Towards a shared understanding of ‘digital identity’ — reflecting on conversations with Doc Searls and Drummond Reed
Covering systems thinking and context, agency, hard borders, trust, trust triangles, and governance.
Phil Windley claims that a technology stack consisting of self-sovereign identity (SSI) and related technologies has all the qualities of generativity. He does so in his latest blog post with reference to Jonathan Zittrain’s 2006 paper The Generative Internet. It’s a well-known and well-respected reference I offered among others in 2019 on using the adjective generative in the context of identity.
Zittrain qualifies technological generativity as a function of its “capacity for leverage across a range of tasks, adaptability to a range of different tasks, ease of mastery, and accessibility.”
Phil recommends the paper in support of his argument.
I recommend the paper to counter Phil’s broader argument and to underline the purpose and value of generative identity.
Last month Phil and I discussed the critique of self-sovereign identity that describes why I consider SSI — at least as it stands today — to be degenerative to the point of dystopian. If you are unfamiliar with the critique you may want to check out The dystopia of self-sovereign identity (SSI). Phil is a proponent of SSI and in a sincere attempt to reconcile our perspectives, which in many ways are not too dissimilar, I put it to Phil that there is a blind spot in his analyses when it comes to complexity, which ties directly to my two dominant themes:
We have just published the draft Generative Identity Group Charter in pursuit of such multidisciplinary insight. Progress in terms of engaging thought leaders like Phil pivots on nurturing a shared understanding of complexity in the multidisciplinary context of sociotechnology, and I have no doubt that Phil may well add to that list in terms of those aspects he considers to be our blind spots.
Phil’s latest post is titled The Generative Self-Sovereign Internet. It is the first of a series of two. There is only one prior and fleeting use of “generative” on Phil’s blog pre-dating our work here according to Google, and so this blog post definitely caught my attention. He defines “self-sovereign internet” in a November 2020 post as a future network enabled by DIDComm, the emerging messaging protocol for secure and private communication between entities identified by / identifying with DIDs (decentralized identifiers). DID-based relationships are the foundation of self-sovereign identity.
In the latest post Phil reviews this technology for alignment with Zittrain’s qualifications for technological generativity and concludes that it is indeed generative. (He sets up his upcoming post, part two, to do the same for verifiable credential exchange.)
I agree. It is generative technology. But that cannot be our purpose.
It seems likely that this post is prompted by our recent conversation. Perhaps it’s Phil’s way of bringing the earlier conversation to a conclusion as I invited him to do at the time. He’s asserting that SSI is generative. By corollary he’s effectively asking who needs generative identity when we’ve already got it in the form of SSI? Who could possibly call SSI degenerative?
I can, among a growing number of others. And I do.
I tried to explain during our exchange in December, and I will try again. (And I recognise the shortfall as the communicator’s.) During the December conversation I contributed this observation:
You write [Phil] that I should be "merely looking at the architecture". I should make it very clear that I would never merely do that. …
We are contemplating quite different scales of system. The system architecture to which I refer encompasses human behaviour, human community and society, and the natural living world. I have not seen any system analysis from the SSI community at such scales, nor any anticipation then of the inevitable emergence.
The system architecture to which you refer is technical. Period. There is no way, contrary to your assertion, that the distressing consequences with which I’m concerned ought to follow from this system architecture. There may be some, but my focus is SSI in the real world.
Regardless, Phil’s purview in this post continues to be solely technological. In contrast, generative identity — indeed anything that is or purports to be ‘digital identity’ by my reading — can only ever be considered sociotechnological.
And here’s the thing, the primary subject of Zittrain’s paper is actually generative sociotechnology — how to sustain and nurture generativity when people integrate the technologies into their lives, their families, their communities. What might they perceive? What might they think? How might they behave?
Having presented those qualities of generative technology that Phil references in support of his argument, Zittrain actually invests the majority of the paper explaining why a singular dedication to technological generativity will defeat itself on contact with people, which will sound very familiar to any reader of the SSI-dystopia critique.
Zittrain’s paper explores the complexity of the whole system (i.e. the one that actually matters) narratively and notes how it may well not exhibit those much hoped-for qualities for long no matter how many might strive to defend its technological purity. In fact the more they defend it the worse the potential outcome. With fifteen years’ of hindsight now to our advantage, we can confirm that Zittrain’s anticipation of poor outcomes in the context of generativity, or more pertinently the mechanisms by which such outcomes emerge, was on the money.
Similarly, I argue that those dedicated singularly to SSI technology will produce outcomes opposite to those they bounce out of bed every morning to pursue. In their mono-disciplinary isolation, in refusing to explore, understand, and adapt to the social emergent possibilities, their product will be degenerative. This is more alarming than Zittrain's prophecy simply because our focus here envelops human identity, human dignity, the human condition.
In one part of the paper Zittrain focuses on the social repercussions of code and the awakening of the Internet Engineering Task Force to the need to enforce ethical standards. This ethical imperative at a whole system level remains urgent. Generative identity approaches 'digital identity' for psychological, sociological, and ecological health, necessarily encompassing complexity, a dedication to sociotechnology not just technology, and multidisciplinarity. It really is the only ethical way to proceed. It is the only way Phil and all technologists working on ‘digital identity’ will contribute to the requisite generativity in the contexts and at the scales that matter.
Photo by Osman Rana.