identity as a synthesized construct

i spent my monday up at the MIT Media Lab – my old stomping ground – at a really fascinating event about digital identity, contracts, and blockchain technology. special thanks to the team who put the event together and all of the participants, it was very interesting and informative, and it made me feel optimistic about the work ahead and the approaches.

a few things that were really helpful to me in terms of framing concepts that had been swirling in my head, and making them more cogent.

blockchain technology is really three things – much thanks to Philippe de Wost for the framework:

  • a peer to peer network, with the right incentives in place to promote honest interactions (a token, like bitcoin)
  • a distributed record of all activity to prevent corruption and minimize vulnerability to attack
  • digital, math-based assets governed by a set of absolute laws (the protocol)

in all of history, we have always framed the individual or organization, the identity, as the account holder, and tracked the assets that flowed in and out of that identity’s account. but what if we re-oriented our thinking to view the asset as the unit of measure, and the flows of that asset between various nodes in a network, or between various identities, as the data surrounding those central asset nodes? the world would surely look different.

the core reason we’ve framed everything around identity is because of a lack of trust. the asymmetry of information flows in today’s financial system means that we end up seeking out people or organizations we think we can trust, based on the reputation associated with their identity. trust is the missing link.

trust is fundamentally built on relationships, and relationships are built as part of systems and networks of people, organizations, and institutions, that all link together to form a narrative around an identity. everything about our identity is synthesized from our networks through time, and the perception of our reputation within those network. so then in fact, identity is a construct that is synthesized from a wide range of data points, some quantifiable, some more abstract, that form over time.

with digital assets and blockchain, we can embed trust into computation. we can create a network around a specific asset, not an individual, and track the movement of this asset between entities to form a better picture of the network surrounding this asset. imagine a world where it was no longer relevant to know my name, age, and social security number to transact with me. where trust could be embedded into the very nature of transacting. imagine all of the forms of unconscious and conscious bias this would remove from our interactions with value.

i’m fascinated by the role networks of all types play in our lives, and i imagine the key to using technology to improve the human experience will ultimately leverage networks of all types. i’m unsure what this looks like, but i think these early experiments with blockchain, identity, and digital assets are going to be the starting point of a massive shift in how we conceptualize relationships and trust.

3 thoughts on “identity as a synthesized construct”

  1. 1. If you believe satoshi created the blockchain, A blockchain is a proof-of-work-based consensus mechanism. It is the first such mechanism with calibration of difficulty, and therin lies its innovation. Here is the precise definition of blockchain, from the time it was first used: https://github.com/trottier/original-bitcoin/blob/master/src/main.h#L795-L800

    2. Blockchain technology is otherwise ancient technology, that is commonly utilised throughout the industry. The only reason to use a non-work definition is because you’re misleading investors, and pitching a database with a blockchain sticker on it.

    3. Blockchains are only good for bearer assets, and maybe censorship resistance. Monetizable applications are all in the realm of regulatory Arbitrage.

    4. Identity is a solved problem. Facebook and Google are the 1000 pound gorillas. It necessarily requires information to be assymetric to users, and thus is a terrible application for blockchain. (plus who’s going to pay to mine)

    5. The government owns your identity. When outside its jurisdiction, you have many providers of identity, and this market is deep and efficient.

    1. pretty sure “identity is a solved problem” isn’t really true. 1/4 of the world’s population does not have identity, let alone Facebook / Google.

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