Our Dangerous Obsession with Identity

Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed an obscene obsession with “identity,” and for all the wrong reasons.

ID CardAt every turn it seems like there are more requirements for “proof of identity,” or requests for ID. Somehow we’ve gotten it into our collective consciousness that being sure of someone’s identity removes all risk of fraud, theft, or crime – but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, stricter requirements for “proof of identity” are, largely, a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time.

Consider this example: the state where I currently live (New Jersey) has an insanely complicated “6 point system” for getting (or even renewing!) a driver’s license. (This is due, at least in part, to the stupid REAL ID Act, which I’ve written about before.) You need “6 points” worth of identification, with different forms of identification being given different point values. For example, a passport is worth 4 points, but a drivers license from any other state is only worth 1 point. And it’s not enough to just get the 6 points you need – you have to have at least one document from each of several categories! And as if that’s not enough, you need another separate document “proving” that you are a resident, which gives you no points, but you need it anyway.

This obsession with “proving identity” seems to stem from the misguided belief that knowing who someone is gives you some insight into what their intentions are. This is obviously a fallacy. So too is the idea that somehow people with sinister intentions would be unable to prove their identity (because all “bad guys” have fake names and use fake IDs, right?). Although a 5th grader would probably understand all of the holes in this logic, somehow this has become our de-facto operating principle at both the large corporation and government level.

Part of this, I think, stems from CYA syndrome, otherwise known as “cover your ass” syndrome.

You see, by forcing everyone to prove who they are, you do establish some sort of paper trail that can be useful after the fact in solving crimes that have already happened. But this is a very small benefit for a hugely cumbersome system of identity verification and re-verification.

It is somewhat of a tangent, but on a personal level I find this constant need to “prove” that I am who I say I am very insulting. This constant doubt of your sincerity and trustworthiness is, frankly, wearisome.

While it’s true that there are some holes in the systems we use for identification, our obsession with identity hasn’t really addressed these concerns in any meaningful way. People continue to get fake IDs, and those who wish to commit crimes (or perpetrate acts of terrorism) will do so, regardless of whether they were able to get a driver’s license or not. So in the end, this obsession with ID is really, truthfully, and honestly a complete waste of time.

You trust me on that, right?

Photo “ID Card” by Gareth Harper, used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

Lessons we still haven’t learned from 1984

There are 3 lessons (out of many) that it seems like we still haven’t learned from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Briefly, they are:

  • Pervasive government surveillance is bad.
  • Censorship/rewriting history is bad.
  • Constant fear of an unseen external enemy is a great way to control people.

Sound familiar?

Another way to put it is that we have learned these lessons, but that we just chose to ignore them. Either way, the effect is the same.

Let’s take these one at a time, shall we?

Pervasive government surveillance is bad. Specifically, the kind of pervasive surveillance where: the government might be watching you at any time; you have no idea if you’re being watched; and there is little or no oversight.

Think about how different your daily behavior – and I’m talking about all of your behavior, from the moment you get out of bed in the morning to when you go to sleep at night – would be if you knew that someone was watching you every single moment of every single day.

Remember: some surveillance is fine, on a small scale, but ubiquitous surveillance by a single controlling entity is absolutely not OK.

For a free society to function, people need to be “secure from unreasonable searches and seizures,” which also implies having a bit of privacy. The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is also quite important – but if everyone is under surveillance, there’s a sort of presumption of guilt in that, which implies that everyone is guilty, they just haven’t been caught on tape yet (but they will be!).

Censorship/rewriting history is bad. Censorship on its own is bad enough, but once you start censoring non-fiction, you are effectively re-writing history (or the historical record, anyway).

For a free society to function, the people must be able to find out the truth. When things are censored or re-written, it becomes impossible to find out the truth (as most people understand the meaning of “truth”). Instead, “truth” becomes what the censor believes should be the truth, instead of what actually is (or was). Drawing from the novel 1984 again, this is more along the lines of what O’Brien says the truth is (i.e., whatever The Party says it is) as opposed to what Winston believes it is (an external thing that can’t be altered or covered up).

Which version of “truth” would you prefer?

Constant fear of an unseen enemy is a great way to control people. Some people will by now be getting tired of me harping on this point again and again, but it really is the most important point we can draw from 1984. In fact, this is one of the founding principles of the dystopian government described in the book – that it doesn’t matter who you are at war with, as long as there is always an enemy to direct your hate at, then people can be easily controlled and will willingly go along with things they would otherwise morally oppose.

