Traditionally, a person's identity has been defined by contact, with their community, with their family, with their network; that contact has needed to be physical to be judged as a valid interaction.
The prevailing definition of identity as we know it derives from the philosophy of John Locke: the objectivity of identity as it relates to ownership. Credentials such as passports, ID cards, and driver's licenses are all used to prove an individual's identity but only serve their function if they meet specific requirements. And that function, while establishing an identity, has little impact on the actual identity. One need only look to the outdated systems that fail to countenance individual freedoms to change, alter and evolve their identities.
Many philosophers and psychologists have addressed the idea of true identity or self-identity throughout time, from ancient thinkers such as Socrates to “modern” philosophers such as Rene Descartes. In fact, most theories of human nature confront the issue of identity head-on. In particular, psychological theories have attempted to define the sense of self and suggest reasons for its existence. These theories range from the psychoanalytic to the biological and explore the nature of our identity in different ways; but identity has been broadly defined by physical presence.
I believe physical presence is no longer required to be recognized as who you are; it should be enough to assert your identity with your private key. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the shift to remote interactions, we were forced to recognize that physical presence was an entirely unnecessary element to many personal and professional interactions, demonstrating that our failure to make events, workplaces, and experiences accessible to those unable to participate physically has never been about the technology or the execution, but our social and cultural perceptions.
The increasingly popular concept of identity as a verb should be further explored; we define ourselves by our actions, the responsibilities we assume, and other behaviors that define us. And in a trustless system that gives weight, provenance, and proof to those responsibilities, we can begin to see our digital lives as being of equal value to our physical.
An individual's social status as it relates to others depends on their ability to create and maintain relationships. Relationships are fundamental to our identity because they aid us in our understanding of who we are and what we value; this is why personal values change as relationships do - who you know has an effect on how you see yourself, how you understand the world around you, and consequently your decisions about where to go or what to do next.
I prefer to think of identity as what you do, instead of who you are, your choices, not your character. Because defining yourself by your actions is something that can be taken with you wherever you go. And defining yourself by immutable action creates a system of accountability without prejudice. Identity has never been about the things you own; it's always been about your ability to act; this is what cryptocurrency should be telling us.
The idea of identity as a verb implies that we are an ongoing process rather than an object. What we do endures—our actions materialize in the world.
Blockchain technology has already created a paradigm shift in defining an individual's identity, but it is not yet used for all legal purposes because governments are slow to accept new technologies, let alone revolutionize current procedures. But incumbent legality - while an essential hurdle for Web3 - has little bearing on the paradigm of identity that we are constructing, no longer dependent on obsolete or outdated physical requirements. The implications of a paradigm shift in identity are vast, and the consequences are long-lasting.
The concept of identity is no longer confined to the body. Identity becomes digital, becoming distributed. It is not defined by or limited to one single computer but by a network of computers.
In a physical world, our identity needs to be defined by presence because it is required for establishing interaction. The blockchain can allow us to take that notion and apply it online: we do not need to be physically present to assert our identities and prove our current value.
We are not limited to any single identity but can exist in multiple identities, provable on-chain. Identity becomes an adaptation of oneself to the present moment - adaptation means survival under changing conditions. Today that means protection from oppression and surveillance; tomorrow, it could mean anything.
Any individual can prove their identity at any time to anyone without the requirement of physical presence. The value of such a system is difficult to imagine, let alone describe in a single article.
The one-to-one association between individual and identity needs to be broken for this to work. Individuals need the ability to have multiple identities, at least one of which is their public 'offline' identity if they so choose. It also needs to be the case that every node on the network has access to all available data about an individual to prove their information consistently across jurisdictions.
This breaks the connection between identity and sovereignty, creating a genuinely borderless digital world where data is shared without prejudice or fear.
Identity is now independent of location, time, subjectivity, bias, or politics - it is distributed through consensus. Identity cannot be stolen because it cannot be contained in one place, to begin with. And once we have a definition for identity, a definition that is compatible with the internet and trustless to boot, we can take that idea and turn it into anything.
Identity as a concept has been historically abused by those who have power - from governments through to corporations - so this is not something we should want them to control. But it's also not something we should want to control for them, either.
By building a decentralized framework for establishing identity and access on the blockchain, we have an opportunity to create a system that can operate without those limitations.
The next step is to ensure that every individual can establish their own identity and reclaim it as they see fit.