Only one koan matters
This essay has been crafted to reveal a critical practice of the internet age: personal identity. In particular, it will help you deepen your own approach to
Asking informed questions
Valuing who you already are
Understanding the wealth of meaning inherent in 'you and I'
Interfacing with yourself and others
“What the narrative of self-sovereign identity misses is that identity is always inherently relational, defined in relation to environment, authority, and self.” - Kei Kreutler
“If we’re lucky, new ideas about identity will leak out from the pseudonymous internet into mainstream culture. And we’ll begin to think anew about what it means to have a self in the information age.” - azl
"Identity is a poor substitute for social ties and it too has been born of colonialism." - Caroline Running Wolf and Dr. Noelani Arista
The manner in and the material with which we identify are the source of both suffering and liberation. This is not a problem statement: you do not need to solve it, for problem and solution are part of the mind that sees the world as one thing and me as another.
Starting here, with the simple observation that there is no clear line separating me and my environment, it is possible to see the constant movement between what I perceive, how I feel, what I think, how I act, and how others perceive me as the interplay of reciprocity, rather than as something to be reduced into yet another digital standard.
This is not to say that we do not need a clear notion of identity as a necessary part of a better web; we do. However, our current ideas about identity are based on projection, rather than reciprocity. I log into any “social media” and am presented with two primary artefacts: a profile (or wall) and a feed. If you consider this architecture, you will notice that it is not social at all: it is, in fact, the definition of separation and industrial farming. Kei is a bit more diplomatic:
While establishing norms for how we individually represent ourselves, social platforms also, in part, dampened the imagination of a pseudonymous web. Along with other promises, the web suggested itself as an experimental prosthetic, through which different forms of identity could be explored, and individuals or groups could choose pseudonymous identity.
The current architecture dampens imagination because it constructs identity as a “proof” (either of exclusive knowledge or possession of some kind). But identity is not a proof, it is a question! It is the genjo koan. How can you prove to any person or system that you are definitely you, if you yourself cannot answer this simple prompt: “who are you?”
Prompt: Rather than building systems which encourage projection, we can imagine identity as the interplay of what?
Rather than dive too far down this recursive rabbit hole, let’s consider what an identity architecture that relies on reciprocity rather than projection would contain. Our claim is that it will be made up of three critical elements. What Kei names as “privacy, portability, and ownership”, we will call:
communal space first
When your wall, profile, or feed is the first thing you see on entering some supposedly social space, you are implicitly encouraged by the environment to project onto it and we collectively enter a race to the bottom of the brainstem that incentivises consumption and filters reality. The simple truth is that fake news only takes hold in a society that is itself constantly faking it. Looking clearly into the algorithmic mirror is a deeply revealing practice.
Hence, we are seeing the rebirth of conversational spaces like the original irc (internet relay chat): slack, matrix, rocket and discord. Consider what happens in such places. Your profile is, at most, an avatar and a name and the first thing you see is not your own “stuff”, but a shared room full of other people’s voices. It is not just about you, it is about we, and this architecture shifts our behavioural incentives palpably. As Sina Habibian notes: implemented well, “identities turn protocols from one-off games to iterated ones”.
Experiments like satellite.earth or findtheconversation are leading the way for alternative, iterative ways of representing people, ideas, and identities as networks. Kei goes further, describing how web3 tools can expand these kinds of ‘conversations’ far beyond our current conceptions: multi-signature wallets are already both a primitive for this kind of reimagining, as well as a kind of conversation in themselves.
Embracing more than the normative individual as a fundamental unit of account, such a paradigm could better serve the creation of resilient, accountable, and mutualistic institutions leading into the twenty-first century.
Prompt: When we use protocols in which identity is defined in conversation with others, it can turn one-off games into what?
A neat feature of this kind of multi-signature, conversational-space-first approach is that privacy, or at least pseudonymity, becomes a less conceptually challenging problem. The network representation itself provides a more fertile space in which to discover better solutions rather than trying to imagine what privacy might mean if every person also has a “full profile”.
This points to another interesting aspect of this approach: conversational spaces are not about the things you’ve done, the beaches you’ve taken photographs on, and the food you’ve eaten. They are about how you can respond in the moment, as you are called by other voices. This is not a moral claim about which is better, though the latter does seem to provide more fertile ground for cultivating a culture of contribution rather than a competitive one of consumption.
With multi-signatures as a primitive for cooperatives, we have the basic blueprint for a revitalization of new mutualistic institutions in a peer-to-peer context, including mutual funds, mutual credit systems, and mutual insurance [...] Since multi-signature accounts presuppose groups or identity collections as their primary unit, we have an interesting and as of yet underexplored form of composable identity in our hands.
