Friday, February 29, 2008


The more philosophical texts I read the more isms I find. For every topic in philosophy there is an ism and these isms are subdivided, as different arguments are made, into further isms. Relativism, positivism, existentialism and so on. All created by philosophers to allow them to easily represent their thinking and where they stand on any given subject.

So philosophy is the art of creating isms. So it should be called Ismism.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Second Life

As always, I remain behind the times on the major internet buzz sites. I had heard of second life but had never indulged until last week when a friend suggested I took a look to see what I thought. I have to say that I came at this from ignorance. I had an idea roughly what second life was but have never investigated or read up on it. I had avoided it in the past as I am obsessive and anything I start has to be finished, especially when it comes to computer games.

Signing up to second life is easy and I was on within about 10 mins via my Mac. The set up gives some clues as to what is to be found later. The choice of name is limited somewhat which was disappointing. The choice of avatar was also limited and the figures were a bit young and trendy. I selected the fox figure as the alternative was surfer dude or Goth or teenager type figures.

Overall the experience was poor. The buildings and graphics are crude and the servers appear slow when lots of other people are present. The buildings do not appear or draw any detail until you are virtually upon them. Navigation did not meet expectation. I had imagined second life to be a huge land you could travel around in but this was not the case. It appears to be sets of isolated islands on the whole which you can teleport to. This was a disappointing discovery as I had imagined that one could fly high over a land full of buildings and interesting places and dip down to see the detail. This was not the case.

What was interesting was how little there was to do. I wandered around to random places in the hope of finding something to do or see that was remotely interesting. There was nothing. Second life seems to be some sort of Utopian capitalist land where people exits but there is no point to the existence. It has a ringtone economy where people spend money (real) for things that have no value or use in the land let alone externally. The price of land is staggering given that you get nothing for it.

The biggest surprise was that Second Life is a risk free environment. You cannot be hurt, there is no crime and there is no survival challenge. You exist ad infinitum with no point to the existence. Within 1 hour I was bored. I found myself trying to steal cars, break into buildings which denied me access and generally try to find something which would deliver even a modicum of excitement or interest.

For those of you who remember Stepford Wives then you already know what second life is about and how pointless an existence based on nothing would be.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Running out of 50s

In contrast to my last blog entry I thought I would keep this one relatively short. I was reminded again this weekend of comment made on TV about Glyndebourne Opera. The commentator was discussing the customer demographic in the interval as the camera panned around the clientelle outside drinking their champagne on a warm summer's evening, all dressed up in gowns and black tie. The theme of the discussion was the concern that Glyndebourne's customer base was all in their 50s and 60s and that there are fewer and fewer younger audience members and how should they attract them.

They miss one fundemental thing. There will never be a shortage of 50 and 60 year olds. The demographic of their customer base is an age group that tends to have some disposable income and has reached the age where arts and culture and dare I say it, the finer things in life, are appreciated. The midlife crisis has been run and the understanding that material things and the relentless chasing of dreams is a fruitless task and has no real meaning. This all sounds very deep but most people in their 40s come to the same conclusion to some extent or other. The young are going to appreciate these passtimes as much as the old will appreciate bungie jumping and Oasis concerts.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

ID Cards

The following is a response I wrote to Professor A C Grayling's article in October 2007 in Prospect Magazine. Read the article here before proceeding. ID Cards

Response to A C Grayling’s “Are ID cards either philosophically or pragmatically justifiable?” in Prospect Magazine October 2007 issue 139 Grayling’s Question.

During the course of this response I will be arguing that the position taken by Professor Grayling is incorrect in places and correct in places but, in my view, for the wrong reasons. Citizen identity is a complex matter. Identity has two core aspects, the first being your own identity itself and the second being the purpose or reason for identity. While the first may seem to be obvious I will argue that this is far from true and it is the nature of the reason and need for identity which drives the first. I will also make the argument that there is a further dimension to identity. This is the link of the abstract identity label to the physical human and the consequences of this.

It is not the purpose of this response to outline my views on identity but for the purposes of the debate it is important to understand the principle I outline above. Identity in isolation is a meaningless thing. Imagine a universe where only one human exists. Without the prospect of communication, the need for concept of identity is not required. Indeed, as we grow the population from one to two humans the need for identity becomes apparent. At this point an abstract label is given to the two humans, even if they only use personal pronouns. There is you and me. This is arguably adequate to allow for a wide range of effective communications. As the population grows the need for identity becomes more important. What could be dealt with at an entirely personal pronoun level with two humans becomes increasingly more difficult. The key point here is that the humans’ identifies by personal pronouns in the two human model cannot be used to uniquely identify humans where greater numbers are involved. The solution of course is to provide an abstract label to each Human being, their name. My name is Simon. This is a label given to me by my parents to help identify me during communications. Where parents have more than one child it is very rare to call both children by the same name. Again, an obvious statement but it highlights the locality of identity.

