E-Learning 3.0, Part 4: Identity

Identity is one of the deepest issues in philosophy and one that runs through the history of education like a single thread. It can seem esoteric, but some of the problems it raises can touch home very quickly. How do we know someone is who they say they are? What is it that makes them that person? What makes me the person I think I am? Is it up to me to decide? Or am I locked into being the person society says I am?


Each of these touches on education in some way, from matters as mundane as verifying identities in the examination hall to those as lofty as deciding what kind of person and what kind of citizen we want to graduate and to be. How does what and who a person is impact what we teach them, how we teach them, and what we expect them to be?


We need to ask whether we should be thinking of identity from the outside in or from the inside out. Can we teach 'identity'? is 'identity' something that can be done to us or for us? Or is it inherent in our nature, something we bring to education as course participants, something that informs how we see and how we learn?


Equally important from the perspective of this course is the role of identity in education and technology. The self is seen at once as the locus of skills and learning, the lens through which these can be studied, the target toward which educational activity is directed, and the carrier of degrees, certificates and permissions. To name a few.


There is no single way to define identity. It’s one of those concepts that slips through our fingers as soon as we think we have a grasp on it. Each of the following approaches have some strengths, and some weaknesses:


  • Identity as based on substance - it’s the same thing if it’s the same thing

  • Identity as essence - some things (but not all things) define identity

  • Identity defined according to function - it’s the same thing if it does the same thing

  • Identity defined as continuity - it’s the same thing if there is a causal of physical chain

  • Identity as purpose and value - it’s the same thing if it stays true to itself


In this course we created the challenge of defining an identity graph with the stipulation that there be no node assigned to the ‘self’ or to ‘me’. Though the concept of the identity graph has its origins in online marketing, we extended the term to refer to the concept of a graph-based representation of identity in general.


Why stipulate that there be no node assigned to the ‘self’ or to ‘me’? It was to separate two distinct uses of the graph. With a ‘self’ node, the graph is about the self. Without a ‘self’ node, the graph is the self. The focus in this course - and a proposition in the course-wide thesis - is that the concept of identity is changing from a unary substance-based or function-based concept to a complex concept that is based on the association of and interaction between  numerous components.


In other words, my identity isn’t simply that I’m part Irish and part English, it isn’t simply that I spend part of my day writing, part of the day cycling, and part of the day watching Netflix, it isn’t simply that I’m partly trained as a philosopher, partly trained as an educator, etc. It’s how these parts interact as a complex whole. Then, from the perspective of the self, an advertiser, an educator, whatever, what counts as ‘identity’ depends on perspective, whereby we see only a facet of that complex whole, and recognize it as a client, a person, a student, whatever.


Much of the technological discussion of identity looks at it relatively narrowly, asking how we know who someone is, how we project ourselves on the internet, and how we can be safe and secure. In a wider sense, however, what we are developing is a mechanism for the creation of a digital identity. This is not the same as a personal identity, of course, but how we see ourselves shapes how we define a digital identity, and how we define a digital identity shapes how we see ourselves.


Even so, our relation to technology and to each other can be seen to change. In the era of websites and content management systems, we were the clients. In the era of platform-based social networks we were the product. What do we become in a world of artificial intelligence, linked data and cryptographic functions, when what we are is represented as a set of linked data points in a graph?


In addition to creating an identity graph, we considered some questions in relation to this graph:   

  • What is the basis for the links in your graph: are they conceptual, physical, causal, historical, aspirational?

  • Is your graph unique to you? What would make it unique? What would guarantee uniqueness?

  • How (if at all) could your graph be physically instantiated? Is there a way for you to share your graph? To link and/or intermingle your graph with other graphs?

  • What’s the ‘source of truth’ for your graph?   


These are more than conceptual questions; these are questions the designers of identity systems are attempting to address today, and will form the basis for what some call an identity revolution.


For example, one of the key changes with web3 technology will be the way we identify ourselves online. Right now it is managed very badly.  Anonymity and password-based usernames will be more difficult to sustain. We are already in a world of biometrics and two-factor authentication, but there are weaknesses in the system (and an endless stream of successful hacks to underline that problem). Online identity today is siloed, fragmented, unreliable, insecure, and hard to use.


