The other day I felt a rush of retrospective excitement as I read through David’s post on “why anonymity should be the default” on the internet, and then clicked over to Eric’s response. We’ve been having arguments like this for years, but it’s been a long time since it has come to the future (its reappearance is probably related to the near proximity of the next Digital Identity World Conference. Send my regards — the day when philosophical-theological participant observers fit into the schedule are over). Their insightful, well-informed, respectful disagreement rewards reading and reflection.
Since “several years” is a long time even apart from the internet, and even longer online, I’ll take the risk of repeating a response that I’ve been making to their positions since we first broached this topic. Although on the whole, I take David’s part in this specific disagreement, both Eric and David (and Doc, to drag another old DIDW friend) complicate matters by taking the metaphorical sense in which we can fittingly characterize the internet in spatial terms, and inappropriately argue conclusions about the Net that disregard the pivotal differences between the (non-spatial) internet and (spatial) physical interaction. To aggravate my current Wittgensteinian theme, a spatial picture about the internet holds their discourse captive, when the problem that David and Eric are hashing out arises in great part because of the ways that the Net differs from physical space.
I’d like to mash up their conversation with Nick Yee’s piece on “The Prison of Embodiment” at Terra Nova. Here’s the point: how do we deal with questions of disembodied identity? Most of our familiar devices for identification depend on physical characteristics (our physiognomy, external paraphernalia such as cards or papers, physical location) — but the online aspect of our lives dissolves those physical-spatial devices. If we reason about digital identity with devices or metaphors that perpetuate the legacy of spatiality, we occlude some of the decisive characteristics of the technological transition in which we participate.
Of course, the church has been trying to think through the importance of non-spatial identities for centuries, which helps explain my confidence that a theologian’s perspective can contribute to the discussion. All along, people’s identities have been constituted by the memories, links, knowledge, and patterns that they share (or not) with the rest of the world; in our digital environment, those aspects of identity come to the fore. Let’s not shackle them to simulated spatiality, but instead let’s seek out a way to work with identity in ways indigenous to a non-spatial identity ecology.