I admit that I am not the superstitious type. Superstitions have never resonated with me as my mind simply doesn’t grasp the idea of something unnatural. It is, therefore, with some reluctance that I use words like ‘ghost’ and ‘immortals’ here. However, they are useful to explain my thoughts on digital identity for reasons which I hope will soon be obvious. First, permit me a minor philosophical detour.
Who are you?
It takes seven years for each and every atom in your body to be replaced by another. Not overnight, of course; it’s not some big switch that gets flipped once every seven years. No, it’s an ongoing replacement of every atomic particle, step by step in your body, changing the former physical you into the current you.
It’s so gradual as to escape your notice, aside from the receding hairline or the extra few pounds. But, as you morph through the different versions of you, your actions as a product of each of those versions gets hard-coded into the fabric of space-time (however that might look), never to be revisited, never to be undone. It is, however, from a physical point of view, what makes you, you.
The traces we leave behind.
I said, “never to be revisited,” and from the vantage point of the space-time continuum, it is true that we can’t revisit our former selves. We can’t undo what has been done, at least not in practice, but we can do something else. We can remember and we can reflect.
We don’t remember everything; in fact, far from it. But we do remember enough to feel a causal connection between our past and the present. Memory serves to remind the current you of the various former you’s, to create a consistent narrative, to make us feel like we are separate from everything else.
Our very existence leaves traces of our former selves, both in our own memory and, perhaps as important, in the minds and memories of others. These traces create the possibility of identification. All relationships are established through shared history. It’s this shared history (the traces) that builds relationships. Trust as well as distrust.
I am identifiable, not simply because of the former versions of me get plotted into space-time but because of the traces I leave behind in other observing me’s. Me’s who in turn leave traces of themselves in former and current versions of me. Every conversation, every night out, every vacation, every interaction, establishes relationships between you and someone else. But there will never be a real you, only a continuum of you’s who remember traces from the past.
In other words, we are feedback loops in constant flux and perpetual transformation. We are feedback loops with memory banks, transmorphing through time, collecting traces of the world around us, simulating not the reality but a reality.
Who’s your best friend?
In one of my previous essays I talked about how our actions in the physical and digital space are beginning to merge and affect each other in an ever-increasing relationship. Some relationships are built solely through digital channels. There are people who have never met or talked to each other through anything but their avatars, handles or emails. There is nothing currently that seems to change this tendency. So unless socializing suddenly become unfashionable (unlikely but possible) we are bound to see increased convergence between digital and physical life.
Another tendency that also seems rather persistent is the divergence of technology into ever more mobile, aware and personal tools. Well tools and tools. It would be a shame really to call them tools as they are more akin to digital wingmen, accompanying us in every facet of our lives.
They know what messages we receive and which we send and to and from who. They know if we are in Portugal or Thailand, Lisbon or Koh Phangan. They know things that never crossed our minds to retain. They know things about us that not even our best friends know. There is literally no limit to what they can and potentially could record from our lives. In fact, these wingmen can be said to contain traces of our very existence.
And this is where things really start to become interesting.
How many times must I say that I am who I say I am?
As explored in “The power of digital ecosystems,” the difference between a physical ecosystem and a digital one is that the former works through the free flow and exchange of energy and the latter through the free flow and exchange of data.
Despite all the talk about our being in constant flux, the very premise of our existence is that we occupy not only information space but physical space, and that we are carbon-based, biological beings, not silicon-based, digital ones. In other words, there is a wall between the ‘me’ in physical space and the ‘me’ in digital space.
So when we log on to the internet, access our mails, social networks, bank accounts and other services, we must identify ourselves as the rightful users through means of abstraction. The current abstraction for identification is the use of usernames and passwords. We can no longer rely on the same kind of recognition as that in our daily lives. Traces don’t count when we interact with our bank. It doesn’t identify us; it identifies a password and a username.
This is an artifact from a time when the interaction between humans and machines and the services they hosted were sporadic and, well, …between humans, machines and their services. It isn’t well-suited for situations where the machines are an extension of us to the degree they are today.
Imagine a world requiring you to identify yourself with a password each time you met or telephoned your friends. Every morning when you awaken, you must prove to your wife and kids that you are the right spouse, the right parent. We wouldn’t dream of treating strangers we meet in a bar or on an airplane like that.
It’s always easy to critique the work of others. Many reasons exist as to why we still use these identification methods. It is not my intent to critique the great work of pioneers like Dr. Douglas C. Engelbart and Vince Cerf who made it possible for me to sit here and rant; they sure did their part to move the world forward.
Perhaps the current OpenID/Twitter/Facebook approach is the way forward. Or perhaps I am missing something. (Certainly possible). But I believe we need to look for alternatives in our approach to identification. If, for nothing else, to benefit from the new opportunities it will bring, not to mention saving a couple of years repeatedly typing passwords and usernames.
This is where traces come into play. As our physical identity doesn’t easily transcend into digital space, we are left with a situation that is neither secure (with just root access you can steal information on millions of credit cards or accounts) nor elegant (future generations will scoff at how much time we wasted remembering, retrieving and typing in those passwords and usernames). In an attempt to take advantage of scalability, we still force humans to obey machine thinking instead of the other way around. It shouldn’t and doesn’t have to be like that.
The ghost protocol
I said I’m not the superstitious type and I am not. Yet one word keeps popping into my mind as I try to formulate my thinking – ghost.
Ghosts are said to be trapped between the physical world and the afterlife. They lack physical properties yet still manifest themselves as alive and humanlike. They have a history; they used to be someone, someone who, although they no longer exist as flesh and bone, still carry the accumulated memories and knowledge of a past self.
Could it be that these traces we leave behind at one level constitute the ghosts of our former selves? Could it be that these ghosts can manifest themselves in digital space as non-material versions of former me’s? Instead of being merely printed into the fabric of space-time and into the minds of others, might they also be printed into the fabric of the digital continuum and allow for a kind of transcendence?
Now, imagine these ghosts represent our digital identity.
As with your Social Security or telephone number, an empty ghost can be acquired from a ghost service provider.
Whatever we do, wherever we go, with whomever we interact, or even however we interact, our ghosts will build relationships with other ghosts, increasing or decreasing trust as they get to know each other, as they/we build up shared history and develop relationships–some strong and tight, some sporadic, some emotional, some practical, some public, some secret; but all decentralized from any central verification process. These are the social machines I talked about in “Slaves of the feed”.
Our digital wingmen will capture all this in ever greater detail and share it perpetually with other ghosts, just as in the physical world, only in much, much, much greater detail. They will always be connected with each other and therefore not as easily deceived. After all, how can someone pretend to be my ghost if my ghost and another ghost are never separated?
With time, and as the amount of information increases and the complexity of the relationship fidelity increases, perhaps your ghosts even take on some sort of agency and become ever more indistinguishable from the physical you, helping you make decisions, leaving traces in your physical mind.
And, finally, as entropy takes its toll on your physical body, instead of “you” being an essay here, a wiki mention there and a tweet here, your entire life, your every move, is recorded into the fabric of the digital “space-time” continuum where it continues to live, only this time to be revisited by later generations. Perhaps it even becomes part of a consensus of ghosts, a consensus summoned by future generations whenever big decisions need to be made or forgotten solutions to problems need to be found.
We might not have the kind of transcendence that theists or trans-humanists talk about, but we might still make a difference in the future.
Isn’t that a kind of immortality worth striving for?
Note 1: This essay is the manifesto for my next company–a company that will transform the way many of us work. I can’t wait to tell you about it once we have finished the alpha version. If you wish to learn more when it happens, subscribe here.