Two major changes are coming to online authentication that will change all that:


  • True multi-factor authentication. This is supported with the use of devices like the Yubi key, a piece of hardware you connect to your computer that helps log you into websites. This can be combined with (say) a password or (better) biometrics for quick and seamless logins.

  • Digital signatures and cryptography. Through the use of a public key infrastructure, we can encrypt communications, sign documents, and authenticate transactions. The PKI “binds public keys with respective identities of entities (like people and organizations).”


It’s when these combine with identity graphs that we begin to see something the future of identity online, distributed identity networks (see here, here and here). Unlike traditional PKI, where we require a central government, bank or certificate authority to verify a person’s identity, the distributed approach uses decentralized graphs. An early version of this was the Web of Trust. Today’s approaches are based in blockchain-like data structures and look like digital wallets or decentralized identifiers (see also).


Cryptographic keys - either digital or physical - will become the norm, but this gives us a permanent identity that not only secures our data, our digital identity is our data. We may represent ourselves with names, identifiers, public keys, and whatnots, but from any perspective, who we are is some facet of this mesh of interconnected entities, a complex graph matched only by our neural nets themselves.


And our digital identities are more or less tightly connected by our physical identities. We are the bases for the links in the graphs, whether they reflect our economic activities, our social connections, the things we make, the expressions of our communities and aspirations and values.


We were the client, we were the product - are we, at last, the content? We are the thread that runs through an otherwise disconnected set of data. Knowledge about ourselves, our associations, and our community will create an underlying fabric against which the value and relevance of everything else will be measured.


Instead of demographics being about quantity (sales charts, votes in elections and polls, membership in community) we will now have access to a rich tapestry of data and relations. Instead of grades or scores (or hit counts, or followers) our self-assessments will be based on the quality of the experience, the depth of the insight, or the richness of the interaction. The “quantified self” will give way to the “qualified self” (here, and here) as we begin to define ourselves not merely by simple measures of ethnicity, language, religion and culture, but through thousands of shared experiences, affinities, and inclinations. (*)


Facts by themselves won't be sufficient. What does a series of statements of facts about the self look like? It's a description of properties, and so we are only able to form communities and alliances and, indeed, understandings of the self, by means of sameness (look back to the top of this article at the different definitions of ;identity’). Defining identity in terms of sameness leads to definitions based on religious purity, ethnic purity, nationalism, etc. And these forms of self-definition are ultimately essentialist, ultimately limiting, ultimately static.


So we come to connected self, but what does that look like? We’re beginning to get a sense of it from the way people define themselves online (through studies such as this one showing how LGBTQ youth use selfies (“the so-called visual vernaculars and material texts of youth lifestreaming”) and this one describing how fans construct identities by interacting with celebrity personas.


Connective identity doesn't eliminate either number or fact - these are still aspects of ourselves - but it doesn't allow them, either primarily or independently, to be defining. Conceptually, it allows that there are sets of statements containing facts and data, and that these statements are connected, such that a change in one statement can cause a change in another statement. Physically, it amounts to the idea that we actually are an interconnected set of entities - neurons, body, social environment (this to be argued about for the next century) that interact, and that our self, our identity, literally is this set of connections, and exists only insofar as it is recognized, either self-referentially (by means of our 'perceiving' ourselves, or at least, a facet of ourselves) or externally, by means of others’ perception and recognition of yourself-as-a-something.


How does all this feed into the concept of E-Learning 3.0?


We will have an unparalleled opportunity to become more self-reflective, both as individuals and as a community. Our new identities have the potential to be an enormous source of strength or a debilitating weakness. Will we be lost in the sea of possibilities, unable to navigate through the complexities of defining for ourselves who we are, or will we be able to forge new connections, creating a community of interwoven communities online and in our homes?



(*) This week I encountered the work of historian Jill Lepore https://www.downes.ca/post/68815 on the history of the United States. She argues that its constitution was created around the time quantity (eg., votes) rather than quality (eg., facts) became important. Now we are entering an age where science (as it relates to quantity) is being question, and quality (facts) doesn't seem to be filling the void. But that's what we're trying for. Hence, 'quantified self' (data) to 'qualified self' (facts about the self).