rival, and only artificially excludable 'stuff'? Graeber (2012) suggested that value is only revealed in use. One can make an object that is costly – but the determination of its value is not as simple as what is spend in its making – because no matter how is spend to produce it – if no one wants it, then it produces no value. And future use value – future additions, modifications, combinations-with-other, cannot be pre-determined.

In the digital environment and the ZMCE, perhaps we can only rely on tracking and accounting of use, of creative application, of new uses, of experiences, of recombination, of links to whole lineages of use and development of particulars (revealing 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc. order arising of new potentials and value). This would be the type of accounting that arises with the co-evolution of 'spimes' (Sterling 2005) – physical and virtual objects that are imbued with so much information that we can query their entire history. An accounting that can enable us to reveal the social fabric upon (and within) which we depend to develop ourselves and our potential. An accounting that can also enable us to self-govern ourselves and our work around a dynamic adaptive range of homeostatic values.

The primary economic problem of ZMCE is not the allocation of scarce rival, excludable 'stuff'. The problem is more about how to ensure the abundant flourishing of the productive capacity of people – enabling people to aspire and pursue whatever they can excel at.

The digital environment suggest that anonymity is not the best protection for our privacy – our right to not be interfered with. But the digital environment is definitely disrupting our experience of anonymity. If anonymity were an adequate protection for security of our identity – then we would protect ourselves from prejudice by having every one wear a bag over their body - so the fatness/thinness, beauty/plainness, race/color, religious-observances, etc. couldn’t be used against us to cause us harm. The bag over our body – would be the enabling of ubiquitous anonymity - the industrial age sense of anonymity – that was inseparable from the incredible mass displacement of people from their agricultural habitus into an ever expanding urban habitus.

The dominant approach to protecting privacy seems to be an emphasis ever more powerful means to ensure anonymity. For example, developing ways to either own our personal data within encrypted data silos and/or creating more powerful forms of cryptographic anonymity. Given the seriousness of both government and commercial efforts at mass surveillance and Big Data analytics this approach seems the most natural reaction to intrusive prying on personal life and secret or veiled use of our information for unknown (and perhaps malevolent aims). The assumption underlying the focus on encrypted anonymity seems to be that a transparent society is not possible or desirable. David Brin (1999) has written extensively of the development of either a surveilled society or a society of mutual transparency.

Briefly Brin argues that by having all of our information available for anyone to view – with the condition that if anyone does view our information we would get an alert of who was viewing, when, what they were viewing. By receiving a report we would have the power and capability to look back. Furthermore we would be able to have a complete record of every view and use of our information – and we would be able to view and use any other person’s or entities information. Ultimately, like in any conversation held in a public place we learn the consequence of watching others is that we ca be easily watched in return.

However, by relying primarily on cryptographic forms of identity-protection, we would be continuing to replicate the narrative of a society constituted by isolated, atomistic individuals. We would be building a 'trustless' society that would undermine the values necessary for a social fabric that fully enables the emergence of a collaborative commons better able to generate and seize opportunities. As much as we will continue to depend on all our digital technologies, the more embedded social distrust is, the more it will impose a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity -- a tax that high trust societies do not have to pay.

By trying to protect the constraint of identity that worked for the industrial society we are preparing to fight the last war.

The issue of protection is fundamental – but how do we do that in a way that doesn't create side-effects that may be worse than the problem we are trying to address?

Steve Fuller (2014a, 2014b) suggests an alternative that could be a viable approach. He points out our institutions of retributive justice – the eye for an eye – retrieved but also displaced inter-tribal forms of identity. The emergence of the nation-state and corresponding institutions enabled common laws, language, education, and infrastructure. These commons are becoming global and producing new senses (and as McLuhan would have it sensations) of the construction of what is ‘mine’, ‘yours’, ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’ (one consequence of the emergence(y) of climate change is the deepening of the sensation the earth-commons as ours to solution).

Fuller proposes that we need a very fundament shift in the foundation of rights – from property (fundamentally owning our information) to liability (recourse when harm is perpetrated with our information). The aim is to shift the focus from a concern about what others may or may not know about us to a concern with the consequent behavior related to the use of our knowledge of each other – to recourse when knowledge has been used to cause harm. This approach enables a vision in which insurance & compensation enables a foundation for the security of our personal identity. For Fuller – this approach is the – de facto price for potentially unlimited personal freedom.

Fuller calls this approach the ‘Proactionary Imperative’. The aim is to unleash the capacity of the digital environments to enable self-organizing group formation because of greater publicly available information. Although Fuller’s proposal initially focuses on genetic information (which Kevin Kelly has called our common wealth) it seems fundamentally suited to many more applications where personal information may be used with increasing ease to profit others or to harm us.

The price of greater freedom is that others are free to access you, which means that you need to ensure that you benefit – or at least are not harmed – by that new found freedom that others have over you. But in any case, privacy in its classical sense is effectively dead.