In the context of a family it is enough to deal in first names as it is rare for confusion to take hold. As we widen the context we see that a simple first name label is no longer enough. There are too few names used (and I accept here that cultural norms tend to limit what is a much larger possible set of first names) to uniquely identify humans in larger groups (work, social circles etc). We tend to utilise the surname of family name during communications in these wider circles to avoid confusion. These are concepts which I believe most people are familiar with.
From a state perspective, they need to be able to identify each citizen uniquely in order to control service utilisation. The name of an individual is simply not unique amongst the population (even part population) that the state and its bodies deal with. To achieve unique and consistent identity another identifier is needed. Whether that be a number or alphanumeric string is not important (apart from perception of the population and the joke about us all being treated as numbers). When you are dealing with the identity of potentially 60 million plus customers then you need something more than a name to do the job.

The final aspect of identity which I need to make is that of the link between the physical and the label. Human beings do carry out biometric identification. We use face recognition. We recognise each other over time provided our facial features do not change drastically (road accidents for example, burns etc). We tend to be very effective at this. The issue we have is that we have no innate ability to make a link between the physical and the abstract label we attach to that human. This is easy to see when we meet strangers and they introduce themselves. If we look at the common experience of the introductory exchange we can see we make a number of assumptions. “Hi, my name is Simon Freeman, please to meet you”. If a stranger came up to you, without 3rd parties being present you would assume that the human in front of you did have the label Simon Freeman and that to communicate about Simon Freeman with a 3rd party also familiar with this Human would not be ambiguous. This is not always the case though. The assumption that this person is Simon Freeman is a flawed one and based upon an assumption of honesty by this stranger. I have demonstrated this in the past during a presentation on identity management. I introduced myself on stage with an imaginary name and a few minutes in asked if anyone had every met the name I had given. Nobody had and so I correctly introduced myself with my real name (label). Apart from the groans this proved that in fact the label I gave myself on stage was not important to the audience at the time. The label was good enough for them to communicate with colleagues also present about my speech without confusion. The fact the label was not what other people I interact with no me by is not relevant. In that context the label was unimportant.

So why does it matter what label we give to ourselves? One of the expectations we have when we meet people is that we only have one label. By having one label it minimises the chances of ambiguity and confusion over which physical human we are dealing with. This is of course linked with the human biometric of face recognition. We are reliable at face recognition and will use that as our primary form of identity because it is more reliable than abstract labels, does not require language and is difficult to fake (and thus the assumption that he human is who he appears is a solid position to take).

This is part of the problem the state has with identity. It needs to be able assure itself to a certain level that the human before you has the presented identity and only that identity and that the human is unable to present an alternative identity to a different part of the state.
We should now look at the position taken by Professor Grayling. When asked the question “Are ID cards either philosophically or pragmatically justifiable?” he answers “Emphatically No”. The argument for his position is based upon a number of factors which are not based upon the need for identity described above. The first problem is the mix of the concept of identity with the physical nature of the cards. In his article he states:

“A requirement for every citizen to carry a device that enables the authorities to demand immediate information about them dramatically changes the relationship of individuals to the state, from being private citizens to being numbered conscripts.”

The first point is that the term ‘authorities’ is not defined. We have a range of ‘authorities’ in the UK ranging from the Police, Customs and Excise, Local Government, Politicians, Doctors and the NHS, HMRC and DWP and a raft of other government departments, regional governments and quangos. The idea that the device changes the relationship between the citizen and the state is sound but raises the question about what the state is and who has the powers to demand immediate information. It also raises questions about the nature of the device but I will cover that later.

In order to address the first of his points more thoroughly we should take a look at the existing powers which are enjoyed by the state which we regularly accept as necessary. The most obvious is the passport. The passport is an identity device which provides proof (to a certain accepted international level) that the holder is entitled to the protection of the UK state wherever they may be. It also allows entry and exit from the UK. Entry being the key as it allows us to control unauthorised immigration to the UK for which there is strong support for. Even if we take a philosophical view of the right and wrongs of controlling immigration we should at least accept that with society and economics as they stand today, the damage done to the UK and indeed any country by uncontrolled population movements would be significant at least to the point of being widely accepted as undesirable. We accept the passport because of what it protects our society from and we accept that other countries therefore have the right to expect the same.

