07 September 2005

Identification And Modes Of Reference

What if I know an individual and you don't? I can tell you all the stories I want, but the stories won't be useful to you until you have someone to associate them with. To make the stories useful, I have to IDENTIFY the person to you. I can do this in two ways.

If you and I and the individual in question are all in the same room, I can point to the individual and say "See that guy?" The act of pointing to a person or thing to refer to it is called


It's called "indexical" because (in the English-speaking world anyway) you use your "index" finger to point to people. Pointing at something is a way to connect a reference to a thing (a name, for example) or a story about a thing (an identity, for example) to the thing itself. Indexical reference only works if you and I can both see the thing I'm trying to point to at the same time. Links on the web are a form of indexical reference, and they break when something moves out of view. Weirder things than broken links can happen when indexical reference breaks on the internet - things like this, for example. Once I've referred to a person using indexical reference, I can start telling stories about that person, in order to communicate my view of the person's identity to you. I can say, for example, "That's Kim Cameron; he's the guy who wrote the Laws of Identity. He works for Microsoft, because they bought Zoomit, which he founded. He's a frequent speaker at the Burton Group Catalyst Conference, and ...." I could go on and on here, but you get the idea. If you and I can't both see the person or thing I want to identify to you, I can't use indexical reference. Fortunately, I've got another option.


Let's imagine I want to identify Kim to you, and I can't point to him. Maybe you can't see me pointing because I'm typing something about Kim into a blog and you're reading the blog in a Starbuck's coffee shop thousands of miles away.

Since I can't point, I have to do something else. What I do is this:

"Look for a guy with curly, white hair, a grayish walrus moustache, taller than me and a bit heavier, dressed business casual. He has a softish Canadian accent, wears glasses, and smokes." If I give you this description and you run into the guy in this picture, you might be confident to go up and introduce yourself: On the other hand, you might not be confident enough to go up and introduce yourself, because, after all, my description isn't terribly specific, and it probably applies equally well to thousands of people; I'll talk about this some more in the next blog entry. The fact that descriptions are all ambiguous to some extent is one reason why even people as well known as Kim wear name badges at conferences (the other reason is that the conference organizers want to make sure that even people as well known as Kim pay their conference fees).

Kim's name badge brings us to the third mode of reference; once you and I both know an individual (so that we've gotten past the need to identify the individual), we can refer to the individual using a name.


This mode of reference is called NOMINATIVE REFERENCE. It's not foolproof. I'm a great example.

My name is "Bob Blakley", in the sense that this is what everyone who knows me actually calls me.

In another sense, though, my name is "George Robert Blakley III", because that's what appears on my birth certificate and various other official documents.

In a third sense, my name is "Bob Blakely", because lots of people misspell my last name (go ahead, Google it - you know you want to! About half of the top hits in a search for "Bob Blakely" are actually references to me - including the first listing, which is there because Kim Cameron misspelled my name when constructing a technorati link to me from his recent post; the misspelling has since been corrected but its progeny live on in the Google cache).

These things happen because, generally speaking, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between people and names. Many people have nicknames, assumed names, stage names, married names and maiden names, aliases, pen names, and so on. The government hates this and is trying to make it harder and harder to have multiple names - I've had to change the name on my frequent-flyer cards from "Bob" to "George Robert" in order to get on airplanes, for example - but the effort to eliminate alternate names is going to fail, if only because no one is actually going to call Camilla's husband "Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland, Knight of the Garter", because that would just be a pain in the ass.

But let's go back to the first sense - try a Google search for "Bob Blakley". It turns up the usual ten billion references to me. But it also produces another interesting thing - a bunch of links like this one. These are links to my father. He's George Robert Blakley, Jr., also usually known as Bob, also a computer security researcher, also from Austin, TX, and so on. And if you look far enough down in the list (apparently I'm very famous compared to many other Bob Blakleys) you'll find entries like this, which point to people to whom I'm not related (as far as I know).

This happens, of course, because in general there isn't a one-to-one correspondence between names and people. In fact, it's a dead cert that lots of other people have the same name as you, unless your name happens to be ... which is also a pain in the ass.


Blogger Silona said...

heh heh

It may not be prince but I haven't found anyone with my entire name yet :-)

silona irene bonewald

hell you can even leave off my middle name.

ah been both a blessing and a curse :-)

November 15, 2005 5:32 PM  

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