April 16, 2009

BOOT your Digital Identity

A man is known no more only by his name, address and phone number -- an email address is mandatory on a visiting card that one presents as a part of the process of getting acquainted with a stranger. But the email is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that represents a person in the emerging, expanding and evolving world of digital relationships.

The Internet is a network of computers and more. As technology gets more sophisticated and 'computers' gets embedded into devices and imbibe them with what passes for intelligence, the Internet is being redefined as a network of devices or Yantrajaal : in Sanskrit, Yantra = device & Jaal = web. While this is valuable in itself, and needs no further elaboration, what is even more interesting is how individuals latch on to this web and spin for themselves a new, soft web of relationships -- both with the devices themselves and the software that runs on them, as well as with other individuals who have also latched on to the Internet.

Any human interaction with anything on the web leaves an imprint, or a digital footprint, that if necessary, can be recorded, stored and retrieved. Some of these digital footprints are transient -- as it happens when you happen to visit a website, read an article and then move on. But more often than not one ends up registering at a site and in the process leaving information that is stored permanently. Each of these little bits of information stored at various nooks and corners of the digital world end up as a part of your digital identity, not because you told them your name and age -- which is redundant anyway, but because you leave a record of your visit which in turn reveals your interest in that specific corner ! It is like saying that we know that so-and-so goes to the movies but also plays tennis and occasionally stops by in the neighbourhood pub!

The fact that you visit the pub as opposed to a temple may reveal a lot about you, that you may not have wished to reveal, but your footprints in the digital world can reveal much more. For example if you were to write a blog -- or even a comment in a blog, or create a profile in a social network like Orkut or Facebook, you are literally putting your thoughts and beliefs in plain view of anyone who has an interest in you and your behaviour. For most of us who are not terrorists or are not cheating on our spouses, that may be just fine : you have a point of view and you are exercising your freedom to express the same, but then it may become just a wee bit embarrassing if you have been critical of the Kommunists and your boss turns out to be a Kard-Karrying-Komrade who implicitly believes in everything that the old Karl had talked about in the 19th century !

But wait, we are not yet done. A man is known by the company he keeps ! Many of our interactions on the web define our relationships with others who happen to on the same platform. So even if you are very careful about what you write or Twitter about, the list of your friends, or contacts, in various social and professional networks is a dead giveaway about the kind of people you consort with and hence by extension, the kind of person you really are. No CV of yours will ever be as comprehensive as the sum total of all the information that is available about you on the Internet -- even though it may not be as neatly formatted as you would expect it to be in a job application.

Is this something to be concerned about ? May be if you are a terrorist or if you are particularly concerned about privacy or the image that you wish to cultivate for yourself ... but that is not the point that we are concerned about in this post.

What is intriguing is that there exists a vast pool of information that forms a second web -- a 'soft' web, that resides within the 'hard' world wide web of computers -- and there is one such unique web for each one of us, man, woman and child who has ever registered for any service that is available on the Internet. This second web, the soft web that is unique to each individual, reveals the contours of what, for the lack of better word, we refer to as the Digital Identity of the person concerned. To continue with this analogy, the shape and size of this second web provides much more information about a person than any bare list of physical facts like name and address that we come across in the physical world. Whether we like it or not is immaterial, this soft web and the associated Digital Identity is something that cannot be wished away -- just as we cannot wish away or biological parentage and the list of colleges that we have attended or the employers that we have had !

Since we cannot wish ( or wash ) away our Digital Identity, the least that we could do is to understand the contours of this soft web and a simple, though primitive, way of doing so would be list down the touchpoints between the hard web and soft web, between the physical world and the digital world.

But if we were to look beyond these touchpoints, the task becomes difficult but by no means impossible. There is enough technology available that, by beginning from these identifiable touchpoints, untangle these relationships and create a clear picture that is possible for the human brain to comprehend. For example bots, or webbots, can extract data and mathematical techniques associated with pattern matching and data mining can be used to process this data into information and finally a creative combination of artificial and human intelligence can be used generate a fairly accurate picture of the person in question. Again, let us be aware that the ethics of doing so may or may not questionable but the fact remains that no technological development -- neither atom bombs, nor genetic manipulation -- has ever been held back on grounds of ethics. If it can be done, then someone will do it and it would be foolish to think that it would be any different in this case.

Technology and ethics aside, the evolution of a Digital Identity has another interesting, if not deeply philosophical, aspect : Immortality. Physical mortality is a fact of life : while adepts of Hatha Yoga have been known to have arrested the decay of the physical body, the elixir of youth is generally believed to be as mythical as a perpetual motion machine. But there is no difficulty for a Digital Identity to exist as long one may wish it to. A physical identity is tied down to one physical -- and mortal -- person, but the soft web of relationships that constitute a Digital Identity can be built, managed and even extended by more than one physical person through the simple process of sharing passwords. In fact the existence of generic user ids like admin and tech_support on most websites proves that individuals may come and go but the service continues ( or is expected to continue !) for ever. The digital identity of the admin is already immortal ! Admins do not have Orkut profiles .. But what if this were to be true not just for admins for all of us in the digital world ? Would we not have achieved immortality ?

Some would of course argue that this immortality is trivial. To claim immortality, one would have to achieve it in the physical world, not just in the digital one. However the fact remains that the Digital World is, in some senses, becoming more important than the physical one! In India we say that what is not there in the epic Mahabharata does not exist in Bharat ( or India ) either -- but in today's context, is this not true about Google as well ? It is no more a joke when we say that if something cannot be located in ( or through ) Google, then it is more likely than not that it does not exist ! A physical identity is in danger of being overtaken by the Digital Identity.

So now that you are aware of your Digital Identity what should you be doing with it ?

  • BUILD : your Digital Identity. The simple graphic that I have used is just a starting point. Those who are smarter than I am, can and should be able to find better ways of doing the same. Perhaps you could take some inspiration from the smart visualisation techniques that they have developed in the digg labs
  • OWN & OPERATE : your Digital Identity in a manner that best serves your purpose. You would know best what to do with your identity
  • TRANSFER : your identity to an appropriate agency or successor if you desire Immortality !
So go ahead and BOOT your Digital Identity