Conversations take place in all sorts of forms, and one of the weaknesses of the blogosphere is that only one kind of conversation tends to get captured. It is with this in mind that I direct those who are interested in this topic to what’s happening here, in Johannes Ernst’s blog, and here, in Gordon Cook’s blog.
Sometimes the conversations get heated, particularly when they revolve around any of the Three Is : Identity, Intellectual Property and the Internet. People spend an incredible amount of time arguing about what terms mean, what they should mean, what they shouldn’t.
And it is in this context I am reminded of the writings of an Indian, a Calcuttan, Argumentative as all Calcuttans are. Amartya Sen. In a book he published only sometime last year, Identity and Violence, Professor Sen makes an assertion I found staggering at first sight: that much of the violence we see in society is driven as much by confusion as by anything else. Confusion that takes many shapes, ranging from ignorance and illiteracy to that driven by the classic fear, uncertainty and doubt.
If you haven’t read Amartya Sen, you must. My favourite Sen quote:
No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.
I have rarely seen a sentence that touches upon so many of my interests at the same time, somehow capturing a socio-economic truth while meandering into issues related to freedom and democracy, yet at the same time stressing the importance of free communications.
One of the key messages within his recent book is the importance of social capital today. Here’s an extract emphasising the multiplicity of relationships:
Belonging to each one of the membership groups can be quite important, depending on the particular context. When they compete for attention and priority over each other (they need not always, since there may be no conflict between the demands of different loyalties), the person has to decide on the relative importance to attach to the respective identities, which will, again, depend on the exact context. There are two distinct issues here. First, the recognition that identities are robustly plural, and that the importance of one identity need not obliterate the importance of others. Second, a person has to make choices — explicitly or by implication — about what relative importance to attach, in a particular context, to the divergent loyalties and priorities that may compete for precedence.
Identifying with others, in various different ways, can be extremely important for living in society.
He goes on to say:
It has not, however, always been easy to persuade social analysts to accommodate identity in a satisfactory way. In particular, two different types of reductionism seem to abound in the formal literature of social and economic analysis. One may be called “identity disregard”, and it takes the form of ignoring, or neglecting altogether, the influence of any sense of identity with others, on what we value and how we behave. For example, a good deal of contemporary economic theory proceeds as if, in choosing their aims, objectives and priorities, people do not have — or pay attention to — any sense of identity with anyone other than themselves. John Donne may have warned, “No man is an island entire of itself,” but the postulated human beings of pure economic theory are often made to see themselves as pretty “entire”.
In contrast with “identity disregard”, there is a different kind of reductionism, which we may call “singular affiliation”, which takes the form of assuming that any person preeminently belongs, for all practical purposes, to one collectivity only — no more and no less. Of course, we do know in fact that any real human being belongs to many different groups, through birth, associations and alliances. Each of these group identities can — and sometimes does — give the person a sense of affiliation and loyalty. Despite this, the assumption of singular affiliation is amazingly popular, if only implicitly, among several groups of social theorists.
You may well ask why I spend so much time on the social aspects of identity. The reason’s simple. For me, identity is essentially something social and not personal, something that Sen emphasises. Incidentally, Shripriya, welcome to the conversation; I did notice your lurking earlier. I am a great believer in the robust plurality of identity he refers to; the personal aspects of identity are best manifested in the choices we make when determining the relative importance of different facets in a specific context.
These choices are also very important. And, as Stephen Smoliar and Prakash commented earlier, there is an intrinsic power play behind all this. It is the power that suddenly made “Muslim” mean “terrorist” in the wake of 9/11, the same power that made “citizens of New Orleans” morph into “refugees” and somehow “not-citizens” during and after Katrina. George Lakoff is a good place to start if you want to understand what happens in these circumstances.
Now while I stress the social aspects of identity, this does not mean I don’t care about the processes or technology associated with identity. There are many blogs which deal with that far better than I could; Kim Cameron’s Identity Weblog is worth visiting if you want to know more; Kim provides a good springboard to the pool of conversations taking place in this respect. His Introduction to the Laws of Identity is a must-read. And if you really haven’t delved into this subject at all, you must must must watch Dick Hardt do his Subterrenean Homesick Blues impression. While there are many versions of it extant, this one, which he did at OSCON a few years ago, is as good as any.
I will spend more time on identity soon. A number of you have asked me for the 5 additional facets I’ve been working on since my first six, and I promise to oblige. But in the meantime.
There has always been an interplay between power and identity. The fear of misuse of power is one of the key drivers behind the wish for anonymity; yet every example I can think of where one person stood up for his beliefs: Gandhi; Prague 1956; Rosa Parks; Tiananmen Square; Aung San Suu Kyi; Nelson Mandela; the list is much longer, but the people are all onymous. They did not hide.
When we implement technical ways of supporting this rich and diverse thing we call identity, we provide tools for good as well as bad. There is a Guns Don’t Kill People, People Do aspect to all this. And unless we understand this, unless we understand that social identity needs to be robust, built upon personal choice and impervious to the kinds of reductionism Professor Sen refers to, we may be building weapons of social destruction. This is the fear that people have about the Semantic Web, which in their eyes is 1984 gone doolally.