It is also worth noting at this point that the passport (prior to the latest changes) always had biometrics. The photograph was matched to the face of the holder upon presentation. The human ability to do face recognition was used albeit that the human ability is poor technically and can easily be fooled with poor photographs. I am not arguing that the passport is foolproof in any way, just that we have a recognised device for identification between the state and the citizen today. This of course does not justify further infringement of our rights but it does illustrate that there are circumstances where the authorities can demand a device containing our personal information.

There are of course other areas of identification available to the state today. We all have national insurance numbers and UK born citizens will have a birth certificate both of which have to be provided upon demand to allow us access to state provided services. NHS number is another example, child benefit number, self assessment number and so on. The state has a wide range of numbers, unique abstract labels which it uses to ‘identify’ us upon demand. The fact is that they currently only demand these identities when you attempt to access services.

If we look back at my earlier section on identity you will see that I argued that multiple identities cause confusion. For us to have multiple identities with the state also results in confusion but more importantly it results in easy fraud. This is another key point. There is a difference between identity label (ideally unique and linkable to a physical human) and the need for the device to hold that and a further difference around the rights to access and demand that information.

The statement made by Professor Grayling goes on to discuss the concerns of surveillance. This is of real concern as I believe the issue of identity is different to one of surveillance. For mass surveillance we would need a device which could track your movements in an automated way either continually or upon automated demand ‘where are you now?’. The fact that this already exists in mobile phones and allow the tracking of any mobile phone user today by the state appears to be overlooked. The technology is there, the information of who owns what phone is readily available to the state, not least of which the police, and we accept that risk based upon the usefulness of the device.

Private sector also has a part to play in our identity world. The concerns in the article do not appear to extend to the private sector. Concerns around the benign nature of government do not touch upon the accountability of the private sector. There are at least two major corporations who hold information upon nearly every citizen in this land from where they shop, live, what mortgage and loans they have, where they bank, who they work for, what their hobbies and much more. These corporations have no accountability for accuracy or transparency, we cannot vote them out and we cannot control what they do with this information.

The reality is very different to the one outlined in the article in my view. While I do have real concerns about identity and how it is used I know for a fact that all the concerns outlined in the article are here today and are not significantly worsened by the identity card. Police already have the right to stop and search and ask for identity information, the difference is that with identity cards they will be able to do their job better and known criminals are more likely to be apprehended. Other state areas will continue to be able to demand identity information as they do today but with some hope that the identity has some grounds (as opposed to virtually no grounds) for a decision to be made accurately. We need to be aware that biometrics are in use today in passports but ineffectively on the whole and easy to fake. We are not moving from a world of effective identity management where the state is able to do its duty to prevent fraud and catch criminals to a world where rights are infringed and our freedoms encroached. We are moving from a world where the processes and mechanisms are all there but are wholly ineffective due to the approach taken.

In order to justify the position of non utilisation of devices for identity purposes one must consider the consequences of such a statement. As citizens we require the state to gather funds to pay for the services we decide, through our democratic vote, we want our state to provide and the level to which they provide them. We require our state to provide a police force to prevent crime and to catch the criminals who commit the offences. In all of this we expect our state to do these tasks efficiently and to provide services to those who are entitled. To do this requires the state to hold and utilise identities of the citizens it represents. The question is actually one of how efficient do we want our state to be in performing its duties and not one of whether identity information should be collected and demanded. To run a state requires identity management. If Professor Grayling’s concerns are about the relationship between state and citizen then I argue that it must be the case that much of what the state does today must be unwound and new ways of running the country found which do not require identity. I have yet to see alternatives other than anarchy where identity is not a core requirement between state and the citizen. The argument must therefore be now one of efficiency in carrying out their duties.

My final word on the article is on the benign nature of government. The concerns highlighted in the article are flawed in one major respect. The state already has all the data on every citizen from birth to death. They have it joined up and they are sharing it today. For the honest citizen that information is joined up cleanly and accurately, for the criminal the ability to circumvent these mechanisms are trivial. The issue of the less benign government is a non issue simply because a less benign government would not be starting from nothing and even if they were, by their very nature of being less benign, putting these things in place is relatively trivial. It is putting them in place in an auditable, transparent nature which is hard and that is what is being attempted now. Theft of a BMW by cutting off a thumb is a real concern but if in the majority of cases identity is required face to face, then it becomes relatively obvious that fraud is in progress. Other biometrics provide greater security and enable the link between the abstract label and the physical human to be completed. Without that natural link, identity will continue to present society and state with ever more difficult problems to solve.