Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Who Are You?

It's a slow news day, so it's time to blog about one of the interesting (for some extremely abstract definition of the word "interesting") problems we're trying to solve here at work: identity. How does anybody know that you are who you say you are (where, for the purposes of the preceding sentence, the words "how", "anybody", "you", "are" and "know" have some level of arbitrary abstractness not yet defined by anyone)? If sheer opacity of language hasn't already convinced you that this is a problem people are struggling to solve, consider your Amazon.com account. It contains a bunch of information that Amazon knows about you that nobody else should have access to (and, in fact, you might argue that you don't want information such as what books you've bought, what music you like, or generally how best to market new products to you, known by Amazon either. Sadly, the time to register your complaints about the information age with The Powers That Be has come and gone. While you can still opt out at any time, you will literally have to go live in a cave in order to do so. Yes, I work here and I'm scared too. Have a nice day).

One of the upshots of the rather invisible Web 2.0 revolution is that your Amazon identity is no longer just a set of information about you, but rather a set of privileges--things like the ability to charge items to your credit card, or the ability to ship things second-day air for free because you're a member of Amazon Prime. The world coming soon to a theater near you that involves you buying virtual things has got the folks who care about things like intellectual property rights freaked right the hell out. You can buy perfect digital copies of books, songs, movies, or episodes of television shows and own them, carry them around, and, for all the copyright holders know, actually give them to your friends without paying for them again. So the enormous corporations that hold these copyrights are all in a tizzy, because their position as distributor middle-men is threatened. Or was it that the integrity of the original artist's work is threatened if the enormous multi-national doesn't control the distribution and release of that artist's ouevre? Well, in any case, some entity that controls an enormous amount of wealth is feeling threatened. I'm sure it's probably the artists of the world (don't mess with the Artist's Union, dude, they will fuck you up). So here's the problem--the powers that be want to figure out a way to sell these things to you without you actually owning them, such as having the movies, songs, books, or tv shows on a server, and giving you access to that server at any moment, such that you can stream the song or movie whenever you want. Here enters the third party: you buy an eBook from Amazon. Bob Livestockowski of Bob Livestockowski's Software Development Concern© writes a software program that will sync any eBooks you own to your PDA so that you can take them with you and read them wherever you go. But Bob Livestockowski isn't affiliated with Amazon.com, and so doesn't know which books you have "bought," nor does he have your Amazon account information, nor do you particularly want to give it to him, because Bob is kind of a shady character, what with his previous business forays into writing illicit spyware and Albanian Yak smuggling. Still, you want the program that syncs your PDA with your Amazon eBook stream, and you want to give Bob the ability to get it for you without giving him your Amazon user name and password outright. And there you are: a little problem for the Web, Version 2.0.

Possibly I became a little sardonic in that last paragraph whilst describing what we hip techno-folks call the "problem space" of 21st Century User Authentication. I do apologize for that. This morning, five of us uber-hip wonks were sitting in an office mulling over one of our latest proposals for solving this problem, and I noted to myself, "Hmm...here I am on the cutting edge of some obscure outpost of technology. How very...something." This evening I'm sitting here writing about it and I can't think of anything better to say about it.

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Rebecca said...

I read this after noticing that my Washington Post identity log-in is now "badflubug" rather than "pigfucker" which is what it used to be, thanks to bugmenot.com. I miss pigfucker. NYT is still bobbob, which I love for its bs and os.

I find the identity thing fascinating, and not in a negative way, which perhaps reveals my naivete or perhaps the fact that I've given up on the myth that we were ever off the grid in any real way. Sure, i didn't sign up for the supermarket loyalty plans until about a year before I left the states, but still...

I find it fascinating that my identity now includes things I buy for friends and family, such that "me" includes desires and interests that used to be technically "not me" but in some very real sense are related to and thus part of my identity make-up. So the fact that I bought Ben Hogan's Five Lessons for my dad one Christmas meant that amazon sold me golf items for the next six months, alongside the usual Asian art books, history offerings, and, on amazon uk, items on British mythology (I bought the Mabinogion here). I suppose this is sinister. On one level occasionally I do worry about buying patterns in the semesters before I've taught Islamic art, for example. So I get that worry.

But isn't the fight for privacy--as if we ever had it--over now? And shouldn't we embrace this new, non-individualist notion of identity, in which, frankly, rather than knowing who I am, amazon knows about the region around myself that I affect in some real way? Not to be too pomo, but isn't this about the slow deconstruction of the individual (finally!)? Maybe the answer is to give up on trying to know the individual consumer and embrace the new relational consumer node that you're truly tracking.

Transient Gadfly said...

It's not the absence of individualism as such that seems scary to me, I mean that was always/already true. It's the fact that something as fundamental to you as "your taste in music," can be a) commercially commodified, and b) made such that a corporation owns that commodity, rather than, say, you.

Tarn said...

The space problem seems to extend way outside of web identities also. For instance, I have photos taken on my phone that I would like to put on my computer. There are many "easy" solutions to this problem, however they all cost money, in some way or another. I could purchase a data cord, I could email it, or I could direct message it somewhere. But every solution has somebody's grubby little fingers (primarily verizon) dipped in, taxing me of my free rights.

To this extent, it's not what I allow others to know about my identity; it's worse! My identity is in fact CREATED by the powers that be.

Then again, as you mentioned, if w3 2.0 proprietary access is based on "privileges", then I'm rather apt to say what else is new? From lack of privacy to commodification of personal taste, isn't that what privilege is about? I'm talking classist mentality here. The lower you are on the totem, the less freedom, the less access and the less privacy you have.

