What is Identity?

Defining Identity

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Defining the term identity is like trying to recite the mathematical figure pi off the top of your head - it’s complex and elusive. The Merriam Webster dictionary simplifies the definition of identity as “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”. This definition isn’t very holistic, so I decided to analyze the concept of identity using a quantitative and qualitative approach. Quantitatively, identity can be classified by using numbers and codes, the language that computers use to interpret and assign a person’s identity. The quantitative approach is an accurate, objective, and efficient method for technology to process a person’s identity. While this is true, identity is far more lucrative than just assigning a number or code to a person. Qualitatively, since identity is a social construct, it can be defined through people’s self-perception, their personal preference, and the environment that they live in. It is important to approach the topic from both an objective and subjective point of view in order to understand the relationship between technology and people’s identity.

How We See Ourselves

Identity is a matter of perception, meaning it changes depending on the point of view. How you define yourself is different than how others define your identity, and this all goes back to the qualitative and quantitative approach. There are many factors in how you form your own identity from uncontrollable factors such as your biological composition (height, weight, skin color, sex, etc.) to controllable factors such as the culture and environment that you grew up in, external influences (family, social media, role models, friends, etc.), and personal preferences. All these factors can be explained using the qualitative approach and expressed in many ways. People can express their identity through their social media accounts, memberships with various companies, and personal choices (such as their fashion styles, religious affiliations, and favorite hobbies/activities). This approach is very personal and intimate since it contains sensitive information and sentimental values that not everyone is eager to share with the world.

How Others See Us

It is also important to analyze how other people define your identity. The government issues various identity cards for the general population such as driver license, social security, and passports. Most schools and universities require their students to register for their own identification cards for either security or access to services reasons. Normally, there are numbers or codes assigned to these identity cards so that it’s easier for these organizations to identify you. This quantitative approach is far more impersonal since the goal of the process is to improve functionality and efficiency.

How We Use Our Identity

Now that we roughly defined what identity is, how is it used in our daily lives and what are its implications? Objectively, we use identification cards to establish a sense of credibility and trust between each other and to satisfy the legal requirements. We already use facial or fingerprint recognition systems in our cell phones to verify our identity and protect our personal information. The government assigns social security codes to verify our residency status and for tax purposes. Subjectively, we use our identity to create a sense of belonging by finding commonalities with others. There are plenty of psycho graphic and behavioral examples from registering for different memberships with companies, participating in different sports/activities, or expressing our political/religious beliefs. People may also use criteria such as gender, age, or race to identify and present themselves to others. Whether it is used for legal or personal reasons, the real-world implications are endless. The next step is to ask which part of our identity is okay to share and which ones to keep private.

Privacy and Identity

The topic of privacy is prevalent when discussing the concept of identity due to its controversial nature. There are plenty of examples of when technological innovations, such as facial/voice recognition and “cookies”, were used to collect our personal information without our consent. We are highly skeptical when the authorities or major companies integrate these innovative technologies in their daily operations (for a good reason!). In order to understand the situation, we must further classify our definition of identity. We have our public identity, the general information about ourselves that we choose to share with everybody (social media accounts, public directories, even our physical features). We also have our own private identity (our social security number, banking information, phone numbers), the information that we only share with a select few people. An important distinction to make is that just because it’s our public identity, it doesn’t mean that the content is fair game for anyone to use. Both types of identity are equally as important since we are just less likely to share our phone number as we would letting a stranger take our picture. Since our identity may contain sensitive or sentimental information, it’s imperative that we stop treating it like it’s just some generic big data and consider the value that it holds to the owner. Both types require the consent of the owner before it is gathered for commercial or private usage.

Identity is Complex

The main takeaway of this article is that identity is a complex topic that doesn’t have a definitive meaning due to its fluid nature. Identity is valuable because it’s a representation of who we are as a person and can be expressed objectively and subjectively. Because of this, we should always be mindful when handling data pertaining to a user’s identity. Whether our identity is public or private, consent is key in any interaction between technology and personal information. Innovative technologies such as facial recognition and cookies aren’t necessarily evil, contrary to popular belief, just misunderstood and misrepresented. In order to foster a trusting relationship between the B2B and B2C channels, there should be transparency when operating with user data. Transparency leads to awareness, which then leads to consent and cooperation. We’re already taking advantage of our identity in our day to day lives from unlocking our devices, securing our house, to even our purchasing behaviors. In the long term, these technologies have the potential to revolutionize how we complete our tasks. The first step to reducing the fear and apprehensiveness surrounding these innovations is to have effective communication, transparency, and consent.