Saturday, June 24, 2006

Water does not have an history

As human beings we place absolute on the scale of our desires… We aspire to absolute references, because we desire comfort and satisfaction, "we want things in our life that don't change". In our relationships we try to relate to others through the best absolute reference we can. Through naming.

We humans name things because speech is our principal mean of communication. Other species rely on smell or sound to provide a reference, we use names. And naturally we will use these names to identify other persons.

Now that we have extended this concept into the digital world, we tend to continue using names to provide identity references. Absolute references. And we are making a mistake.

Octavian has ended the late Roman Republic, and created the early Roman Empire under the name of Augustus. Popes change names when they are elected. One changes name to "begin a new life". In every case, different names refer to the same individual. Octavian and Augustus are the same person. Apart from the color of his clothes, the pope is the same person before and after his election. Only the reference has changed, as the context in which the name is used has changed. And these references point to the same identity. The name is used to fix a reference in a particular context at a particular point in time. It is bound to evolve over time.

Translating this into the digital world, mapping identity and globally unique identifiers becomes an utopia. It simply denies the possibility for the reference to change. In the real world, even the 'baptismal' naming we receive on our birth is a contextual relative reference. The probability for it to change is lesser that other identity attributes in our life, but it may vary. Furthermore, this reference is only relevant in the context of using speech as a mean of communication. If the communication changes, the way we reference an identity also changes. When we see an acquaintance on the other side of the street, we are able to identify the person even without remembering its name. Hearing someone's voice over the phone gives us a different way to identify the person. Other context, other reference.

In the end we have to be careful when drafting digital systems dealing with identity not to let our aspiration for comfort reduce the multiple facets of identity to a minimum incompatible with the complexity of its expression. Naming an identity in today's' digital world comes from the way the technology works. We are just trying to fit the foot to the shoe here. This is a huge scope reduction!

As explained by John Burgess, names can convey meaning as well as fix references

… given the truth of Avogadro's view that water is the compound H2O, it could not have been anything else. A world where a substance of a different chemical formula filled the lakes and rivers would be a world where something other than water filled the lakes and rivers.

But in comparison with persons' identity, water does not have an history.

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