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

Robert Tercek
ID in the IoT
Published in
6 min readMar 25, 2019

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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.

Edit: I think it’s important to acknowledge that each person develops a sense of his or her own personal identity, based on individual circumstances, family of origin, race, religion, gender, upbringing, life experiences, and so forth. The point I am trying to make here is that, while this personal concept of identity may feel true and valid to each individual, there’s no guarantee that anyone else is going to accept any or all of it as valid or even pertinent. That’s why I believe that the unofficial process of establishing identity occurs largely outside of the control of any individual. We can make all sorts of assertions about who we think we are, but it’s up to other folks to determine whether or not they accept those claims.

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 people and the way we do it for products. 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!

Previous article in this series: Complexity in Identity, Part One: the Bifurcated Personal Identity

The next article in this series is called Product Identity is a Tale Told Twice, In Pictures. This is where I get into product identity. The plot thickens!

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Digital identity is a complex and sometimes bewildering topic. I’m writing this series of articles to help clarify my own understanding, and I welcome your comments, corrections and contributions. If the topics in this series of articles interest you, then why not join me for a discussion in person? I will be the host and master-of-ceremonies for the Innovation Track of GS1 Connect, the biggest gathering of supply chain experts in the world. I will interview the leading experts on digital identity in a roundtable discussion at GS1 Connect on June 19.

If you are interested in digital identity, product identity, blockchain for supply chain, business process automation, the application of artificial intelligence to manufacturing and retail, then this is a conversation you don’t want to miss. This year, GS1 Connect takes place in Denver Colorado on June 19 to 21. You can get early-bird pricing if you apply before April 15.

For 30 years, I’ve been focused on designing and launching new digital services. In the process, I’ve grown fascinated with the way we are constructing a digital version of the real world. During my career, I’ve supervised the launch of the world’s first mobile video services, some of the earliest PC games, online games and mobile games, and the biggest live online learning programs in the world. I’m also the author of the award-winning book Vaporized: Solid Strategies for Success in a Dematerialized World which you can read in entirety here on Medium (or if you are feeling generous, you can buy the book on Amazon . Thanks, I love you for that!). Today I serve as the Special Advisor for Digital Identity to GS1 US. GS1 is the global standards body for product identity.

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Robert Tercek
ID in the IoT

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