31 August 2005

Identity Is Subjective

Pam commented:
"If you were to open an old photo album, and see a picture, let's say this picture was taken by an aunt or uncle. And this picture showed one of your children at christmas, looking up with delight just after they found out what their present was. Would you look at that picture and see that the lighting was all wrong, and that cousin Mervin was picking his nose in the background - or would you register that this loved one of yours was experiencing a moment of joy? Isn't it possible that you would register both? And that the emotion that is valid for you and a small handful of people within this very specific context makes up for the artistic absence?"
This is precisely right! I would register both a (negative) feeling for the photographic aesthetics and a (positive) feeling about my child. And a small group of people who know my children would register the second feeling, too (they might not register the first feeling, unless they too have The Photographer's Eye) - but most viewers would have either just the first feeling ("that photo sucks") or they would have the first feeling together with a generic feeling of affection toward a child at Christmas.

Why does my feeling about this (hypothetical) photograph differ from the feelings of the multitudes who might view the photo on flickr? Because of the first axiom of identity:

Umberto Eco has said that a novel is a machine for generating interpretations; the same thing is true of a picture. But which interpretation a picture generates depends on one's experience.

When I see a picture of my own child, I recognize the child. Because of my experience, I know a rich, detailed story about the child, and I associate the picture with that story (the story is, from my point of view, my child's identity - since An Identity Is A Story).

A stranger - someone who doesn't know me or my children - has nothing to associate with the picture when she sees it, but she has to react anyway.

Because the stranger's experience does not provide her in advance with a story to go with the picture, she has two choices:

The picture doesn't contain either my version of my child's identity story or the generic story which the stranger makes up when she sees the picture; it's just kind of reference to those stories. Over time, more and more people either forget the stories, or forget what the subject of the stories looked like; this tends to disassociate the picture from the stories and make the picture less useful as a reference. (I remember a photo.net thread which asked "what do you most wish were in old pictures?"; the best answer was "name tags".)

There's an important lesson here for people who want to use biometrics as identifiers; biometrics are essentially pictures of people, and people change over time. The practical effect of this is that the biometric database, over time, will tend to "forget" what the subjects of its stories look like (because it will be relying on old pictures) - and indeed one of the design parameters for biometric systems is the rate at which peoples' physical features change.

In fact, of course, everything about a person changes over time - his physical appearance, his attitudes and beliefs, his creditworthiness, his address, his name (OK, more often her name), his bank account number, his employer, and so on. This is in fact our second axiom of identity:

This is blindingly obvious if you think about it; if An Identity Is A Story, then of course an identity will change over time - because the story keeps developing (unless you're reading some awful psychological novel or play where nothing ever happens).

But let's leave discussion of the second axiom for a future post. We haven't yet exhausted the riches of Eco's observation that a story is a machine for generating interpretations.

Anytime there's a story, there's also a storyteller and an audience. The storyteller has an intention in telling the story - just as I have an intention in taking a picture. But the members of the audience don't necessarily know what that intention is, and they don't share all of the storyteller's experiences; they bring their own attitudes and experiences to the the campfire around which the story is told.

Each listener's attitudes and experiences generate a unique interpretation of the story, just as Eco observed. And this means, of course, that if I tell an identity story, each member of my audience hears a different identity story. So when our first axiom says that IDENTITY IS SUBJECTIVE, it's not just saying that different observers know different parts of the same story. Even if two listeners hear exactly the same story, each of them feels and remembers a different story.

If you think about it, this is why more than one credit agency can exist; if all credit agencies had the same algorithms for taking information about me and turning it into a credit report, or a credit score, then they would all be delivering exactly the same product, and there would be no basis (except price) for competition and no reason to consult more than one agency. It's precisely the subjectivity of identity that creates the possibility of, and the need for, competing services.

Eco is careful to note that no interpretation should be considered privileged or canonical (as indeed the credit agency example makes clear; if one agency's interpretation were correct, that agency would be able to put the others out of business quickly).

The storyteller's own interpretation is particularly suspect (Eco writes "The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text.") What he's saying here is that interpretations are essentially subjective - that there can be no such thing as a true interpretation. And this too is true of identity stories; certainly the person the identity story is "about" is an unreliable narrator - he's got too much invested in the happy ending to be trusted to give us the unvarnished truth - but he's also the only one who knows all the facts!


Blogger Douglas said...

Anyone who has security musings, a Magritte reference in the title, and a plug from Kim Cameron is just all right with me. Welcome to the blogosphere!

September 02, 2005 6:06 AM  
Blogger Mark Mac Auley said...

Interesting take on identity and I like the metaphoric references - I use them a lot myself. I think managing the change of identity is one of the key reasons that there is a lot of banter about roles based identity, however the underlying issue of change isn't really addressed there either.

MM http://identitystuff.blogspot.com

September 02, 2005 9:41 AM  

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