Generative Identity

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Philip Sheldrake:

"We have then arrived at the first principle for generative identity based on the imperative to support continuous ecological adaptation.

Generative identity principle: Change.

Generative identity facilitates and maintains freedom of application, freedom of agencement, and freedom to revise generative identity.

As Buckminster Fuller anticipated in I Seem to be a Verb37 and as I've tried to explicate here, who I am encompasses a constant flux of informational diffusion and intermixing, interfacial constructions and experiences, continuously revised narratives, arrangings and organizings.

In my webinar for the SSI Meetup I distinguish between noun-like and verb-like conceptualisations of identity. The noun-like are unchanging by design — think of those developed for the legal bureaucratization of identity (e.g. birth certificate, passport, national ID card, social security number, Aadhaar identity number), those based on permanent physical features (e.g. fingerprint, face recognition), and those inventions vying to achieve similar permanence or based on such permanence (e.g. Facebook ID, Telegram passport).

The primary characteristic of verb-like conceptualisations is their accommodating and enabling change. They haven't been a focus of the digital identity community to date. Indeed, the verb-like conceptualizations, while in fact dominant in everyday life, appear to be so far removed from technologists' beliefs and understanding of how identity works in the world and from how digital technologies have developed to date that I find many have a hard time grasping that such conceptualizations even exist. Sociotechnologists on the other hand get it pretty quickly if not immediately given their interdisciplinary focus (see Web Science).

Noun-like identity conceptualizations lack adaptability by design. By deep existential contrast, generative identity is essential to psychological, societal, and ecological health.

Generative identity principle: Co-constitution.

Identity and relationships and information are reciprocally defining and co-constitutive.

After Margaret Wheatley38, identity is the sense-making capacity of organizing. It is of the selves that organize and the self that gets organized. Narrative in nature, identities assemble in relationships involving and producing personally and socially material information.

Relationships are the pathways for organizing, required for the creation and transformation of information, the expansion of the organizational identity, and accumulation of wisdom. Relationships are formed with information exchange between identifying / identifiable entities in identifying / identifiable organizings.

Information is the medium of the organizing. Life uses information to organize itself, i.e. when a system assigns meaning to data. Information is contextual to identities in relationships.

(See The interpersonal data at the heart of all human digital systems, including markets.)

But this doesn't appear from my experience to be how many computer scientists and software engineers think. The design principle of separation of concerns has served the discipline and profession well to date ‘lower in the stack', but its application ‘higher in the stack' where human identity is involved and complex adaptive systems reign must be subject to constant challenge. A presentation at this summer's DWeb Camp for example proposes that data and identity be considered orthogonal to / independent of each other39. To be fair, although an indictment of itself, the conceptualisation of identity adopted in the presentation remains completely undefined. This is also not unusual. The idea that identity might be anything other than noun-like, to use my terminology here, and anything much more advanced than the substitution of a cryptographic key for tangible ID appears not yet to have entered the mainstream conversation.

By corollary of the principle of co-constitution, we arrive at ...

Generative identity principle: Omni-directionality.

There can be no distinction of input or output — any data flow may have reflexive consequence.

By way of a trivial example, there is a connection between the series of novels known as Harry Potter and the writer J. K. Rowling. Each 'contributes' information to the other.

There is also a connection between the book The Cuckoo's Calling and the writer Robert Galbraith. In this instance, the connection to the book was all that was known about the writer. It defined Galbraith.

Of course, authoring a book is a big undertaking, and I want to stress that the same goes for the smallest most fleeting actions and inactions.

Generative identity principle: Friction.

Friction is an important system property in any system, including generative identity.

We learned subsequently of course that Rowling wrote under the Galbraith pen name. The identity Robert Galbraith still exists at the time of writing, but when operating with a noun-like conceptualisation of identity we might say that it is absorbed into Rowling's and Galbraith is demoted to a mere known pseudonym.

Such collapses occur naturally but the rate at which collapses may occur when subject to deliberate programmatic techniques (correlation) is a concern. In the SSI webinar, I note that friction is an important system property. Failure to re-engineer appropriate frictions in our sociotechnical system may lead to very poor social outcomes. Existing work done in the name of SSI may prove useful here (baby, bathwater), and I also believe this will likely require a blend of legal and technical codes and appropriate revisions of social norms.

Given the co-constitution here, it's not surprising that a concern for correlated identities applies equally to correlated relationships and information.

Take this fairly recent assertion:

- Decentralized identity systems must allow us to present claims we make about ourselves (now called self-attested), but must allow us to present claims that express things others say about us too.

What's not to like about this additional feature?

