Negative Identity

I recently finished reading “A Crowd of One”, by John Henry Clippinger, who is a senior fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  Dr. Clippinger studies open identity and digital institutions, and his book is about the history of identity and where this is leading us in the future.

I’m going to make this book mandatory reading for all employees.  It’s excellent, and basically anticipates an open online reputation system, using the new identity layer applications that are in their early stages right now.

Negative Identity

The most interesting part of “A Crowd of One” to me was his talk of a “negative identity”.  Basically he defines a negative identity as organisms defining their individual identity by excluding outside groups.  This is somewhat different than how organisms usually perceive identity formation, through actively choosing clothing or coloring or whatever, to make themselves different than others.

The whole line of explanation is a bit longer.

Clippinger starts by talking about the Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin, who wrote of Darwin:

“Darwin’s alienation of the outside from the inside was an absolutely essential step in the development of modern biology.  Without it, we would still be wallowing in the mire of an obscurantist holism that merges the organic and the inorganic into an unanalyzable whole.  But the conditions that are necessary for progress at one stage in history become bars to further progress at another.  The time has come when further progress to or understanding of nature requires that we reconsider the relationship between the outside and the inside, between organism and environment…. But the claim that the environment of an organism is causally independent of the organism, and that changes in the environment are autonomous and independent of the changes in the species itself, is clearly wrong.  It is bad biology, and every ecologist and evolutionary biologist knows that it is bad biology.  The metaphor of adaptation, while once an important heuristic for building evolutionary theory, is now an impediment to a real understanding of the evolutionary process and needs to be replaced by another.  Although all metaphors are dangerous, the actual process of evolution seems best captured by the process of construction.” (page 152 in Clippinger’s book, from Lewontin’s “The Triple Helix”)

Clippinger says that “every organism must have a rudimentary way of recognizing what is friend, foe, or food, and act on these differences.”  A good example is the human immune system.  It doesn’t know what actually does belong in your system, so doctors and scientists have come up with ways to trick the human body into accepting foreign organs and blood from donors, as long as they pass basic identity tests.

But when the body identifies something as “foreign”, it attacks it relentlessly.  Diabetes and multiple sclerosis are a result of autoimmune defenses destroying the body.  The great influenza attack early in the 20th century succeeded in killing the healthiest, not the weakest, of our population because the healthiest peoples’ bodies would promote such a response from their body to kill the pathogen that the body would die of exhaustion and drowning in fluids.

Clippinger goes on to say that perhaps social identity works the same way as biological identity.  Groups that are ethnically similar and/or geographically close try to find elaborate ways to distinguish themselves from each other.  Crips wear blue, Bloods wear red.  Arabs and Jews, Tutsis and Hutus, Turks and Armenians.  By all appearances (or maybe not), they should get along, but instead they fight even more violently than anyone else to find ways to look different.

Identity Tests

Clippinger talks throughout his book of two identity tests in society:  merit-based and status-based. So certain people succeed because of their birth and upbringing bestowing upon them a certain lineage, family history, and reputation.  Other people succeed because they have the best skills for the job. I think is easier to explain in the latter sense:  you enter in data about where you went to school, what you ate for your meals today, more of the quantitative stuff.  This is somewhat verifiable and less tenuous; the tools for it are being built and are collectively called microstatistics or even microblogging or microsharing.

But I think the more interesting aspect of will be the status-based side.  What will your friends say about you in public and then anonymously?  Will people build strong and weak ties on to vouch for a person or to give them a recommendation?  Will people enter in and verify other peoples’ data, like a CDDB for people?

These systems can be gamed individually, through identity theft.  Clippinger talks about a guy who managed to convince a lot of people that he was worthy of managing their money.  He had all the appearances of being trust-worthy (good family, well-esteemed friends), but he did not have the requisite skills, and was later exposed.  Hackers can steal your identity, your quantitative details, and run off with a lot of goods before you can call up your credit card company and they analyze your “status” to see if you normally make those purchases.

So if you combine the two different tests for a feedback system that accepts conversations and debates between an individual, the groups he’s in, and outsiders, I think you’d get an extremely awesome identity system.  That’s my hope anyway.

So Clippinger’s idea that part of future identity systems will be allowing for people by expressing their identity by claiming who they’re not, instead of just who they are, is brilliant.  And related to that, is this person not my friend, but actually someone I hate?

Don’t Regulate Behavior, Just Protect Its Versatility

His final insight is that by identifying ourselves by who we’re not rather than specifically who we are, it leaves our identities somewhat amorphous, flexible, and free to create and adapt.  That is, if you’re only given a few rules on what to do and what not to do, then everything else is therefore permissable.

This is quite compatible with trends towards forward-thinking approaches to governmental regulation.  We want there to be basic protections of our freedoms, but not lengthy lists of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.  We want there to be copyright, but according to Lawrence Lessig in “Remix”, we want to be able to opt in to copyright protection (i.e. every work is shareable upon creation unless copyright is specifically claimed), rather than how it is right now where everything is opt out (therefore anyone can claim a copyright after the fact, which is restrictive to creativity and innovation).

Anyway, fascinating stuff.  I think will be huge.  And Clippinger’s “A Crowd of One” makes me even more confident in that.