Recorded and logged, forged and stolen, tracked and traced, in this online age our identity itself is becoming one of our most valuable commodities. But the problem is precisely that: the commodification of something so central to our personhood. In an era where governments are tracking our every move through the digital realm and corporations are willing to pay top dollar for ways to better “know their customers,” the concept of identity has left the realm of the philosophical and entered the realm of the political and commercial.
Our identities are increasingly taking the form of ‘things’ separate from ourselves: passports, IP addresses, customer loyalty cards. As long as we continue to allow outside entities to control, define and distribute these tokens of identity, we yield to outside agents the power over our personhood itself.
Enter Jan Wildeboer. An Open Source evangelist by day, Wildeboer is also a proponent of a different way of looking at identity. Called “freedentity,” this notion fuzzes identity at the edges, plays with the concept as it has been presented to us, and encourages individuals to find inventive ways to subvert the traditional forms of identification that have been assigned to us. Last week, he presented the topic of “freedentity” to the fOSSA 2013 conference in Lille, France.
In order to reach that ideal, Wildeboer and the other “freedentity” advocates have experimented with a number of innovative ways of undermining corporate and political attempts to control our identity.
One of the most subversive and surprisingly effective of these ideas is that of the “Transnational Republic” project. This project, recognizing that the power to issue passports is not legally limited to nation states, has gone to the trouble of creating their own identity documents, which they issue to anyone wishing to become a citizen of their “transnational republic.” Conforming to ICAO standards, these identity documents look, act, and function like any national passport, and are used by Wildeboer and others to check in at hotels, pick up mail at the post office, and even cross national borders.
So what is the point of this idea? Officially referred to as an art project because, as Wildeboer notes, artists typically enjoy greater leeway for freedom of speech and action, its advocates are quick to assure a skeptical public that the goal is precisely to raise people’s eyebrows, to cause quizzical onlookers to take a second glance, to problematize the notion of identity in order to open up the conversation about identity and its uses in our society.
Is it a solution in and of itself? Of course not. But in an age where identity is so central to our every move and action and yet is so poorly understood and never interrogated, it certainly can’t hurt to begin to push the boundaries and ask the questions of who we are and how we prove it.