(Originally posted on Medium)
In Shadow Dancing in the USA (St. Martin’s Press, 1985), Michael Ventura writes,
…there may be no more important project of our time than displacing the … fiction of monopersonality. This fiction is the notion that each person has a central and unified “I” which determines his or her acts. “I” have been writing this to say that I don’t think people experience life that way. I do think they experience language that way, and hence are doomed to speak about life in structures contrary to their experience.
Among those structures are administrative systems. These are the agencies, hospitals, schools, banks, credit card companies and other large entities that keep records on many people and know each by a single name that assume the fiction of monopersonality. Every plastic card you carry in your wallet, every login and password you use on the Internet, reduces you to a monopersonal identifier that lives in what is known technically as an administrative namespace.
Even if you are known by exactly the same name to every administrative system, all those systems are different, and each has a different namespace for you to occupy. That’s why you have to remember up to hundreds of different login/password combinations: one for each of them. It is also why, if you change any attribute of your identity, you will need to visit every entity you depend on, and edit your namespace there.
Making those different namespaces get along with each other ranges from difficult to impossible. Take for example Alamo and National, two car rental brands that share the same counters and cars at countless airports. I have been told that they have not fully merged because they came to their parent company (now Enterprise) with different systems for administering customer namespaces. Even if this is not true, it illustrates one of the most common problems in business.
Since it had countless administrative systems of its own, each with different namespaces that were hard to merge (or, in technical lingo, federate), the UK government came up with a sensible approach to the problem in 2012: make the citizen what Joe Andrieu calls the “point of integration” for their own data, and the responsible party for managing their various identifiers. (This happened after the government failed with identity cards.) While not perfect (it still requires “identity providers” which are themselves administrative), the new system does recognize that the individual in the best position to know who they are, and to control how they are known to others.
Lately the authority of the individual over her own many identities has taken on a new adjective: sovereign (aka self-sovereign or sovereign source). In my own case I am variously known to administrative namespaces as Doc Searls, David Searls, David A. Searls, Dave Searls, David Allen Searls, dsearls docsearls and @dsearls.
Nearly all my friends, readers and business contacts know me as Doc, though some friends and family members still call me David or Dave. I know exactly which to use when I call somebody on the phone, because I’m my own best ID administrator. I am the one and only sovereign source for all of them.
What we still lack, even in relatively advanced countries such as the UK, is an administrative tool of our own that any administrative system can hear, trust and obey when we need to change identity data. So, for example, if you get married and change your surname, you should be able to correct that detail for all the hundreds of administrative entities you deal with, in one move.
The technologies for doing this already exist. The hard part is making it happen without any one company or government entity controlling the only means for doing that. That’s why “login with Facebook” and “login with Twitter,” handy though they may be, won’t cut it. They’re light-duty ways to get into some websites. They aren’t serious administrative tools you can use to make the administrative systems of the world trust and obey you when you need to update identity data.
When we finally have those, only you — your own sovereign self — will be in charge of your identity, both online and off.