The emerging digital environment is a new ground for constructing our personal and collective identities. This new ground will inevitably require us to understand, develop and construct new constraints related to personal information and the construction of our identity in order to do the work that will sustain our bourgeoning global society and economy. New institutions will have to provide forms of mechanistic trust, which reliably form new layers of governance that are suited to this age of complexity. 

Our argument is that, one necessary constraint on our identity, will be a new form of radical crypto-transparency presupposed on trust, but made more secure with institutions enabling forms of insurance and recourse along the lines of Fuller’s proactionary imperative. The constraint of radical crypto-transparency protect and enables new forms of values and new types of commons, based on Big Data markets, and new modes of production enabled by responsible autonomy and networked individualism.

As the ground of the digital environment becomes visible to awareness the monsters it presents may include visions of ‘The Borg’ or of ‘Big Brother’. Perhaps the anti-ground response, could include Doctorow’s “Little Brother”.

These problems, may be essentially impossible to solve, because they are inherently incomplete (involve many actors/variables outside the boundary of the organization), contradictory (many conflicting issues), and face constantly changing conditions of interdependencies involving requirement that are difficult to recognise. What this really means is that problems are not ‘things that can be solved’ but are in fact a condition within which we all live. These sorts of problems cannot be cured but they can be understood and we can learn to create conditions enabling adaptive solutioning. This solutioning, however, will require fundamentally different constraints on our identities.

Constraints for Freedom or for Security?
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. – 
Benjamin Franklin

The degree of change and hyper-fluidity facing the individual and society is daunting even overwhelming – if we depend on yesterday’s industrial frameworks. New technologies promise unprecedented opportunities and freedoms. However, the shadow of the pace of these changes – is that we have all become refugees from our own childhood – not just living in future shock but in present shock.

Our traditional forms of security are eroding – job security, life-long marriage, nuclear family, multi-generational community life, the traditional forms of privacy-as-anonymity. As the digital environment offers more freedom of opportunity is simultaneously offers more risk and transforms the necessary foundation of our stability. 

A simple calculus of risk is inadequate. Sound risk assessment is only possible when the full range of outcomes is known. The situation is profoundly more difficult and severe. We are all faced with fundamental uncertainty. An uncertainty that includes a complete inability to know what will be enabled in the future by the ‘butterflies we unleash in the world’. We don’t know how a negative action will produce positive results or how positive intentions will eventuate in negative results.

Not only don’t we know what will happen, we don’t know what can happen.

There is also great risk in not engaging in change. As unfortunate and scary as it is for all of us – the 21st Century is the era of complexity. The uncertainty we face is also mirrored in the shift from a Newtonian world view toward a relativity/quantum/complexity understanding of reality.
To end this overlong blog I’d like to finish with another quote from William Gibson:

“I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to let us see the present.”

There can be no such thing as identity theft in a pre-currency society.

Yes - the ground of our social experience is in a tectonic shift - it's making the previously invisible ground of industrial society visible. But most of us are focused on the figures the ground frames - we mostly are not seeing the frame. What will be the experiences upon/from which we create our sense of 'self'?

How can we own personal data when the overwhelming portion of the data is created through interaction with close, loose, audience, and unknowable network of others? Each participant in the collaborative experience is a co-creator of that data, and thus irrevocably also owns that data since it is also part of their-self-as-experienced? Who owns the image of me is another’s eye? Who owns the sound of my words in another’s ears? Who owns the feelings my hand creates on another’s skin? If I aim to hide myself in crypto-anonymity as a means to own myself – I must inevitably own the other – or enact a radical surgery of myself from my social environment.

The monopoly of insight may also include the demise of the 'sovereign individual'.

Concerns about privacy are certainly serious, and raise some important questions: 

1) Will privacy-as-anonymity provide the protection it did in industrial conditions? 
2) Will the constraint of anonymity on identity provide the adequate support to a digital economy (based not on scarcity of goods but on an abundance of increasing returns, network effects, and exponential marginal value)? 
3)Will a corresponding effort to enclose the informational commons into personal data enclaves of private property enable the economy of the digital environment to provide the value it can?

Brin, David. 1999. The Transparent Society. Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? Basic Books.

Doctorow, Cory. 2010. Little Brother. Tor Books.

Fairtlough, Gerard. 2007. The Three Ways of Getting Things Done: Hierarchy, Heterarchy & Responsible Autonomy in Organizations. Triarchy Press.

Fuller, Steve. 2014a. Justice Beyond Privacy: As the old social bonds unravel, how can we balance free expression against security? 

Fuller, Steve. 2014b. The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism. Palgrave Macmillan.

Graeber, David. 2012. Debt: The First 5000 Years. Melville House.

McLuhan, Marshall. Letter to Harold Adam Innis, March 14 1951. From Essential McLuhan (1995), edited by Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, p. 73

Rifkin, Jeremy. The Zero Marginal Cost Society – The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons and The Eclipse of Capitalism.

Sterling, Bruce. 2005. Shaping Things. MIT Press.

Wellman, Barry; Rainie, Lee. 2012. Networked: The New Social Operating System. MIT Press.

William Gibson says the future is right here, right now.