I always thought that masks were for hiding, but I’ve learned that they often reveal as much as they obscure. They allow you to explore a new identity even as you retreat from an old one. Rather than an escape from self, alt identities teach you that your legal identity is also a kind of mask — an ever-evolving montage of loosely assembled parts. - Aaron Lewis
Beyond crypto, many initiatives (like W3C DID) have been working on giving people control over their identifying data such that they can grant, revoke, and share partial access to it. If done well, people could use such an identity architecture to create universal logins across platforms and port their identity from one to another. However, this often still relies on the notion of a “profile”, rather than a reciprocal web of relationship. Again, identity is not about exclusive proof: it is about how many contradictions you can include. Kei makes this point clearly:
When you connect using a wallet application, it is actually providing a range of services: functionally, you are simultaneously invoking fund management, identity (cross-platform address), and a profile (on-platform history) through one software account.
These multiple formats, and the simultaneous invocation of multiple functions, mimics more closely our internal experience of identity. It goes even deeper than this, though,
What could serve as an identity within an application can be provided in multiple technical formats through a blockchain-based account. An identity could be the unique address of the account (or a human readable ENS address), a function the account can execute, or tokens the account holds.
Furthermore, by using verifiable credential tools such as zero knowledge proofs, we can verify personal data without having to publicly reveal it. This wide range of possibilities means web3 “wallets” are actually a very powerful identity regime, and we must think carefully about how we wield them, especially as the distinction between financial applications and social applications fades.
Prompt: What three functions are simultaneously invoked when you connect your 'wallet'?
Fund management, addressability, and history.
Kei and Kernel differ on this point. While open protocols do allow social and financial applications to exist together, we agree with Vitalik that finance is a set of patterns which naturally emerge in systems that do not prevent collusion. Many aspects of social media are already financialized, often without people knowing it. What multiple formats, functions and roles allow for is the financial and social to describe shared interfaces defined by the way in which different social systems imagine and protect against collusion.
The point remains, however, that we must leverage the multiple forms and functions made available by open protocols in order to ensure that our identities can be composed in ways which act against the current trend on social media to collapse you into a single profile, intending only to make your interests legible to advertisers.Composite Collectives¶
Everything is a remix, including our identities. The self is in the network rather than a node.
In considering prosocial ways to protect against collusion that allow the social and financial to communicate clearly, we can look to projects like CirclesUBI and the web of trust models on which it is built. Such environments allow people to signal that they trust each other sufficiently in specific applications, producing a network of identities linked by varying degrees of connections. However, because the signal of trust is itself generated within a wallet which can be used in other applications that all share the same protocol, these networks of identity can be used to create increasingly reciprocal communal spaces. Kei is characteristically considerate about this kind of possibility, though, making the important point that:
it may prove culturally important to approach web of trust solutions as producing unique identities situated within networks, rather than global identities by default, in order to retain contextual flexibility between public and private data in identification regimes.
When approaching web3 identity, we can choose to enable an assemblage of needs dependent on the accountability requirements of different contexts. What we need, then, is a technical stack that supports not an identity, but a collection of identities to navigate our highly varied contexts.
Prompt: Identity proofs are about your "sovereign rights". However, we can better enable an assemblage of our needs by assessing not sovereignty, but ______________.
Composable identity approaches identity as inherently relational, providing modular tools for individuals, groups, and organizations to present themselves within technical systems [...] Rather than identities, on web 3 we may have inventories.
This is one of the most joyfully subversive ideas in all of web3. We should be building identity architectures in which who you are is not the central concern. Your identity is just an icon in the top right of the screen which contains a constantly evolving and dynamic collection of things which are not important in and of themselves, but rather become meaningful by virtue of the utility they grant you to execute certain functions in the world and to act out certain roles.
These identities can be worn like clothing suited to their platform, and their accountable reputation follows them. These identities, also, can be cooperatively shared.
When we approach identity as an inventory holding multiple contexts, we can expansively navigate the highly varied use cases of a peer-to-peer web, and reimagine what we are. By reevaluating identity in our technical systems, we can also fundamentally remap agency in the political sphere to come.
Prompt: Rather than sovereign identity, Kei proposes what new concept from computer games to contain the multitudes within?
Identity is relational, and we can imagine architectures which are not premised on proof, but are role-based and built from primitives like multi-signature wallets or smart contract accounts. However, we still need to be able to define some boundaries if the roles we wish to play are to be meaningful, and if we are to have some surety when executing various functions on our shared record.
As soon as we mention that word “boundaries” though, the mind tends towards inclusion and exclusion; who is “in” and who is “out”; what kinds of bodies, beliefs or character traits are desirable and which are to be discarded? Here we meet with another complementary opposite: the relational nature of our “self” and the desire to define some line between you and I in order to navigate the world coherently.
