I’ve been having a few conversations recently with Adriana. She’s been doing a lot of heavy conceptual thinking about where the web is taking us. It’s hard to keep up sometimes but it feels pretty important. This post is probably not an accurate guide to her ideas more an effort on my part to make my own sense of them.
Some of her most interesting thinking is on the subject of identity, where she argues, very provocatively, that our notions are rooted in an old, hierarchical mindset. To the point where we haven’t noticed the assumptions we’ve been making.
To set the context for this, it’s worth looking at her post celebrating the work of Whit Diffie in inventing public-key cryptography. Adriana sums up his breakthrough idea
The issue of privacy, boiled down for Whit Diffie to: How do you deal with a trustworthy person in the midst of a world full of untrustworthy people?
Diffie also believed in what he called “a decentralised view of authority”. By creating the proper cryptographic tools, he felt, you could solve the problem – by transferring the data protection from a disinterested third party to the actual user, the one whose privacy was actually at risk.
So instead of relying on a central authority to protect our data, we can do it peer-to-peer – a manner much more aligned with our innate human instincts.
So let’s stretch that idea to how we establish our identity online. We tend to default to third-party endorsement: driving licence, credit card, passport etc. Adriana argues that this is a very hierarchical approach, whereas the internet is designed as a heterarchy. In a heterarchy, strength comes from diversity, so ideally we don’t want to rely on cumbersome – and often flawed – central bureaucracies.
Over coffee, Adriana talked about us being able to drive our own identity, a phrase which resonates strongly with me. Most existing web spaces force us to squeeze our identity into someone else’s boxes, using up our time filling and refilling standard questions and conforming to someone else’s crude categories. (Think about what the idea of “friend” means in a Facebook world).
What if we didn’t have to do that? That’s such a big leap of imagination that it makes my brain hurt. But it could be the same kind of breakthrough that we saw in cryptography, writ large.
If you’re interested in this, you could catch Adriana and a whole bunch of other smart folks tomorrow in London in a special extension of the Social Media Cafe.