The thing is we, as consumers, voluntarily give up privacy and voluntarily accept "terms of conditions" all the time. How many "accept" buttons have you pushed in the last 5 months? Every time I restart my computer it seems I have to accept some crap. My point is, for all the freedom of information rhetoric I spout out, I know there is a cost -- and that is the voluntary acceptance of identity-slavery.

Yes, I concur. The "problem space" is a big one.

dan said...

I'm not sure I fully understand the "problem space," although I like the phrase. I think you're suggesting that, from the point of view of people who control and analyze what a "user account" does and is and can do and will probably do, there is an assumption made, which is that the user account represents one discreet individual, and the things that the individual/user account does create a very specific picture of that real-world individual. But a user account is not necessarily a discreet user. A real-world person can challenge the assumptions made about that user account by sharing it, distributing its privileges, confounding data collection that assumes that the user account is one person simply by the fact that many people use the user account for various reasons. Thus, pigfucker and bobbob.

I think Rebecca makes a remarkably radical/powerful statement for a blogger comment post: "Maybe the answer is to give up on trying to know the individual consumer and embrace the new relational consumer node that you're truly tracking." Perhaps consumer analysts in the internet sector are trying to force an old paradigm back on a culture that was born out of the ability to interact/communicate/act in and through a "virtual" identity(ies) that in no way promises to represent anyone actual or real (unless, perhaps to be pomo*, one believes that the essence of this paradigm of virtual identities that are fractured & dispersed, and operate only within specific contexts where they declare themselves (Warcraft character vs. Aim chat room handle vs. profile on an animal rights message board) is indeed a model for how identity actually works in the "real" world -- that is, offline).

I like Tarn’s point that suggests that this is a problem of nearly all internet-based technology. I'd like to disagree with one point Tarn made, for the purpose of making another connection to theories of identities and relations of power. You said: "I'm talking classist mentality here. The lower you are on the totem, the less freedom, the less access and the less privacy you have." I feel, however, that the lower one is on the totem, and the less access they have, the more privacy they have. To reverse this, (and here I think I'm restating your overall point): to give up privacy is to gain access and to gain privilege. Power relations work this way, per Foucault; and [not necessarily per Foucault, I dunno] they are at their strongest when there is a balance of compromise & reward between giver and receiver. So, we rope ourselves in to this fantastic web to literally have access (well, virtually…to literally have virtual access) to all of the benefits and privileges. Every node into our “private” sphere of identity is a node out from ourselves. That’s a very “neat” way of imagining the internet and the subject/user who is at its center; in fact, I think this is how we do visualize or sense the internet, and it helps to keep our identity intact.

Following the above train of thought: perhaps, though we fret over being overtaken by 1984-esque big-brother puppeteers, we actually like to envision that all of the clicks and type-a type-a typies we make across the internet, exposing a bit of ourselves here, a bit there, our favorite song tied to this IP address, a sexy dialogue with a stranger tied to that – that these things do all connect together to form a complete image of ourselves – perhaps more so than any image of ourselves that we can present socially at any one time. TG, (WADR) I think you pass off the radical notion of individualism as been always/already absent a little too easily. What is scary about the commodification of our “individual tastes” if not that they represent some cohesive individual that really exists, above and beyond the advertising demographics? Is the fear that, though I think that I exist already, I really only do when Amazon creates me as a tab in its storefront called “Dan’s Store”? [Audience: Ooooooooh…]

*oh wait, I don’t know what post modern means…

Sam said...

Wow, you guys are in deep here, and I have to go teach Hume to MA students very very soon, so I'll just make two quick points and then plan to blog about this whole identity thing later on.

1. To Tarn, one word: Bluetooth! It leadds to two more: problem solved!

2. To Dan, was the asterisk for me? If so, I love it!!!

Tarn said...

Dan: you're right, my analogy was slightly off with the privacy issue. Though I agree with that sticking point as a basic scheme, there also seems to be a separate filter at the tippity top that allows for "privileged people" to have their own set of security, thereby providing them (higher HIGHER ups) with the right to privacy that everyone should have/could have, but doesn't. That's where something else comes in to play about the hierarchical access thingy.

Sam: Verizon does not allow bluetooth file transfer on my phone! See what I mean by higher HIGHER up power privileges?

sageblue said...

A while back, I read on americablog a proposal for the Democrats: become the Privacy Party--we are here to protect you against the government from invading your home, your phone lines, etc. Not a bad idea really, but perhaps, as people have been saying, we're past that (last) post: the public seems to not much care if the Repugs invade their bedrooms and tell them who they can screw (and whether or not they have to have a baby afterward) or invade their phone calls (whether or not they're talking to terrorists).

Is that idea of privacy then tied to our private identities? Perhaps we're just done with the whole thing? I mean, as long as I get something good out fo the transaction, I'm perfectly willing to give away pieces of information. However, I also get indignant when, for example, the Gap clerk asks for my ZIP code. Dumb of course, but I love indignance, so there.

(By the way, iTunes Party Shuffle has decided now's the time to play Bananarama's "Robert De Niro's Waiting"...and why wouldn't it be?)

Porten said...

How appropriate that I would answer precisely the question posed by the entry.

A few months ago I stumbled across this blog accidently and read a post about the end of the universe and probability (which I can't find now). It got me curious, I posted a question, read a bit more of your blog, then had a conversation about the idea with some friends.

Rather than explain where I found the ideas, I told my friends I'd just link the blog from mine, which I had just started. I think you had some source links and whatnot, so it seemed easiest. I just never deleted it, but I certainly will (my humor is sometimes a bit a crass, and I suppose a somewhat academic blog need not be associated with that...). Anyway, I still swing by every couple of months to read the posts that catch my fancy.