Thinking of identity as a dynamic inventory which enables one to play various roles associated with certain functions over time already hints at the fact that such boundaries need not be static, or imply any kind of moral quality. Social graphs can have many edges depending on how you rank them, and we ought to be crafting environments which encourage many different kinds of ranking. We can make this even more explicit by investigating the idea of interfaces.
The word itself already calls up all the many masks between which we constantly remake who we are in any given moment. It traces the encounter with another and how such meetings configure who we are in each relationship we enter and exit. In a slightly older sense, the word suggests a plane surface or common boundary between two bodies. Interfaces do not cut off: they define the protocols for communication between coextensive yet distinct bodies. They are not about inclusion and exclusion, but about how information may be passed between.
Prompt: An interface is the ______ ________ between two distinct, but coextensive bodies.
Interfaces are everywhere in web3. Every single contract on Ethereum has an Application Binary Interface (ABI), which tells the whole world what it is and what it will do given any kind of input. The Other Internet writes that, “Open, unalterable, and publicly governed APIs dramatically curb the power of centralized organizations and grant agency to users, who may now determine their own interfaces and services.”
The fact that a signed transaction declaring what role I fulfil is simultaneous with a flow of funds to or from that role is a fascinating and underexplored way in which to think about identity not as profile and proof, but as a set of actions. Recognising this, we can finally turn back to the question, “Who are you?” and realise it has no single answer. Who we are is constantly being enacted across common boundaries, at the interfaces between all the different impulses which push and pull us in each moment.Sign of the Times¶
How we identify, the kind of roles we play, and the actions we take in order to fulfil those roles meaningfully gives rise to the way in which we experience time.
If we imagine identity not as my space, or my wall, or my profile or my news feed, but rather as an interface to different kinds of time, we can begin to think more clearly about the impact our identifications have on cognition and behavior and, ultimately, on the kind and quality of our attention. If my identity is some static asset which is supposedly singular, “real” and continuous over time, then that has certain implications for how I think and act and, moreover, on what it is even possible to think at all. As Aaron Lewis says,
Identity R&D is an infinite game of differentiation and integration.
In particular, it is a game in which we may play with different kinds of time. Your public, global persona - akin to a top level account - is like a single and continuous stream in which ‘you’ remain essentially you. However, that account can birth multiple other accounts in the form of a HD trie, all linked together, which only you can know about (unless you disclose them). Such accounts can function like the pseudonymous “alts” Aaron is primarily writing about and the experience of time as one of these personae is more ephemeral and discontinuous, rather than having to present as one, supposedly coherent stream.
Prompt: How we identify, the roles we play and the actions we take defines how we experience what?
Additionally, any one of these accounts at any point in the trie can also execute a function anonymously due to the features afforded by zero-knowledge proofs. This kind of action corresponds to purely event-driven, discrete time. You need not leave any discernible trace when operating in this manner, and this brings us back to portability and Kei’s notion of the care with which we must yield such powerful identity regimes. If we are considerate, perhaps we can create shared environments where
a player can port their Caves of Qud loot to a space station in High Fidelity with the same narrative grace of meeting old friends in the back of a crowded bar.
It’s the notion of narrative grace which is so captivating in Kei’s work. This grace is often the result of a large set of seemingly contradictory notions coming together in a way which both delights, but also seems strangely familiar. Now it becomes clear that identity in web3 is not going to be ‘solved’ by some standard or service provider. We must together invent a collection of composable stories with which we can variously identify as we play different roles across different platforms, weaving together all the kinds of time implicit in this moment, right now.
This brings us all the way back to the interplay of reciprocity. An application or platform on one of these open protocols which restricts actions based on some identifying proof is not very interesting. An application or platform that represents people as separate profiles, or even as nodes rather than relational movement or orientation within the network, is not very interesting. We long for identities which enable, rather than confine; which communicate across rather than cut-off; which help us relate to the multitudes we contain, rather than relegate who we really are to one “real” name or account.
If you've made it this far and remember what has been shared about money as an ancient technology which birthed writing; money as a language which nobody owns or controls; money as a protocol anyone can engineer, you'll realise that one of the most interesting things that falls out of all this is the ability to speak clearly and in your own voice (i.e. with your own value) about who and what you are. In so doing, you can make of this short period of time you have received a great gift.
There are no doors to the Absolute.
There is only the door through which you emerged.
Call it 'I am'.
Returning to it, passing through it,
is the only way.
Long seeking it through others,
I was far from reaching it.
Now I go by myself;
I meet it everywhere.
It is just I myself,
And I am not itself.
Understanding this way,
I can be as I am.