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John Clippinger is giving a presentation about his just-published book, A Crowd of One: The Future of Identity. [As always, I’m typing quickly, missing some stuff, getting things wrong, and making a seamless talk sound all choppy. But in this case, the remedy is easy: If you want to know more about what John is saying, buy his book.]

John approaches human nature through evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Identity, he says, is social and multiple. Trusted identity is essential for community, he says. And he’s interested in how virtual worlds “allow us to build new kinds of institutions, economies and identities.”

The brain is not a blank slate, he says, citing Steven Pinker. The brain is “highly specialized, opportunistic, and jerry-rigged.” Some of our most important decisions originate at a prec-conscious level. This is very different from thinking we make rational decisions. “It’s more a reflex.” He points to our “mirror neurons,” that enable us to have empathy. Descartes, Hobbes and Rousseau, and the Enlightenment are wrong. Research shows that our natural inclination is to reciprocate, trust and coordinate. Virtual worlds are the new state of nature. You may think you can create any identity you want, but “our identities are socially embedded.” And we all have multiple selves.

How do you have a trusted community on the Net? You need a persistent, trusted identity, says John. “But the Web was born without an identity layer.” We need one. Just look at all the fraud, flaming and phishing. “How do you make people accountable for their actions without having overly draconian measures? You have to have some way of creating a cost for breaking the rules, being deceptive, etc.” John refers to biological signalling theory — there’s a cost for deception. [I may be getting this wrong.] You want to make the cost greater than the payoff. That’s essential to any kind of trust network, says John.

In re-imagining identity as the virtual and real worlds become more intertwingled, people will want control over their identities. They’ll want to have a persistent identity. They’ll want multiple identities, the ability to take their identity info in and out of different virtual worlds. They’ll want a range of degrees of identification, from anonymity to authenticated anonymity to complete disclosure. And they’ll want to develop peer networks of trust and authentication.

Over the past two years, John’s been working on a project called “Higgins,” an open source interoperable identity system. (It’s called “Higgins” because higgins is a long-tail mouse.)

We are getting “new narratives about cultural and political futures, not laden with moralistic doctrine.” This is a kind of “social physics”: there are some predictable behaviors and phenomena. It looks for “evolutionary stable strategies.”

There’s an opportunity, John says, to invent new digital institutions: governance mechanisms, more reliance about measured risk and reputation, transparency and accountability for all forms of authority, and acceserated social innovation through digital experimentation. He says the Chinese are very interested in social physics because they want to know if there are rules are principles they can use. [China’s interest in social physics as a way of predicting and managing social behavior is not necessarily a good thing.]

Q: [me] Having an identity layer would solve of bunch of problems, but is there demand for identity itself, as opposed to a demand for solving those problems?
A: At SecondLife I was surprised that people do want to be able to authenticate themselves to others. But that doesn’t mean they know your real world identity. There are degrees and types of authentication and identity. The user gets to control it. You may give up small attributes or fragments of your identity for particular purposes in particular circumstances. Community norms will arise to govern that.

Q: Is it to authenticate you as a consistent person or to get to a level of trust?
A: There is a need for persistence, frequently, although that can just be a number. And there’s another issue about whether you can authenticate the claims you make about yourself. Another party may have to authenticate those, and they may change over time.

Q: How will reputation factor in the changing nature of public opinion? E.g., Don Imus.
A: You have to be careful what you mean by reputation. It may be people rating each other for particular attributes, e.g., trustworthiness at eBay. Those are often easily gamed. I’m interested in work being done on understanding how the immune system [the real one] identifiers cheaters.

Q: Do you see a role for government?
A: Government is going to play an important role. When you have a Linden Dollars exchange, [where Second Life money can be brokered for real money], the government will get involved. And when you set up ecommerce sites, identity matters.

Q: [me] Right now, sites solve their identity problems differently, and generally satisfactorily, pretty much. Given that there are risks to having an identity layer, at what point do we say the ad hoc system is broken enough that we want to have such a layer?
A: The layer won’t be uniform. There are risks of abuse, of course, but the identity layer will be an interoperable set of tools for disclosing what users want to disclose.

Q: [chris meyer] Massachusetts no longer uses the SSN for drivers licenses, presumably because it’s insecure to have a single number encode so much…
A: There may be one number that makes multiple sign-ins far more convenient. That will enable innovation. But you can’t get that without a pretty sophisticated layer underneath. Ad hoc-ery will give way, but not necessarily to uniformity.

Q: People worry about uniform identity not in Second Life but in larger systems. E.g., people have proposed used SpeedPass to use to issue tickets for speeding in the tunnel.
A: They’d be persistent, not consistent. It’d be hard to link them. And people will not do business with businesses that betray them.

Q: [chris meyer] Transparency is two sided. When you suggest it, people get worried that they’ll connect up too much information. When does transparency engender trust and when does it not?
A: Transparency may be transparency on not your full identity but on a chosen set of attributes.

Q: Integrated health care records are important for healthcare. If you try to set up a false identity, you could hurt yourself badly from a healthcare perspective.
A: [irving wladawsky-berger] When it comes to health care and children, I believe there will be legislation.
A: [someone else] Yet at Virginia Tech, people didn’t know the killer had been hospitalized because of privacy laws.
A: [clippinger] Right now it’s ham-fisted. It’s either/or. We need it to be more flexible so people can see what they need to see. That’s the new generation of social technology we now need.

[Fascinating, although I remain skeptical about the need for an “identity layer.” And the reception afterward was a great time to talk with some amazing folks, including the Clipmeister himself.]

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One Response to “[berkman] John Clippinger: A Crowd of One”

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