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Identity – what is it really?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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There has been quite a lot of discussion (again, groan, I know) about pseudonymity and anonymity online, due to Google Plus decision to delete accounts that seem (to them, within their cultural frames) to be pseudonymous. I posted tons of links to good posts about it on G+ and Twitter. And then I had an interesting tangential debate about the name as identity. I took extreme position which led to an interesting discussion. Here is, now, a test if our platform is capable of embedding Storify, where I collected all the tweets from that discussion:

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  1. 1. jgrosay 5:08 pm 08/2/2011

    One of the most amazing names, altough it took years for me to be aware of its meaning is “Israel”, meaning “I defeated God”. Can you imagine something more vain ? Do you think it’s fool ?

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  2. 2. polzerh 8:46 pm 08/2/2011

    Most of the comments so far provide anecdotal insight into the context-dependent nature of identity. I have done a lot of thinking about this topic for similar reasons (changed the first name I used between high school and college), but also because of the issue of net-centric interoperability and basic net centric principles with the NCOIC ( One of those principles we have developed is that of “entity primacy”, which really isn’t so much about the primacy of any given entity on the network, but rather the lack of primacy of any particular collective context for identifying that entity. Put another way, all identities depend on a collective context within which the identity serves to identify the entity. The problem is that this context is usually implicit, and not itself explicitly identified (and often doesn’t have a commonly recognizable name for the context itself). Some common contexts are interacting with other people in ordinary social interactions such as shopping, school, workplace, etc. Birth certificate names are often used in such contexts, but aren’t tied rigorously to those contexts (except for the legal jurisdictional context of the birth certificate itself). That’s what most of the responses so far are pointing out in more prosaic terms. For international travel (and for internal national travel in some countries) identity is determined by specific certificates such as passports (“may I see your papers, please”) or other government-issues IDs. In yet other contexts, such as shopping on the Internet, your identity may be associated with a specific company’s customer ID, a PayPal ID, an email address, or other such institutional relationship-specific identity. In yet other contexts, your identity might be determined by your geospatial location, or the specific clothes you are wearing, or other distinguishing characteristic (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). The point of all this, is that people and things may well have identity separate and distinct from any such collective or institutional contexts, but it is not your name or your SSN, customer number, phone number, email address, or any other such institutionally recognized ID. The closest thing we have to a context-independent or “inherent” identity is our DNA, and that’s not very useful for identifying inanimate objects. I’d be happy to provide a current draft of the Net-Centric Principles document describing the Entity Primacy principle and discussing this general issue of identities being context-dependent.

    Hans Polzer

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  3. 3. bucketofsquid 2:21 pm 08/3/2011

    jgrosay – I checked several sources and none of them said anything about defeating God. As far as most Hebrew and biblical scholars can figure it means something on the order of “struggles with God” or “abides with God”. Since the particular Hebrew words used for Israel are rare and have multiple meanings it is challenging to determine an absolute meaning for the term. I must say that your most pretty strongly indicates an anti-Jewish bigotry.

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  4. 4. bucketofsquid 2:22 pm 08/3/2011

    Where is the edit post function????? Stupidly designed discussion software. In my last sentence the word “most” should be “post”.

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  5. 5. seanacoy 1:07 am 08/20/2011

    I don’t use twitter myself, so it was quite a revelation to discover that, altho each twitter entry is short, a document consisting of dozens and dozens of tweets is cumbersome and the opposite of brevity. As for the edit functions, the sorry saga of spell check and autocorrect errors in Word and other programs goes back decades. But it still has amusement – and annoyance – value.

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