The paper falls far short in its appreciation for human-centred design, and this is quite typical of contemporary approaches to digital identity
Manning Publications has just published "Self-Sovereign Identity: Decentralized digital identity and verifiable credentials".
Congratulations to the co-editors, Alex Preukschat and Drummond Reed, for getting 24 chapters, 5 appendices, and a further 11 online-only chapters out the door. No mean feat. My copy will drop on the doormat any day now.
Of the book's 35 chapters, 34 explain the technologies and motivations and celebrate SSI's application. Here is a book written almost entirely by authors with skin in the SSI game, both reputational and financial, dedicated to making sure you understand why SSI was intended to be a good thing, why exactly it is in fact a good thing, and how it will be awesome in its real-world application.
With my AKASHA Research hat firmly donned and our purpose and values front of mind, I got to write the other chapter, the only dissenting chapter. It's one of those chapters relegated from the main book, but it is available online to all purchasers. It's the one titled ...
SSI: our dystopian nightmare
The editors gave me the working title — perhaps riffing off my previous analyses. As I write in the chapter itself, while it is a challenge to address the flaws of SSI in one chapter versus thirty four, it was nevertheless a privilege to be invited to do so and a testament to those extending the invitation.
Not everyone whose work involves or relates to 'digital identity' will read the book. Of those that do, not everyone will head to the online-only chapters. So allow me here to have another go, a very quick go, at pointing to the fundamental flaw in the approach to SSI's conception and development.
I need to keep trying to find the right words, and ideally fewer words, to explain the toxicity here.
Working to change complex systems demands systems thinking
Systems thinking is “contextual,” which is the opposite of analytical thinking. Analysis means taking something apart in order to understand it; systems thinking means putting it into the context of a larger whole.
Fritjof Capra, The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision
The architects, developers, and champions of self-sovereign identity have fine analytical minds. Such expertise, such craft, is wholly necessary and should be celebrated, but it's also woefully insufficient by itself in any complex domain. To say such isolation cannot do the work justice is an understatement ...
Setting out to 'solve' for one aspect of a complex system has been shown time and time again to have unexpected consequences for those aspects ignored, and for many of the entities entangled in the system these consequences can be very negative.
The SSI goals unavoidably interfere in the most complex domains of the human condition. In other words, the system in which the SSI 'solution' would operate encompasses our psychological and sociological health (and consequently ecological health). This is deeply serious stuff. Existential.
While striving to be a critical friend here, our research at AKASHA hasn't always been well received by members of the SSI community. We see this now as entirely contextual. They are dedicated to the design, development, and operationalization of SSI technology and services with certain conceptualizations of identity in mind. We are dedicated to the systems (larger whole) in which SSI would operate, all conceptualizations of identity, and the penetrating consequences for the self, culture, and nature. Conversations that span contexts unknowingly, that pit analytical thinking against systems thinking, can only be susceptible to misunderstanding.
Multidisciplinary participatory inquiry and systems thinking is needed here whether or not everyone in the SSI community recognizes as much. We will continue to champion this cause and this course. Only if we succeed together will the innovations created in the name of SSI be validated in the world.
Find out more
I do not have the copyright to reproduce the chapter here. Fortunately, this short quote from the chapter's introduction will be helpful in that respect.
This chapter is based on the following contributions to the generative-identity.org website:
- The dystopia of self-sovereign identity (SSI), Philip Sheldrake, 19 Oct 2020
- Control, agency and complexity — Phil Windley and Philip Sheldrake in conversation, Jakub Lanc, 16 Dec 2020
- Towards a shared understanding of ‘digital identity’ — reflecting on conversations with Doc Searls and Drummond Reed, Philip Sheldrake, 4 Mar 2021
Header image by David Clode.