Tag Archives: identity

Identity is the New Money

Thoughts on Identity is the New Money, by David Birch. 126 p. London Publishing Partnership, May 2014.

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Despite its provocative title, I didn’t finish this book with a precise understanding of how money will be replaced by identity; but along the way there were several interesting points regarding the advancement of mobile technology as a payment mechanism, and the implications for digital identity and privacy. The brief case studies indicate international efforts to make digital identities are further along than the USA’s, but no one is making great strides in adoption just yet.

I was left with questions about the book’s central idea, which is not a necessarily a bad thing when reacting to this kind of abstract premise. Was he saying I’ll be able to buy goods and services based on how many facebook friends I have? That the social graph alone will prove my ‘credit-worthiness’ and earn me whatever I need that I would otherwise have to pay for with dollars? How does being a part of the social graph actually increase, or enable wealth, from a technological perspective?

I think the book would have benefited from a different title, like ‘mobile phones are the new money.’ To me, the mobile examples were the most interesting futurist perspective offered, and the ones that made the most sense. Instead of cash, mobile phones should communicate without exchanging a great deal of identity information, only that I am Person A who has X number of dollars, and I would like to exchange them for a thing or service. No cash needs to change hands, or even exist, I suppose.

One of the most compelling ideas was that the economy can now support ‘infinite currencies.’ With physical money, we are limited by what we can carry – only one type. But with digital, it can be an infinite number, assuming an infrastructure is there to support it – not unlike the dozens of credit cards some people carry. So I could issue ‘Brian Dollars’ and you could carry them with your regular dollars, and when your phone initiated a transaction with me, I would tell it to use Brian Dollars only and it would comply.

The practical examples for this ability aren’t completely clear, but it seems like a logical idea. Maybe I will only give Brian Dollars to people who are nice, and you can exchange them for a cup of coffee. Or maybe my Apartment Manager will give me ‘apartment dollars’ when I pay my rent early, and I can exchange them for a ceiling fan. This kind of personalized exchange wouldn’t work with standard currency, since standard currency could be exchanged for anything – but with personalized currencies, the scope of transacting is easier to control.

The book’s historical references to ‘giant stones’ and ‘tax collecting sticks’ of centuries old illustrated that payment technology isn’t static. People haven’t been using credit cards or checks forever. Ancient systems were in place before what we have today, and therefore, what we have today will someday also be ancient and replaced by new things. A good way to get people on board with adopting new things is to point out what the old things were, and how much room there is for improvement.

Without a finance background, there were macro concepts behind the cash replacement idea that I didn’t really understand. My interpretation of the argument was that cash is expensive to produce and manage, and permissive of anonymous and potentially illicit transactions, therefore the financial system could be reformed and benefit from operating without cash. I agree with anonymity being undesirable, but I don’t think creating and managing a cashless technology infrastructure will be any simpler than maintaining a cash-based one, nor immune to hacks and corruption.

The most important argument I gathered from the book was that privacy is increased when digital identity is leveraged to facilitate physical, in-person payments (or ‘mundane payments’, as the author calls them.) Through cryptographic wizardry, my phone can prove that it is me, Brian, who is using it, and anyone who wants to interact with it can be sure they are interacting with me – and I can control what ‘parts’ of me, or which ‘identity’ they interact with and get access to. If I only want them to know I have 20 Jumbo Dollars, that’s all they get to know, but if they also need to know I live on Sesame Street, or that I am not a convict, they may ask for access to that information also, and it can be proven authoritatively via private key infrastructure, mobile phones, and identity management applications.

So, in short – this was a complicated but interesting take on the changing landscape of identity credentials, payments, and mobile technology. Maybe not all that fascinating or useful to people who work outside of the ‘Finance Tech’ industry, but perhaps these ideas will become more prevalent and widely understood over the next several decades as mass adoption grows.

on Walter White and ‘Offline’ Identity

I’m apologetically writing this well after it originally aired, but I’ve been watching Breaking Bad for the first time. (Spoilers will be small and few, out of respect for the uninitiated.)

Instead of offering my own full-bootlicking about how amazing the show actually is, I’ll simply quote from, and agree with, these words from the AV Club’s review of the episodes ‘ABQ’ and ‘Full Measures’ –

“…this show has been one of serialized drama’s greatest accomplishments.  Television itself suddenly seems to have an expanded horizon of possibilities — for characterization, for juxtaposition, for thematic depth.  Whatever happens from this hellish moment, the long descent to this point, with all its false dawns and sudden crashes, was singularly awe-inspiring, uniquely cathartic. People living through a golden age often don’t know it.”

“Extraordinary flowerings of art, technology, culture, or knowledge are obscured by intractable problems, crises, declines in other parts of the society… It’s easy to look at television, with its 500 channels worth of endless crappy versions of the same empty ideas, and conclude that everything’s gone to shit… Ironically, this pronouncement coincides with the greatest flowering of televised drama and comedy in the medium’s history.”

