Digital Identity

Posted on June 4, 2020

“Don’t negotiate with yourself” + “Prove yourself wrong” = ??

Negotiating with yourself is a formulation of doubt. It robs you of confidence and drains you of energy. However proving yourself wrong is about staying realistic and looking for counterexamples so that you are prepared for the worst.

Together they form the paradox of exploration. Are you supposed to be open, hot and explorative or closed, cold and exploitative. The second sounds much worse but is in fact much more common method for building systems.

Composable and adaptive systems are hard to design since they are by definition not aware of all the parameters in advance. The usual manifestation is a system that is brittle and requires massive maintenance (I am reminded of “the enterprise loop” which makes sure that an important command is restarted once it crashes). This kind of system is much easier to make and the adaptive part can be supplied by human labor (hence the massive maintenance).

The way we build these systems is to fix some strong assumptions about the environment / context that the system lives in, this supplies us with just enough structure to build something. However, those assumptions will most likely change, meaning we may need to build wrappers to “clean” the inputs to our system or maybe even attempt to modify the system so that it can handle these new assumptions. Slowly any direction you had intended to take has been subverted by these ad-hoc adaptations and you end up with a big ball of mud, the most common architecture in the universe.

Often these convoluted mud-balls contain many nice composable patterns.. In fact, it is a perfectly natural thing for such patterns to emerge as we descend the fractal of complexity. For the only way to stave off the forever-imminent implosion of the system is to apply such patterns. But after we have unearthed these solutions we should be able to build new, clean, structures! This iteration is at the heart of “progress”.

The construction of the “clean structure” will of course need to take place in parallel to the mud-ball, since we depend on the ball for subsistence and can not abandon it easily. However, once the new structure has demonstrated that it offers more utility than the rapidly deteriorating mud-ball then migration will accelerate and soon the new structure will be covered in dirt, well on it’s way to serving as the core of our next ball.

This is the natural progression and we therefore must appreciate both the chaos of the mud-ball - which is somehow staving off the cruelty of reality - as well as the clean structure, which is formed from the delusions of idealists. Of course this “appreciation” is assuming we want to keep outrunning the ever-imminent possibility of extinction as we continue our arms race against nature.

The Robin-Hood-esque story, where someone with superior violence and a rightful claim to high-status decides to employ it for the good of “the people” (i.e. the low status people), is a great example of how we associate morality with equality or balance. When someone with high status becomes self-aware and reacts with complacency then they are immoral (hedonists that over-consume while there are children in Africa… or some equivalent notion).

This idea runs contrary to structural integrity, in fact we want to collapse the hierarchy by closing the circle and having the highest serve the lowest. This is akin to the caste system of India where the rich kings served the beggar brahmin (well that was how it was supposed to function at least; the brahmin can’t own anything and the king should be pious).

Many would like the structure of society to serve as solid ground on which they can build their delusions of safety, but in fact the more reasonable role, given our perpetual struggle to stay alive, is as a guideline for telling one direction from another. The structure can then recursively collapse in on itself as the generations of man pass by, rising and falling like our collective breath.

It is well known that when analysing a system it is of utmost importance to find an invariant or some “default mode”. This allows you to reduce the complexity using the unmoving as a pivot from which to view the whole system. Of course any reduction will have some (or many) exceptions but when faced with an impossible problem … having a place to start is invaluable.

The dual of this idea is to fix an assumption rather than trying to unearth an observation. This is how we have been building societies. For example, the Indians evidently made such an assumption when they based their whole society on this caste idea. Of course the assumptions of our world are now in the process of converging (or are they?) and have therefore influenced each other, changing everything.

The iterative process of refinement that was happening in each place has been redirected in the direction of what I’ll call “capitalism” but could just as well be named “the monoculture we currently don’t know what to do with”. Choosing a pivot for our analysis using these current events may seem tempting but the problem is recurring so in fact the invariant is “the problem” and that is actually our invention to some extent.

Human nature is a tricky subject but I’ll claim that “complacency is the default mode of humans”; i.e. it’s hard to question and easy to coast. Reason being that your thinking is somewhat of a sequential process and there are multiple things in parallel that need questioning. Finding the correct things to believe complacently is the purview of religion and the ultimate aim in our society building. That is: the search for the true religion, i.e. the ethos of the eternal organization (a “sustainable society” or “permanent culture”).

Sadly our narrative is shifting further and further in the direction of a “black mirror” rather than a “star trek”, we choose to see technology as a means to a closed and exploitative system where the hierarchy is strictly enforced. A tempting attribution is the triumph of hierarchy over democracy, back in the day the only reified organizations were countries, and usually these countries would have kings or some other Top that would define the organization (wherever the Top has power is where the organization exists).

However there was a big shift in the past few hundred years when we decided to close the circle by electing the Top, thereby tying its interest to that of the people. This concept, democracy, quickly became orthodox and in the modern era the spreading of democracy has been considered just cause for violence and warfare.

