Sunday, May 14, 2006

Digital prejudices

As I was researching to get a better understanding of current thoughts about digital identity, I came across a post on digital reputations. I had thought of looking into digital reputation earlier after having seen the words cropping in the XMPP blogosphere lately. The first time I came across the wording, I had the distinct impression digital reputation was somewhat subjective. Reading this definition just confirmed my impression: to put it bluntly digital reputation is an everlasting prejudice.

By prejudice, I mean digital reputation contains a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation, and digital reputation encourages coming to a judgment on a subject before learning where the preponderance of the evidence actually lies. On both accounts I find it difficult to accept. 

Reputations are both deep and complex at the same time, in one instance serving to amplify reality ("…she was larger than life.") and in another instance oversimplify it, ("…he’s amazing."). Reputations are not limited to people, but can and do apply to groups, organizations, companies, countries, governments and even objects.

I really agree with the opening statement. Reputation has a way to amplify reality, and to oversimplify it, which in my opinion makes it appropriate for “cave men” but not for responsible beings. I thus have some difficulties agreeing with many of the author statements that follow in the document. From my reading his post, I understand that a reputation based system offers a way for an individual to replace a responsible decision making by a gossip based decision making. I don't know if you are like me, but I do not feel comfortable with the idea of letting anybody influence the way I make a decision. A decision may and usually engage my responsibility, and as such must not be left to other to decide. I am also very weary of others "outsourcing" their decision making in this way because it is easier. Especially when it comes to my reputation...

Every single statement in the document reinforce the inaccurate nature of a reputation based system. For example

While a reputation can be thought of as distinct, separate and external to us all, they are inextricably linked to us, and don’t exist outside of the context of their owner for which they refer.

It is true that reputation is distinct for each of us, and is certainly external to us. So where does this statement inaccuracy lies? In the fact that reputation does not exist per say. It is a perception by a third party. Reputation is the resulting impression that has been conveyed to the recipient person through a chain of inaccurate communication messages between persons. Oral or written communication all conveys a degree of uncertainty. Experience and history show how inaccurate the transmission through a given set of individuals of any form of message can be. When these messages reach their destination in a context of partial knowledge and passive acceptance surprising, they may create surprising collateral results. Bad spirits were inhabiting the trees at night not long ago. Different behaviors were definitively the indubitable proof of witchcraft very recently. Different beliefs or convictions are still considered heresy today. Nations go to war on reputation!

We certainly need to "take digital reputation seriously", as the author declares. Applying binary and long-lasting memory to reputations will in no way change their "vague and subjective" nature. If reputation is by nature inaccurate, why would a machine, which is by nature so inferior to the human brain, be better at establishing what an individual is worth? The machine will certainly decrease the level of inaccuracy incurred during message transmission, but it will in no way be able to convey neither analyse the inherent complexity of the associated context. An I agree with the author statement that "our reputation is contextual and it is quite possible for me to have a positive reputation in one area of my life with individual A and a negative reputation in another area of my life with individual B". When coupling this with the long lasting nature of digital memory, a number of questions are surfacing. Very simple questions starting with but not limited to: what rules need be applied be to weighting the recorded facts in building a reputation? In which way can a positive fact balance a negative fact? What authority will mediate for inaccuracies? (add to the list at will)

Digital reputations are a way of denying the subject of the reputation the simple right to change and evolve. Everyone must be accountable for his/her actions, no doubt. But we have to be very careful not sticking simplistic "reputation" labels on individuals that would be used out of context. We have to be careful not to rely on delegated "reputation" impression when making a decision process. Because this is what prejudice is all about.

Speaking of reputation, I found it rather interesting to see the effect of long lasting memories in a more recent post of the same author. What struck me in the post is that it took so long to this otherwise reputated author to realize what he could be subjected to when going through French customs. What he is missing though, is that French customs are today equipped with powerful automatic brain scanners and that mirroring laptops hard-drives is not necessary anymore. Funny how people leverage fear factor to drive their business ;)

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