Wednesday, December 26, 2018

On identity

Towards the end of my first year in graduate school, I read a long essay in the Guardian (where else) about a man who had been living secretly in the forest for decades in Maine. He finally got discovered because he had stolen food and other bits and things from nearby campers or visitors, one time too many. There was something that he said that shook me to my core and revolutionized how I approach storytelling and creating characters, as well as in terms of dealing with myself: he said about how with no one around, he had no need to perform any sort of identity. That identity is essentially a performance for others.

Immediately upon reading that essay I vowed to greatly push myself to move past looking at the identity markers of my characters, for them to be as fully-dimensional as possible. It’s been a hard but worthy effort, and it will be probably something that I’ll always continue to strive on.

Our devices and the websites and apps we use say a lot about us. They say too much about us. With my next project I’m aiming to more fully tackle-on my numerous issues with technology and how it affects us all. I’m quite fond of this saying, and I often say it to people: “In solving problems, technology creates new ones”. I myself have been off of Facebook for over 2 years, and my life has greatly improved as a result. I’ve only revisited a couple of times since so that I could post casting calls for my past recent films, but they had very little effect, so I won’t be doing even that anymore.

I’ve been told its ironic that my thesis project is a (limited) web series, despite my serious misgivings about technology, yet that is exactly why I’m doing a web series. There will be arguments and insanity over social media that happens in the series, and I actually want the series itself to spark intense online debate and discussion. Sounds very meta, but I want the web series to actually reflect this bullshit that happens in “real life”, when people fight on platforms like Facebook, especially over things like religion. I myself am guilty of this, and its probably part of the reason why I left that monster.

My oldest brother, let’s call him big F, asked me to do a him a favour and get him a copy of The Economist’s current double-issue. There’s a remarkable essay in here titled “Making you you”, and it’s gotten my brain at 35,000 feet churning. Here are a few quotes and passages that I highlighted.

“Valentin Groebner, a historian, uses the story of Il Grasso to illustrate his study of how people were identified in early modern Europe. It reveals two fundamental principles of personal identity. The first is that any individual’s identity is contingent on the recognition of others. The second is that anything like a modern life is rendered all but impossible when that recognition is not forthcoming, or is suborned.

Put those things together and you see why the provision and policing of identity is one of the foundations of the modern state and the lives lived in it. A person’s sense of who. They are dependent on many things, and is not necessarily either stable or singular. People can identify in many ways, and often do so simultaneously. Your correspondent will happily reveal that he is an immigrant (never an expat) but also a pukka Londoner and none dare say him nay. Political and social culture – at least in the liberal West – have matured to a degree where an increasing number of countries allow him to choose his pronouns and assert his gender unilaterally. But a claim that his name is Leo Mirani, that he was born in 1983 and that he is a legal alien resident in Britain holds little weight without documentary evidence in areas regulated by the state: finance, housing, employment, marriage”.

“The World Bank reckons that at least a billion people cannot produce a birth certificate, often because the states involved do not care to issue them. Being undocumented means being cut off from the modern economy – or working in the shadows and risking exploitation. Identity is a vitally important service for citizens if they are to fully participate in the economy and society”.

- This reminds me of a recent film I saw, Capernaum.

“No one knows for certain how much Aadhaar-associated data have been shared with whom, but in January 2018 Rachna Khaira, a reporter at the Tribune, a newspaper, bought a database with details on 1bn Indians for 500 rupees ($7). India’s states each have their own copies, and layers of sub-contractors have access to them. A system designed to prevent fraud has given rise to a whole new economy of fraudulent activity – such as the sale of fingerprints”.

“…Facebook, de facto identity provider of the non-Chinese parts of the internet. It is not just that nearly 2.3bn people use the service at least once a month, all identified by what seems to be a real name, all not only providing portraits of themselves but also helpfully linking themselves to their friends and interests (not to mention identifying pictures of each other). Almost every website, app and service now requires log-in details. Many people find it convenient to use the same social-network identity for many of these log-ins, and Facebook, as the biggest social network, has 60% of this 'social log-in' market”.

“Like Aadhaar, Facebook is a juggernaut dimly understood even by its own creators. Its complexity makes it difficult to foresee problems and its size makes it impossible to control. Facebook has so far proved reluctant to self-regulate to any serious extent. Despite two years of negative publicity, and fresh scandals about data misuse emerging nearly every week, it is stuck reacting to them pretty much piecemeal. Some argue that users can simply vote with their feet, but there are no signs of that yet. It is not so much that it is hard – though it is for many. It is that most people don’t really seem to care”.

“’The internet was built without identity management…Most of us in the industry are aware of the problem. We’ve been talking about it for at least a decade. There are standards, but there is no coordinated effort’ to manage digital identity".

“State ID documents often say who you were as much as who you are; self-sovereign ones could be bang up-to-date”.

“Most people say they are concerned about the use of their personal data, but are perfectly happy to give it up with very little incentive, something academics call the “privacy paradox”. It is a paradox that keeps Facebook in business.
It is fruitless to blame people for this irritating inconsistency. It is the way people are".

“Acquiring proof of identity without proof of identity is not easy. The undocumented must make trips to the Department of Vital Records (for a birth certificate), the Social Security Administration (to regain relevant numbers) and then to the Motor Vehicle Administration (for state ID). It is a time-consuming process".

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