Sadly, the fundamental principle of closing the circle was being quietly subverted by these actions. You see there was a hidden assumption in the synthesis of democracy that had been violated by then: “The Government” was no longer the dominating organization, while it used to be THE context that lesser organizations existed in. Things have changed and now organizations often live in many such contexts, “serving” many masters and juggling multiple belief systems.

These organizations are almost invariably hierarchical in the same way as the kings of olden days and some of them are starting to rival even the strongest of nation states in power and influence. The people have lost their hold over these entities, even if their grip on the government was steady (for the sake of argument…) the best they can do is negotiate when it comes to the powerful organizations that own concepts like employment, synthesis of currency and the flow of information.

Ultimately the problem stems from the things “external” to our analysis being connected in ways that were not well understood at the time but eventually these connections allow them to dominate from the outside.

Now however, we should know what we need to know… so why are we trying to turn our society into a black mirror?

We are negotiating with ourselves. We don’t want to be wrong about the hedonism. We don’t want to be austere and disciplined. We want to be free and playful. However, again, we have a faulty assumption, it’s clear that the way we are heading is neither free nor playful. In fact it looks positively dystopian.

Where is the faulty assumption?

I would argue that it has to do with the games we play, an important idea in meditation is that no matter how you respond to a thought or impulse it won’t help you rid yourself of it. All you do by responding is to feed it with more energy and attention. The only way out is to sit with it and wait for it to go away on it’s own.

Let me make a quick tangent, there is a familiar story about two academics with a good idea. They saw that implementing the idea in “the real world” could bring immense societal improvement but at the same time they were all too familiar with the ugliness of industry and how “no plan survives first contact with the enemy”.

So they set off to do things differently, their motto was: “Don’t be evil”, a double negative, the world was their playing field, what is evil? how do you avoid doing it? I don’t know! but I can tell you that it means that everything that isn’t forbidden is allowed.

Now the organization these men founded is one of the most powerful entities in the world and it’s motto has become: “Do the right thing”, a constructive setup. Again, what is the “right thing”? I don’t know but I can tell you that everything that isn’t allowed is banned.

This is the shift from a pioneering attitude to a bureaucratic one. Instead of treating the unknown-unknowns as potentially good they have become potentially bad. This shift shows that whereas they used to see lots of ways to go “up”, it has now changed and so the tendency is to avoid falling down.

Now to come back to what I was saying; how can you participate in society? what do you need to do? I guess “pay taxes” is on the list.. but there are other games which are mandatory to participate in. Ideas we must feed with attention and energy.

One of these ideas is evaluation. A capitalist democracy demands that you evaluate along two different axis, who is fit to lead? (or more precisely: “implement policy”) and what is worth investing your time into? (here I’m treating money as a manifestation of your time). These are both incredibly deep questions! Let’s analyze.

First let’s step back, there is ostensibly something real in the world (“the real world”) and then there is our model (in this case something like “democratic capitalism” or “oligarchy” or “plutocracy” or “neoliberalism” or some other notion in proximity to these ideas). I will make a distinction then between “value” and “worth”, one being the real thing we want to approximate and the other being the construct we use to approximate it with (respectively).

The other question is a bit harder to model so I need a stronger premise. We will consider everything in the world subject to the law: Trust(Information) = Behavior. Here Trust is a function that evaluates Information and produces Behavior. This means a person will draw on their experience, whether sensory or based in memory to produce their behavior.

Now we can talk about leadership in terms of responsibility and authority, we could say that if there was an omniscient “objective viewpoint” then those who know solutions to problems hold a responsibility (in that problem domain at least), the responsibility stems from their ability to solve a problem that others cannot. While those who are able to influence the behavior of others have authority (i.e. the information they present is Trusted and so they can steer the behavior of others).

Ideally we would like to couple responsibility and authority. Note that I’m using these words differently from how they are most often used, we would normally say that someone with authority but no aptitude to apply it sensibly is still responsible for applying it sensibly, however the omniscient objective viewpoint would see that such a person as genuinely incapable and so the blame lies with those who trust that person to solve the problem not with the incompetent person.


  1. how is the person that is unable to identify their own incompetency covered by this framework?
  2. what if they are able to see their own incompetency?
  3. what if they falsely assume that they are incompetent?
  4. what if they are able to fix their incompetency? i.e. what if their competence is a function of their self-image? to spell it out: what if nurture>nature and free will?

In each case you can assign some kind of responsibility and then reason about what kind of authority distribution should be paired with it. Exercise 4 asks you to model a dynamic system, where these things are constantly in flux (but maybe still subject to some laws).

Okay, so we can now reformulate our questions:

  • Who should receive authority? (or “Who should we trust?” if you prefer)
  • What is valuable?

Our current societal system has a way to answer these questions: authority should go to those who manage to accumulate money, attention or votes; and things that are worth a lot of money are valuable (to society).

There is a problem however, authority necessarily means “authority to answer the second question” so for example; authority in an organization means deciding where that organization should place its focus i.e. deciding how the organization should evolve (or spend its time). A well meaning authority figure may then place too much focus on the ideas that they consider their responsibility. Unless we have a good way to shuffle authority around we risk allocating resources in a non-optimal way.