There are many qualities that make Breaking Bad an incredible viewing experience, the first of which is Bryan Cranston’s boundless performance in the lead role. His acting is the only reason I’m able to think of this show in such a realistic context, and analyze his character as if it were an actual person in the same world that I live in. I could offer unending praise on the acting, the brilliant camera work, dialogue, etc. But I just want to focus this post on one specific thing that’s caught my attention, as I set out to finish the series over the next few weeks.. (let’s be real.. Days.)

Walter White’s defining characteristic is arguably his squabble with identity – is he the murderous meth-cooking gangster boss Heisenberg? Or is he the doting father, soft husband, and nerdy brother-in-law?  Is there room in a single fictitious character for both? (Yes.) Is there room in a real human being for both? (I believe so.) Maybe the show’s finale will answer some of these questions definitively, but I haven’t reached that point, so I’m still undecided on the matter. I’m willing to guess that there will still be plenty of room for interpretation on Walter’s moral character, even after the last episode’s credits roll.

The question of his identity seems so important because of other things happening in our culture right now. This is the age of facebook, where the privatest lives of the most everyday people are just as public as any royal. The first season of Breaking Bad aired in 2008, the heady days in which ‘social media’ became a phenomenon too large for anyone to ignore. The show continued playing out on the screen while in the audience’s living rooms, internet technologies connected the personal lives of everyone around the world at a breakneck pace – most intensely, the lives of comfortably wealthy Americans, especially those with an interest in the sciences or technology.

If the impetus for Walter’s entire journey is his need for money – in Season 1, funding cancer treatment was his reason for embarking on a criminal campaign – how could someone of his cultural demographics overlook the most money-making industry of this decade, the internet? When Breaking Bad premiered, and for years before, the American economy has been driven by the high value of software and computer technology. But Walter isn’t part of that America, somehow.

By all accounts, Walter White, caucasian middle-class scientist, teacher, and 2004 Pontiac Aztec driver, is the incarnate persona of a modern American internet user. If you knew a man with Walter’s pedigree, you would expect he spent his time off in some dorky enterprise like geo-caching, or beta testing Google Glass. His chemically-laced resume screams “Googler.”

But in which episode did we ever see Walter crack open a laptop? Somehow, all this fancy new ‘social’ technology has overlooked him. Instead of the positive social incubator it is intended to be, it only becomes an opportunity for further advancement into Walter’s fragile anonymity as a criminal.

The show doesn’t completely leave the internet out of its narrative – Walter Jr. raises money for his Dad’s cancer by setting up a donation website, Skylar does her research for money laundering on Wikipedia – but it rejects the idea, so often presented in today’s culture, that all of this online transparency is influential in a way that would prevent someone from taking fuller measures to hide their deviant intentions.

In the world of Breaking Bad, Walter is not persuaded by these popular new gadgets to connect in a positive way to his community, as much as Facebook would like to “make the world a more open place,” and Google would like everyone to follow its corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” Silicon Valley’s utopian rhetoric falls limply on Walter/Heisenberg’s deaf hears.

I might be overly sensitive to this idea, working as I currently am for a company, ID.me, whose purpose is to enable an individual’s authority over their identity on the internet. In this field, as it exists now, all roads are converging on transparency. There is no accommodation for subversive duality, in the minds of those leading the development of digital identity. On Google,Facebook, ID.me, and anywhere else you want to be yourself online, you only get one persona, and it’s intended to comprise your whole self.

Popular opinion has recently treated privacy as debatable, far from an ‘inalienable right,’ and the public parade of social media is driving the idea further.  The notion that governments and neighbors can snoop and sneak through a citizen’s life, online, is commonplace.

The narrative of Breaking Bad indirectly comments on the situation: it says Yes, a person may keep part of their life private… but they might be a drug kingpin. And with its morally circuitous characters, it also diffusely challenges the evolving concept of identity, by illustrating – No, the depths of a person probably cannot be summarized by a few photographs they post to their ‘wall.’

on The Facebook Effect

I decided to read David Kirkpatrick’s book, The Facebook Effect, because I wanted to rationalize my somewhat recent decision to ignore a product that has become one of the most widely used in the world, achieved staggering valuations, etc. So here is my rambling reaction to the book, and my latest thoughts on Facebook in general:

There are reasons I want to like Facebook. I love sharing photos, reading opinions, and the little dopamine spritz that comes with any online interaction. Mark Zuckerberg even seems like a decent guy, at the very least a champion of my generation in leadership and business acumen. When I go all the way back to 1984 to compare our lives’ paths, starting with his birthday about 3 weeks before my own, it’s impossible not to be awed. Although we probably took the same spelling lessons in 4th grade, and maybe asked similar questions in high school government classes – years later while I was either underpaid or unemployed, Mark Z. was turning down multi-billion dollar offers for the company he founded.

