Yesterday at the second Personal Clouds meetup in San Francisco I met, live and in person, Kaliya Identity Woman! And, yes, that is her real name. It isn’t her given name but in every way that matters it is her real name. For those readers who’ve never heard of her, if you go to her web site and read all about her work as Founder and Executive Director of Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium, Co-Founder and Co-Producer of Internet Identity Workshop, facilitated and presented workshops for National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace, is a member of the Oasis IDtrust Steering Committee, and much more, you might conclude she’s serious about this whole identity thing. That’s good because identity is intertwined with security and we’ll need to figure out how to do both of those things better as computing power infuses everyday physical objects like light bulbs, house keys, and forks.
But I had my own personal reasons for wanting to meet Identity Woman. I’ve had 5 primary identities in my life, and the one I tried to pick for myself was the shortest-lived of all of them. The other 4 were assigned to me by others and, except for my birth name, against my will. I’m now so well known as T.Rob that many people don’t know my surname. Kaliya is so well known as Identity Woman that many people don’t know her first name. Surely I’d find in her a kindred spirit. If there is anyone on the globe who gets that whole conversation about “my given name is ___ but my real name is ___” it has to be her. What luck that she’d be facilitating the meetup!
In some ways, Kaliya and I are complete opposites. I’m approaching monomymity, she’s at least dual named, maybe triple named. Her real name is associated with her passion and expertise so I assume it was adopted voluntarily. My real name, T.Rob, was something one of my former bosses stuck me with because it annoyed me. The more I objected, the more it stuck. After about a year everyone I knew was calling me T.Rob, including my own family, so I just gave up. Identity woman’s first name is silent, my last name is silent. she’s West Coast, I’m East Coast. She has girl parts, I have boy parts. We’re as different as can be. This should have been my first clue.
So, why do I care about identity? As a teen my struggles with identity led to struggles with reality. When I was adopted at 3 years old, overnight I lost all my frames of reference. My new parents picked me up one day with some clothes and a few toys and took me from suburban New York to rural Missouri where we lived in a trailer on a hill with no neighbors in sight. I woke up in a different house, with a different name, different stuff, different parents, different brother, different dog. Relative references like “mom” and “dad” were intact, they just pointed to different instances of those objects. I came to believe that the specific instances of relative nouns like “my room” were interchangeable. I didn’t know what made them change, just that the last change led to a much worse reality and a fear that another change would lead to yet a worse reality. Reality itself became subjective for me. I became very change averse.
I lost everything I had for you. I lost everything I was for you. I used to have a language. I used to have a name. I used to have a name.
No More Lonely Nights — The Heads
Things went downhill from there until in my teens I’d become convinced that I was the only one in the world who didn’t have mental telepathy. What wasn’t obvious at the time was that my inability to pick up on body language, gestures and facial expressions was undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome. That everyone else shared some sort of unspoken communication channel was painfully obvious and the explanation that made sense, after eliminating all the more likely possibilities, was that everyone else had telepathy, could read my thoughts and were studying me like a lab rat. Although this seems a bit farfetched, it also explained all the truly bizarre shit that continually rained down on my life. The social isolation, pranks, the violence, were all experimental stimuli to see how I’d react. This is T.Rob’s Additive Property of Paranoia: two incredible beliefs become credible if they explain each other. This paranoid delusion combo-pack became my own personal Grand Unifying Theory.
Additional examples include:
- “What happens to socks that disappear from the dryer?” and “What are Steak-Umms made of?”
- “What are those black specks in tortilla chips, anyway?” and “Whatever really happened to Jimmy Hoffa?”
- “What’s at the other end of the suction hose at the dentist’s office?” and “What’s the mystery gel that surrounds a canned ham?”
Take any two Great Mysteries of Life and pair them off. You’ll see. They all solve each other. Did I mention I have food issues?
So anyway, eventually while tripping on acid I realized that I had some say in my own reality and decided to rebuild it more to my liking. I moved to the next town over, got a new job, got some new friends, completely abandoned everyone and everything related to my life as Todd, and became Rob. I’ve spent the rest of my life (so far) trying to make the world better for others and in so doing managed to stabilize most of those relative references. For example, “my car” pretty much says the same until I deliberately change it. Occasionally, some asshole runs a red light and changes it for me but at least in that case I have a second or two to prepare for the context switch while watching the headlights speeding towards my door, and I get to specify the next instance of “my car” instead of having it thrust upon me involuntarily. Objective reality isn’t exactly rock solid for me, but it has gelled quite nicely.