The social contract in question therefore revolves around the bidirectional flow of authority and resources, the people provide their leaders with authority and the leaders then apply their judgment in the allocation of resources. If a leader fails to allocate sufficient resources the subject may go looking for greener pastures. The relationship is based on the maximization of opportunity.

Effectively what ends up happening is that the people who are chosen as the “most valuable” then decide how valuable everyone else is. Clearly this can go wrong in many ways, especially without a religious framework, who wouldn’t want to be a complacent hedonist Top? With the world responding to your every whim and no responsibility to care for others.

However, if the leader is providing a service to the people at the cost of their own hedonism then the choice between being a leader or a follower is more balanced… Would you rather have authority at the cost of austerity or be subordinate but with access to resources and some room for interpretation. Austerity may sound wrong to some ears but the fundamental idea is selflessness, austerity is a way to signal that the primary motivation is not wealth but genuine interest in the dynamics at hand.

I guess most people would like to be somewhere in-between, which indicates that this is a balanced proposition. The problem is that it seems to me that we have been conditioned to only respect those who have accumulated “worth” and it is precisely this game that we need to stop playing (or “paying attention to” if you prefer).

Voluntary subordination and mutual respect are the foundation that we need going forward. We must start to shift the narrative towards games that allocate resources down and authority up. This is not “trickle-down economics” it is “bottom-up economics” - leaders should earn the peoples’ respect through austerity, discipline and kindness. The people then bestow on them the power to choose the direction we should take society in by evaluating the relative worth of different ideas.

In practice what does this look like? This is just representative democracy with the important caveat that we need to unify all forms of “worth” such as stocks, money, votes, etc. and there can be no canonical form of this currency (since that would indicate the existence of a supreme authority), the canonical form should be emergent in the chaos - an invariant we’ve designed into our system.

Any action you take, you take as a representative of a certain class of people, for example I’ve been writing an essay with big words so now I must accept the preconceived notions in that spectrum (or any other spectrum that I get associated with). When you travel abroad you are a representative of your nation, wherever there is discrimination there are representatives.

Your quality as a representative can be evaluated by who you choose to associate with and who chooses to associate with you. This boils down to an idea like: “you are always leading by example, the question is whether anyone follows it.” - therefore I would argue that how we structure identity, as a social construct, is the most important question of this era.

A class of people can defend themselves from external prejudice by giving low status to representatives who act shamefully. It is not without reason that we have less respect for those who belong to organizations that choose poor leaders or exhibit bad behavior, these representatives are (more) responsible (than the invisible participants) for this organization and it is their duty to step up or leave - if they care for their image that is.

An important question is whether we want identity imposed on us “from above” or whether we should have the freedom to create ad-hoc identities (i.e. choose a prime number :) - if we go the route of self-sovereign identity then the only way to obtain authority (i.e. differentiate your identity from the rest) is through participation in collectives. Personally I think self-sovereign identity is imperative for a symmetric and balanced society. Being allowed to have multiple (digital) identities or abandon (digital) identities and start over is as normal as it is to move to another country (or province or city).

However if we accept identity issued from “above” then the only way to obtain authority is to escape the lower society and gain access to the royalty. This kind of system is simply false in the sense that the distinction is entirely artificial (between those above and those below).

Preconceived notions (i.e. prejudice) is our most base form of evaluation (it’s how we respond to everything outside of our focus) and as such they are a valuable signal for understanding the state of society. However, they are not static and we must be careful that our system doesn’t blindly reinforce the current configuration or push some particular agenda (the acceptable agenda is nothing less than the true religion, words like “survival” or “balance” often approximate the idea).

You see, it is important to remember that identity is both: an external label, that has relative worth in society; and an internal mechanism, used for self-evaluation and decision making. One is made to represent the other but they are not the same, therefore it is important that the external one be fungible, so that people may be allowed to reinvent themselves or learn from past mistakes without being unfairly burdened by exterior prejudice (which may or may not be accurate!).

Implementation wise, an identity system provides the raw material needed to build a currency system, really these are the same though. An (external) identity only has meaning in relation to other identities, by not supplying a currency system you are just leaving it implicit… you can never fully avoid it. Reifying the currency part of the system takes advanced cryptography and multiple years of work and then even more time for people to gain trust in it. Thankfully we have some of these structures being developed in parallel, ready to take on more load as our current society implodes.

Now, how exactly these currencies should behave is up for debate, but a useful initial argument is that their purpose is to model authority in an organization, as I have been saying, and any organization should therefore be free to mint their own currency. Furthermore; no currency should be inherently better than any other currency. They are just there to keep score - and since they are relative in this way it becomes easier to deflate organizations that have outgrown their usefulness.

I hope this makes sense to you, dear reader, and I would encourage you to look for ways to extract yourself from the identity systems that have been imposed on you and consider how you can manage your “initial secret” (which is synonymous with “digital identity”). Some ideas include: hardware enclaves like yubikey or trezor; in conjunction with backups like a hand-drawn QR code in a bank vault or a short poem with the words needed to recover your secret via some program. More ideas can be found in the cryptocurrency world.

The better an average netizen can handle private state, the more potential there is for change to the status quo.