In early 2008, I asked my colleagues at Kuppinger Cole + Partner for leave of absence in order to take a "Sabbatical", a kind of timeout. No, not because of burnout or anything dramatic like that, but rather because distance tends to sharpen your perspective, and I was worried that I was getting too wound up in the nitty-gritty of Identity Management as a specialized field.
As a more or less non-technical person, I had begun to believe that the issues addressed by this industry are much wider than many of us seem to realize. And in order to truly appreciate what is going on I felt I needed to take a step back.
In "Through the Looking-Glass", Lewis Caroll describes a world on the other side of the mirror which closely resembles our own, but is subtly different."How would you like to live in Looking-glass House?", little Alice asks her kitten. While it appears to look just like the world on this side, "it may be quite different on beyond", she speculates.
In fact, as it turns out the world beyond the looking-glass is very like our own, but often slightly different rules apply. In a game of chess, for instance, the king can move as often as he wants - but people still play chess (in fact, the entire book can be viewed as a complicated chess problem, as Martin Gardner famously proves in his immortal book, "The Annotated Alice").
I have begun to view the Internet as a kind of world beyond the computer screen; one that, like Caroll's Looking-Glass House, is strangely familiar, yet subtly different from ours. And as more and more people start to spend more and more time behind their screens, they become accustomed to how following a slightly different set of rules there.
One of the biggest differences is that it is much more difficult to prove who you are in the world beyond the screen. And while is exciting and fascinating to don a cloak of invisibility for a while, the anonymity and unaccountability originally associated with cyberspace (the place, as John Peter Barlow famously remarked, "where we are when we talk on the phone") tends to create problems that grow greater the longer we live there.
As we stare at ourselves in the virtual looking-glass, many of us are beginning to ask the existentialist question: “Who am I when I’m online?” Am I the same person that is sitting in front of the computer typing on the keyboard, or am I someone else? And regardless of the answer: How do I prove I am who I am (or think I am)?
Simon Clatworthy, professor of Interaction Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (AHO), uses the term “Digital Me” as a way of differentiating between the living, breathing me and the me that spends a significant part of his time accessing digital information, using digital products, communicating through digital media and playing digital games. I agree.
Consequently, I now strongly believe that it is the job of Identity Management to enable individuals to lead happy and fulfilling lives beyond the computer screen – and not to determine how many angels can dance of the head of the latest IdM product update. Hopefully, my Sabbatical will have made me more aware of the fundamental forces that are shaping the perception of digital identity and the drivers that will determine its future. And yeah, it feels good to be back.
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