Through my work in and around digital registration of people affected by disasters (LMMS) and my work with the Sovrin Foundation, conversations about identity – who am I – often arise. These conversations remind me of my time in university getting my theology & philosophy degree, when professors would challenge us with ‘simple’ questions like ‘what is red’ and then proceed to challenge every single answer we gave.
Who am I? It’s a question that might just be the most asked question ever as most humans ask it at one point (or multiple points!) in their life. The question of identity is prevalent again because of the question of digital identity, so agreed definitions are being sought.
identity | ʌɪˈdɛntɪti |
noun (plural identities)
the fact of being who or what a person or thing is:dictionary.com
What people like Joe Andieu have taught me among other things is the importance of differentiating between identity and identifiers. Frankly, at first I thought it was nit picking and lawyer-speak, yet now, I find it a very important distinction.
Who am I is super difficult to describe for I am many things: son, father, cousin, husband, friend, manager, writer, runner, blogger, author, programmer, gardener, INTJ, Canadian, Dutch, immigrant, employee, entrepreneur, believer, nature lover, licensed driver, nervous explorer, freelancer, builder, coffee addict, impatient, patient, etc. I am all these things and more, but not one defines me. It is true I could draw a bunch of rings placing the list around to see which ones are more ‘core’ than others, yet in the end, there would be more than one in centre.
So these are not my identity or who I am, but rather they are pointers, indicators, ‘identifiers’ of who I am. They are not the whole; they are a part. Some of these identifiers are self-given, while others are given or can be certified by others or institutions – i.e. the fact I am a licensed driver is not determined by me, but by the DVLA in the UK and Ontario Government. In fact, my license is not ‘owned’ by me; rather it is owned by the different governments who can revoke it at any time.
This is important in the digital identity space as we don’t really create a digital identity but rather create a space where we can hold digitally issued identifiers.
In our daily lives, we often confuse our identifiers with our identity. When we lose a job, it can be devastating and invoke the ‘who am I’ question as we feel like our identity has changed. Which it has, but if we can remember that our job is only one identifier of who we are, then perhaps we can remember that many other identifiers have not changed in that moment.
We are not, and have never been, one thing, we are many, all together, at the same time. When we reduce ourselves to one thing, one identifier, we give that identifier (and those associated with it) far too much power and we lose we are.