But Facebook’s core principle of sharing everything with everyone, and in turn letting everyone I know share what they know about me with everyone else I know – I still can’t fully agree is a socially responsible or pleasant practice. Maybe it’s the introvert in me. Maybe it’s because transparency and openness don’t translate well into hierarchical organizations, which most workplaces are. Since work is sadly where I, like most 9-6 adults, do the majority of my socializing, it just doesn’t make sense to conflate the professional space with the casual, friendly mentality of ‘friending’.  It was no accident that Facebook never organized its growth by expanding to corporate usage in the way it initially did at universities. I enjoyed using Facebook while I was a student, but in the world of colleagues, bosses, and board members, the share-all mentality took on a different patina.

I think one of the great things Facebook does is let people use their real identity online, an option that had been missing before. Unfortunately, identity gets stretched thin, defined too easily by relationships, associations, and Likes. Identity is a complicated construction. We aren’t just books we’ve read or bands we like. All the empty database fields in the universe couldn’t capture who I really am. I could go on about what constitutes a person’s identity, but I’m fairly certain there’s more to it than what can be captured on a profile page.

facebook, 2010

facebook, 2010

A favorite feature of Facebook, often used by its champions as an argument in its defense, is the presentation of ‘news that matters to me.’ The ‘News Feed’ as it was called when released caused a fury of opposition initially, agitating users who didn’t want their activity broadcast to everyone they knew. Since the initial outcry, a few minor policy changes have placated the chorus of dissent and everyone who continues to use the service considers the News Feed a useful part of the product.

The information you receive through your mapped relationships on the site is likely to carry significance because it’s coming from the people you’ve indicated are important to you, and not an impersonal corporation, or a profit-driven media conglomerate. Unfortunately, what this creates is the possibility of an echo chamber – you’re only going to find stories that agree with your own perspective.

Friendship, as C.S. Lewis defined it, is a conspiratorial act. To be friends with someone is to implicitly agree that it’s ‘us’ against ‘them.’ So what happens when we all become ‘us’? If everyone is friends with everyone, which is Mark Z.’s ‘openness’ philosophy taken to its logical extreme, who is left to be the ‘them’ that we check our behavior or beliefs against? In a world of truly open friendships how does the formal, technically bureaucratic process of sending ‘requests’ and ‘accepting’ people fit in? If we benefit from all being connected, as Mark Z. prophecies, why the need to draw documentary lines between the connections?

Maybe this odd conception of friendship on Facebook is one of the reasons I don’t feel awkward exposing my thoughts in blog posts, but do in Facebook status updates. With a blog, there is no expectation of friends to read or comment on my writing – this post is intended for anyone who is interested enough to seek it out, not because they know who I am, but because they’ve identified a topic I’ve written about as interesting or useful to them.  Is my blog more transparent than a Facebook profile? Perhaps. Does that translate to mean Facebook is a safer, less revealing place for my online identity?  No, I don’t think so.

The book describes situations like the anti-FARC uprising in Colombia and dissenting Egyptians as movements empowered by the connections created online. I think it’s great that in some places this communication tool has served an ideological purpose, but I don’t believe it’s the magical democratic bullet that some have made it out to be. The power of organization offered by Facebook can help small causes receive greater attention. But on a grand scale, the expectation of transparency seems intrusive.

The most fundamental principle of democracy, the vote, is an anonymous, private act – and designed to be that way for a reason. In essence, each ‘Like’ I create on Facebook is a kind of ‘vote’ – not for an election, but for popularity, relevancy, or brand loyalty. And each one of those ‘Likes’ – whether for Barack Obama or Coca-Cola –  is an action my ‘friends’ (but for many people, anybody) can see, comment on, and either celebrate or criticize. Facebook hardly provides the curtain between voting booths that we expect when we cast our ballots.

Amid questions of Facebook’s usefulness, its violations of privacy, regulatory concerns and potential infringement on the operations of governments – the executives of companies like Sony, Microsoft, the Washington Post, and Reuters all provide quotes heaping compliments on Facebook, and the author gives these recommendations as indicators of the products credibility and usefulness for everyone. Lest we forget these corporate heads are in the business of selling targeted advertisements, a practice so enhanced by Facebook that when the company began to implement it, revenues soared and made multi-billionaires of the founders.

Since I stopped using the service a few years ago, there have been occasional twinges of nostalgia and moments of regret, when appealing people ask to ‘friend’ me or when I read about an interesting new feature release (the graph search seems to be a tremendous improvement to the site as a whole.) I’ve recently started using it again, in a very limited capacity, with the sole purpose of interacting with family members. I’m somewhat nervous that the wheels have started turning, and I will find other compelling ways I can begin to reuse the site.

My main takeaway from the book, aside from the inspiring story of its founders’ vision and dedication, and the mind-boggling numbers behind its user base and financial war chest, is that Facebook is impossible to ignore. Whether I’m personally using it or not, it is certainly going to be around for a while, and I will probably end up in the minority if I continue to play deaf dumb and blind to it. In the end, whether it’s evil or holy, enabling or destructive, its effects will be felt by everyone who uses the internet. Perhaps, and I’d be surprised if I’m the first to admit it – my biggest problem with Facebook is that I didn’t think of the damn thing myself.