In a recent thread on the VRM mailing list, StJohn Deakins of Citizen Me
shared a formulation of interactions
that I thought was helpful in unpacking the discussions about data, identity, and ownership. His framework concerns analog vs digital memories.
In real life, we often interact with others—both people and institutions—with relative anonymity. For example, if I go the store and use cash to buy a coke there is no exchange of identity information. If I use a credit card it’s rarely the case that the entire transaction happens under the administrative authority of the identity system inherent in the credit card. Only the financial part of the transaction takes place in that identity system. This is true of most interactions in real life.
In this situation, the cashier, others in the store, and I all share a common experience. Even so, we each retain our own memories of the interaction. No one participating would claim to “own” the interaction. But we all retain memories which are our own. There is no single “true” record of the interaction. Every participant will have a different perspective (literally).
On the other hand, the store, as an institution, retains a memory of having sold a coke and the credit card transaction. This digital memory of the transaction can easily persist longer than any of the analog memories of the event. Because it is a digital record we trust it and tend to think of it as “true.” For some purposes, say proving in a court of law that I was in the store at a particular time, this is certainly true. But for other purposes (e.g. was the cashier friendly or rude?) the digital memmory is woefully anemic.
Online, we only have digital memories. And people have very few tools for saving, managing, recalling, and using them. I think digital memories are one of the primary features of digital embodiment—giving people a place to stand in the digital world, their own perspective, memories, and capacity to act. We can’t be peers online without having our own digital memories.
StJohn calls this the “analog-digital memory divide.” This divide one source of the power imbalance between people and administrative entities (i.e. anyone who has a record of you in an account). CitizenMe provides tools for people to manage digital memories. People retain their own digital memory of the event. While every participant has a similar digital memory of the event, they can all be different, reflecting different vantage points.
One of the recent trends in application development is microservices, with an attendant denormalization of data. The realization that there doesn’t have to be, indeed often can’t be, a single source of truth for data has freed application development from the strictures of centralization and led to more easily built and operated distributed applications that are resilient and scale. I think this same idea applies to digital interactions generally. Freeing ourselves from the mindset that digital systems can and should provide a single record that is “true” will lead to more autonomy and richer interactions.
Self-sovereign identity (SSI) provides a foundation for our digital personhood and allows us to not only taking charge of our digital memories but operationalize all of our digital relationships. Enriching the digital memories of events by allowing everyone their own perspective (i.e. making them self-sovereign) will lead to a digital world that is more like real life.