An identity is a social tool, one that fundamentally relies on trust in the system and method used to establish and verify the identity.
Identification techniques have evolved over time, from beads and tattoos, written documents and printed passports, ID cards and birth certificates of yesterday to the cryptographic signatures and facial and iris biometric IDs of tomorrow. We use these tools in order to prove and assert who we are, where we come from, and what rights we carry with us.
The White Paper entitled “On the Threshold of a Digital Identity Revolution” released by the World Economic Forum in January 2018 eloquently frames both the historical challenges and critical future needs.
“The issues associated with identity proofing—fraud, stolen credentials, and social exclusion—have challenged individuals throughout history. But, as the spheres in which we live and transact have grown, first geographically and now into the digital economy, the ways in which humans, devices and other entities interact are quickly evolving— and how we manage identity will have to change accordingly.”
Like the World Economic Forum white paper’s title suggests, we are indeed on the threshold of a digital identity revolution. Much like the Scientific Revolution changed our model of the Universe from a geocentric to a heliocentric model, in the Digital Universe of Web 3.0 we must shift our center of gravity from a service-centric to a self-centric model for Digital Identity and all that comes with it.
A universal shift in Perspective
Occasionally, throughout history, revolutionary paradigm shifts occur that alter our understanding of the world and our place in it. In astronomy, in the mid-1500s a shift occurred that would spark the Scientific Revolution and set the stage for the Industrial and Information Ages to follow and literally redefine our place in the universe.
This shift was from the predominant view of the cosmos referred to today as the geocentric model which described a Universe with Earth at the center and the Sun, Moon, stars, and planets orbiting around it—to that of a heliocentric model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System. Although the idea that the Earth may rotate around the Sun, and not the other way round, had its roots in early Pythagorean thinking…it wasn’t until Nicolaus Copernicus’s “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” in 1543 that the world became aware of this.
Over the next century, the seed of heliocentrism grew its way through the Asian, Islamic, and European scientific communities until it finally blossomed with Galileo’s proof, based on his observations of the cycles of the moon. For his historical discovery, Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty of heresy against the church and the biblical narrative of creation and humanity’s place in it. He was forced to recant the facts of his discovery, on peril of death and was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life.
What exactly was Galileo’s crime? He had publicly placed his faith in objective and observable data and not in the subjective infallibility of the church. Galileo was one of the first to clearly state that the laws of nature are mathematical. He wrote “Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe … It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures.”
Galileo’s groundbreaking scientific work and “trust in math” forged the path that led us to our greatest scientific inventions, eventually inspiring the work of Descartes and Thomas Newton whose achievements in philosophy and physics became the iron bedrock upon which the Industrial Revolution was ultimately built upon. Importantly, the key shift in the western world from the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial one was a shift from the faith in the centralized powers of the church to that of the decentralized trust in the verifiable power of science—in observable facts over unquestionable faith.
This change started with a willingness to shift perspective, coupled with an intense curiosity of the mind and an unquenchable desire to uncover a better way to describe reality more accurately and truthfully. Today, we have a similar opportunity to adjust our perspective in such a way as to create downstream changes that could alter our understanding of the world, ourselves, and each other for generations to come.
We will need to shift as we did before—from the geocentric notion that centrally-controlled 3rd parties are the ideal parties to validate, verify, and authenticate our identities and the data associated with them. We need to shift from a worldview in which we orbit around the respective planets of Web 1.0 and 2.0 service providers, subject to the gravity of their user agreements, ownership, and monetization schemes.
In this new worldview, our geocentric perspective shifts to a heliocentric model where we discover ourselves to be like the sun, the source at the center of our own data system, where we verify, and authenticate ourselves, in a decentralized manner, where 3rd parties request access and permission to promote to us, to use our data, and where they orbit us.
Each person should be able to decide what information about themselves is collected as part of an online profile and of that information, they should have control over who has access to different aspects of it, and in what ways it can be used. Online identity should be maintained as a capability that gives the user many forms of control.
Blockchain technology offers the promise to revolutionize digital identity by returning ownership of personal data from companies and governments to individuals, such that individuals have the power to share their data with others and revoke it as they please as a human right.
Trust in math
“Trust” in the Webster-Merriam dictionary is described as “Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.”
One can argue that Trust is the central orienting factor and organizing principle of our lives. Who or what we trust, when, how, and why determines much of what we call success in life. This is because Trust is the mediating force for any and all interactions. It is the scorecard of historical data combined with a map of trusted relationships and the proximity that a new one may have to a current or previous one. When we do not have direct historical data on a subject, we often rely on the proxies of relationships in individuals, organizations, and systems that we do trust. “Knownness” matters in the realm of Trust. The Mafia has understood this for years. It is often why family members are classically the most trusted and most likely to fail. We have a trust bias that lacks quantifiable validity.
Often based on proof of past performance, Trust’s main purpose lies in its relevance to future activities. No one worries about trusting someone or something or some system in the past. You either trusted or you didn’t, and determined trust was wise or it wasn’t. In either case, the outcome has been written into the stone tablet of time and cannot be unwritten. Our concern lies in the future with respect to Trust.
For the better part of human history our fundamental trust, in reality, has been based on a combination of experience—in the form of empirical sensory data and in the ephemeral—and our interpretation of that data and how we attribute its causes. One might call it the Senses vs. Spirit debate. Millennia have been spent arguing about the veracity of the claims for the empirical vs. the ephemeral as the basis for trust in reality. But along the way, a third contender has quietly entered the field—digitization.
As our trust has increasingly shifted to digital formats, we don’t so much trust our senses or our spirit guides as much as we trust the data.
Tesla drivers today have three options for driving.
Drive yourself. Trust your senses.
Let god drive. Trust the spirit.
Let the car drive. Trust the data.
Increasingly we will be relying on data to inform and drive the operations and activities of our world, our markets, our energy, transportation, health, and entertainment. Data integrity and our ability to interrogate its provenance and history will be central to our ability to trust anything of real importance in the future.