Well, let's assume that we consider the idea of the Chinese "social credit" system — a state surveillance system seeking to standardise the assessment of citizens' economic and social reputation — an affront to individual freedoms many in the West hold dear. Now imagine that anyone in the West can present claims that express things others say about them. I suggest that you, just like almost everyone else, will see self-interest in, for example, porting your eBay seller rating to your Airbnb host profile. Instant reputation! And in fact it soon becomes a qualifying expectation (structuration). Everyone's rational self-interest works against our collective best interest, and an equivalent "social credit" system forms by emergence almost as quickly as the Chinese deliberate action and perhaps all the more efficiently.

SSI experts may clamour here to point out the ways in which the associated technology does not set up this up. I will if I may just reiterate the point that we're all working in a sociotechnological environment, not merely technological, and therefore with structuration not just atomistic individuals.

If we can procure omni-directionality with appropriate friction, we will be well on the way to living up to the final principle in this draft list ...

Generative identity principle: Non-universality.

One can have generativity or universality but not both.

Or to put it another way, the only universal attribute of generative identity is that it does not trend toward universality. It must have a proclivity for mutation by design, which also requires it to be resistant to homogenising network effects. Generative identity is a set of principles that may be instantiated in different ways by different cultures, different collectivities, different societies, at different times.

I appreciate that this one is going to be difficult for some people to accept, especially those technologists working without the socio- prefix. If it helps any, you'll appreciate that mutual understanding crystallises as needed in a context and fades as and when attentions are directed elsewhere. This is perfectly natural. Now swap out "mutual understanding" for "interoperability"." (


Generative identity at the AKASHA Foundation

Philip Sheldrake:

"AKASHA's purpose demands systems thinking, especially systems ecology and the interdisciplinarity of web science, if not transdisciplinarity (emphasising holism and synthesizing new bodies of knowledge with which to address complex systems problems41).

In the spirit of our purpose, and from simple necessity, our purpose can only be pursued in cooperation with many others, and that clearly includes the identity ‘problem space'. We're excited to be playing a part, ready for conversations and collaborations.

Concurrent to the thinking process reflected here, we're coding. Today, this entails research into and experimentation with decentralized identifiers (DIDs) led by Andrei Sambra.

As you might imagine, even if you're not familiar with the term, the concept of "identity provider" isn't exactly compatible with the generative identity principles. But perhaps we may provide for holonic provision. Do keep an eye on the AKASHA blog for updates.

Legal identity

I've noted that the conceptualisation of generative identity remains embryonic. We're only at the stage of determining the questions. Surely one of the biggest question marks must be the ease with which noun-like and verb-like conceptualisations might co-exist. Perhaps there's a future in which only the latter are necessary, but a co-existence will be required for some good time to get us that far.

It could be that the noun-like require entirely different protocols to the verb-like, and rigorous effort is made to design appropriate and enduring sociotechnological constraints to prevent the otherwise inevitable noun-like creep.

Or perhaps a particular quality of verb-like instantiations enables it to stabilise in similarly defined rare exception. I was presented with a word I didn't previously know in a recent conversation with Jonathan Donner — gerund — a verb form which functions as a noun. Who knew?!

Either way, at some point we have to answer the questions ... Who decides? And who decides who decides? These questions are usually invoked to note a weakness in the system. In this context however I also find some comfort in the presumption that it will be humans at least. Let me explain by way of finally bringing this post to a conclusion.

One way or the other

I'm guided by fragmented glimpses of historical events, and I take inspiration from the complexity of nature and our growing appreciation for the nature of complexity. I am then enthusiastic for the sociotechnological potential here, celebrating humanity, realising intelligences that would otherwise remain hidden, and creating regenerative cultures and systems.

Equally, I'm alarmed at the potential for psychological, societal, and ecological harm should these draft principles of generative identity not be developed and instantiated in abundant combinations of generative legal and technical code and societal norms. I cannot conceive of a neutral alternative … at least I cannot perceive any clues from nature for such. The alternative is degenerative — tending to decline and deterioration.

Psychologically, our freedom of narrative will be eroded leaving only enumerated subjects of network control42, or indeed "abjects" more than subjects or objects. In some contexts, physical safety will be the individual's primary anxiety.

Societally, political doctrine is more likely to be rendered into technical form. "Politics does not circulate just through the flow of ideologies or rationalities of government, but through diagrams, instruments and practices."44 Foucauldian disciplining will be writ large, with a "normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish"45, at which point the design problem becomes "to design and redesign the User itself in the image of whatever program might enroll it."46

Ecologically, we won't be participating as nature, we won't be co-evolving with the whole system. Rather, we will have become locked rigid together or rigid apart. The structure, having subsumed agency, will crash into natural systems with ever greater force until they can no longer sustain us.

In welcoming all conversation and debate about SSI and generative identity, may I invite any ongoing champions of SSI to articulate how it might not contribute to such tragic outcomes let alone help avoid them. That is likely more than has been asked of SSI to date, but then this has got to be a good part of the question." (