ID in the IoT
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ID in the IoT

Complexity in Identity, Part Two: the Unofficial Experiential Version of You.

There are two ways to establish personal identity in the real world: the “official” and “unofficial’ processes.

In my previous post, I described the official process, where trusted identity begins with an assertion of some basic facts from a credible source like a government authority. This information is often encoded into a portable document like a driver’s license or passport.

That package, consisting of verifiable facts + sealed document, is usually sufficient to get us past the threshold guardian, whether that is an airport security person, or the clerk at the registration desk in a hotel lobby or the bouncer at a night club.

But if more trust is needed for a particularly risky transaction, such as securing a home mortgage or college loan, then flashing an ID is no longer sufficient. For risky transactions, we are obliged to prove some facts about our history, too. Sometimes we need to share deep background, including financial records, a list of residences, college transcripts, history of arrest or conviction, tax records and so on.

Trust comes in layers. In the official process, deeper trust comes from layering verifiable identity issued by a centralized authority with history, particularly one’s track record of consistent behavior over time, and sometimes an additional layer of the consequences of that behavior.

And that concept of “trust in depth” built upon a historical narrative gets us a little bit closer to the other version of identity, which I called “unofficial”.

This informal identity process is completely disconnected from the official path. And yet it also happens to be how most of us form connections in our personal lives and in our business lives. It happens so frequently that we scarcely notice it.

In this article, I hope to bring the unconscious process of unofficial identity formation to light.

In the unofficial identity scenario, you get to make all sorts of assertions about yourself, but nobody is going to check your ID card to figure out if you are telling the truth or not. Depending on the context, they might search your name on Google or browse your LinkedIn profile or your Tinder profile.

In most cases, the people you meet socially are willing to accept the way you present yourself as “truthful until proven otherwise.” They do not require a third-party to validate the assertions that you make about who you are. It would be socially weird if they insisted on verification.

Think about how you meet people. Generally, you simply show up, bearing certain distinguishing features and characteristics, introduce yourself, and then you begin interacting with other people. If you stay in contact with the people long enough, eventually your interactions will form the basis of trust. Or distrust, depending upon how you treat each other.

The people that you meet eventually form their own opinions about “who you really are” based on their experience with you. This is the unofficial version of your identity. It occurs largely outside of your control.

The people that you meet might listen with a great deal of interest to your narrative about your life story, or maybe they won’t pay attention at all, but in any case they will inevitably end up forming an opinion of you by their own standards.

In a social setting, you can do something that would be highly reckless in the context of official identity: you can make whatever claims you like. That would unwise if you were dealing with a police officer or immigration authority. But we all know people who stretch the truth in their social interactions by embellishing their personal narrative. Maybe we are all guilty of this to some extent, tuning our social identities to present most favorably.

If your actions measure up to your big words and the glamorous image you present, that’s great. If not, then the folks you are dealing with may end up knowing you better than you do yourself. The idealized version of your identity that you present in a cocktail party or business meeting may vary from the description given by the people who know you best over the long haul.

When we introduce ourselves to other people, they tend to take our word for it, unless our claims are so outrageous as to defy common sense. They will probably reserve judgment until they have time to develop a sense of our real character.

In the informal social context, your assertion of identity is sufficient as a starting point, but your real identity will emerge over time, over countless social transactions, and by that point the folks on the receiving end will have arrived at their own conclusions about who you really are.

This is very nearly the opposite of the way “official” identity works.

The point of these musings is to tease out the differences in how we construct an identity. So far in these articles, I’ve pointed out that we tend to operate with two totally different identity systems. One is the “official” identity system that relies upon a trusted third party, typically a government department, to issue a verified set of facts in a sealed document. The other approach is a persuasive system whereby a recognizable distinct personality is built up over time, experientially, based on a series of separate encounters. Whatever we feel is consistent over time becomes the unique “brand identity” that we associate with that person. Apart from our conduct, we have very little control over this anecdotal, experiential version of our personal identities.

In my next set of articles, I am going to make the comparison between the way we construct identity for and the way we do it for . It’s a sharp contrast, but what’s consistent between them is that there are two totally separate systems for both product identity and personal identity operating in parallel. That’s what I plan to explore next.

And then, in the following articles, I will extend this comparison into how we handle personal and product identity in the digital domain. That’s where the really interesting problems — and great progress — are found today. I can’t wait to share with you what I’ve learned. Keep reading!




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Robert Tercek

Author of Vaporized. Special advisor to GS1 US. Keynote speaker about the future of media, commerce, culture, audiences and society in a two way environment