Digital identity is not human identity

Things won't end well if we act as if it is.

September 2023

Computer science conceptualized digital identity to serve its initial market — selling its wares to governments and large organizations to manage inventories of users, employees, citizens, and customers. Computer science adopted the tenets of legal and bureaucratic identity wholesale, inclined to consider people as just another machine for lack of any imperative to think otherwise at the time.

Digital identity has not been designed to rise up to the roles and operations that the vast majority of other disciplines (e.g. psychology, sociology, cultural studies, history, political science) attribute to human identity. It's designed explicitly not to be contextual, malleable, multiple, social, temporary, subjective, dynamic, emergent. Most fundamentally, whereas digital identity is merely a thing to render users legible to the system for authentication, authorization, and/or record keeping, human identity is a socially vital process and sense-making capacity. In short, digital identity as it's currently conceived and operationalised is not what you might call human at all.

This disparity may have been OK(ish) when ‘the digital’ was somewhat detached from ‘the real world’, but we’re at least fifteen years on now from that being the case. 'The digital' is irreversibly fused into the fabric of our lives with the growing pervasiveness of social media, the mass migration from big screens to small ones, and the astonishing growth in the computing and sensory capabilities of those small screen devices. It is inappropriate to continue referring to such devices as phones; they represent our exobrains and exo-peripheral nervous systems. They are our interface into and through 'the digital' just as we are the interface for digital systems into the analogue world.

Regardless, the operations of human identity remain forever essential for dignity, autonomy, cooperation, and flourishing. The exponential expansion of digital identity now being contemplated — cheered on by technologists and policymakers alike — threatens the continued operation of human identity. What are they not yet seeing? How are the celebrated protocols toxic? And how must we proceed from here?

[An extract from Digital identity is not human identity, and that matters, July 2022]