With my particular personal history, I’m sure you can understand my excitement to meet someone whose professional and personal life is laser-focused the concept of identity. It’s hard enough to live like this and just deal with people. Adding Information Technology into the mix just makes things worse. Identity Woman is working on that specific problem so our virtual reality can approach something like the stability of our actual reality, should we want it to.
Here’s a fer-instance. One day soon after I had applied at IBM for a job, I returned home from running some errands and my wife told me someone kept calling asking for “Todd.”
“What’d you tell them?” I asked.
“What am I supposed to tell them? I said I don’t know anyone by that name and hung up. After he called back a couple more times I got a little rude.”
“Ummm…that’s probably my new boss trying to extend an employment offer. If anyone calls asking for Todd, do you think you can take the call next time?”
“Oh right. Todd. I forgot.”
This, of course, because IBM has a “preferred name” in their directory but manages to ignore it in every single application that uses the directory, including the new-hire on-boarding process. Hey IBM, you are so ready for IBM.
But it’s not like this is limited to just IBM. Do you know it’s almost impossible to search on “T.Rob” because the dot character is either ignored or treated as a metacharacter by most search engines? So when the “Googling yourself” meme swept the Internet I discovered I was once again living in social isolation. Not that I’m singled out for this mistreatment, pretty much anyone with a special character in their name is persona non grata in online indexes. For all the “personalization” on the net, the one thing that is most personal about us is the one thing they get most wrong.
And it’s not just me being whiny. (OK, so maybe it is just a little.) This stuff has real-world consequences. At one point I had my driver license, bills, credit cards, travel profiles, loyalty programs and even some car titles listed as T.Rob. Then because of the war on terrorism (read: war on freedom) I was forced to give up my real name and go back to my given name on all these official documents. I resisted right up until I was almost turned away at the airport. That’s when I knew that, once again, I’d have to give up on trying to cling to my identity and instead accept the one forced upon me. If you ever look at my credit report, it has “Todd” listed as my name and “T.Rob” listed under aliases instead of the other way around. I haven’t done a formal survey, but I suspect T.Rob is a more unique identifier than Todd, and in any case it is more universally associated with me. In all the ways that matter, it is actually a better identifier for legal documents and border patrol than my given name.
The reliable association of a meaningful identifier to a specific entity to which reputation and trust can accrue is at the core of the issues Identity Woman is working on behalf of all of us to solve. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to talk at length with her when we were first introduced since she was facilitating the meeting and had lots to do to get ready. That’s OK though because I knew we’d connected on a visceral level. She lives and breathes identity, I seem to channel them. If identities have an aura, she can detect them and mine pulses like a quasar. I was sure that whatever else she was working on for the meeting, in the back of her mind the whole time she was thinking “I need to talk to that T.Rob guy about identity issues. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling he gets me on that level.” I took my seat as she kicked off the meeting, followed by a series of amazing presentations.
Then as we got toward the end of the program Identity Woman took the podium for a schedule checkpoint. “OK, coming up next we have Estee, Dave and, uhhh, Rob T.”
And for the briefest moment, the thought crossed my mind, “OK, let her have it. If anyone is gonna give me yet another identity, who better than Identity Woman to do it?”
But then from the far side of the room some one corrected her. “It’s T.Rob.” And reality coalesced again.
After the presentations ended there were so many exciting discussions taking place, I never managed to cross paths with Identity Woman again. Eventually the discussions spilled out onto the street, broke up and we all went our separate ways. That bond over our shared interest in identity that I thought I felt was probably something in the guacamole dip acting up. Everything I imagined about Identity Woman and I hitting it off was all in my head. Except for one thing. Chances are the next identity I get really will come from her in one way or another, and this time, I’ll actually be happy about it.
This stuff’s important. Check it out. And even if you have little or no interest in identity issues, spend 5 minutes on the Identity Woman Web Site and be prepared to be amazed that one person can be influential in so many different projects and communities.