Parallels to Today

All three of the points I’ve made above can be seen in greater or lesser degrees in our society today. We may not have the telescreens from 1984, but we do have security cameras almost everywhere – in stores, in banks, in malls, in restaurants, in public buildings, in public places, and on public roads. On top of all the cameras, our phones have GPS built in, our cameras can “tag” photos with GPS coordinates (telling people where we were when we took the photo), web sites can use location-awareness to pin down your location (generally accurate, but not pinpoint accurate… yet), and of course our phones and email can be tapped/record/read by police/government agents at any time, without our knowledge, and often without any sort of civil or judicial oversight. There is a famous quote by the Englishman William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, from 200 years ago that is still applicable today: If society has regressed to where power alone is sufficient for government action, we have a police state.

Fortunately, at least here in the US, censorship and the re-writing of history has not come as far as it has in some countries (e.g., China). However, that’s not to say that we’re not on our way towards stricter censorship. Politicians, political pundits, and others will frequently reverse their position on an issue, and then deny that they ever held any other position but the one they have right now. If this doesn’t strike anyone as a perfect example of Doublethink, then I don’t know what would. And once people start thinking that way, it is inevitable that they will want to re-write history to match what they think… and on that path lies madness.

As for the constant fear aspect, well, I hardly need to provide examples, considering that we’ve had a constant “enemy” for nearly 80 years now. It started, in large part, back in World War II, with the Nazis – who were of course quite real! But after that, our fear shifted to the Soviet Union and Communism – so much so that we started turning in people around us for fear that they were communists, and accusing people left and right of deviating from the “party line.” (Just read up on McCarthyism for a chilling look at how fear of an unseen enemy made people behave.) During that time, not agreeing with the ruling class’s political beliefs was enough to get you thrown in jail. Again, does any of this sound familiar? Because it should, seeming as it does to be drawn almost verbatim from George Orwell’s novel!

Of course, since the collapse of the Soviet Union we had to find something else to fear, and it took us a little while to find it – but find it we did, under the increasingly broad definition of “terrorism.” There’s a lot of parallels between our old imagined enemies of the communist era and our new imagined “terrorist” enemies:

  • They are from a foreign country, naturally (one that few of us have been too, so it seems even more foreign to most of us – because “foreigners are scary”).
  • They could be anywhere – even hiding in plain sight! They might even be someone you already know! (“Be afraid of everyone, even your friends.”)
  • They could strike us at any time! (“Always be afraid.”)
  • Not content with the explanation of “some people are fighting against us because they disagree very strongly with us,” we’ve somehow morphed things into some sort of EPIC BATTLE, because it’s our ideals and principles against theirs, and of course we have to win because THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
  • If you disagree with the idea that this is an EPIC BATTLE which we MUST FIGHT and MUST WIN because there is NO OTHER CHOICE IF WE WANT TO SURVIVE then you are branded as UN-AMERICAN.

Given all of these parallels, you’d think at least someone would maybe stop and point them out and sort of deflate the rhetoric being tossed around to justify all of the above – but no, sadly, no.

In the end, most people are more interested in other things – maybe the economy, or more likely what was on Lost or The Bachelor last night. So we just ignore what’s going on, forget the history lessons we were taught in school (assuming it’s still being taught in school – I worry sometimes), and march towards a future that is, sadly, just like the past… because we refused to learn from it.

The Fear Disease

This article, Terrorism Derangement Syndrome, hits a lot of good points. In particular, it talks about how what we once saw as a “reasonable response” to terrorism right after 9/11 is now seen as “too weak.” It seems like we just keep getting more and more afraid:

It’s hard to explain why this keeps happening. There hasn’t been a successful terror attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. The terrorists who were tried in criminal proceedings since 9/11 are rotting in jail. The Christmas Day terror attack was both amateurish and unsuccessful. The Christmas bomber is evidently cooperating with intelligence officials without the need to resort to thumbscrews. In a rational universe, one might conclude that all this is actually good news. But in the Republican crazy-place, there is no good news. There’s only good luck. Tick tock. And the longer they are lucky, the more terrified Americans have become.

Some of this can be explained as simple one-upmanship; when your political platform is “fighting terrorism,” each time you run for re-election you kind of have to vow to “do more” than you did last time (or more than your opponent did), which leads to “more security” and “tougher stances” and so forth.

The problem is that the American public is going along with this. That’s what really worries me. It’s like the whole country is infected with some sort of “fear disease:”

We’re terrified when a terror attack happens, and we’re also terrified when it’s thwarted. We’re terrified when we give terrorists trials, and we’re terrified when we warehouse them at Guantanamo without trials. If a terrorist cooperates without being tortured we complain about how much more he would have cooperated if he hadn’t been read his rights. No matter how tough we’ve been on terror, we will never feel safe enough to ask for fewer safeguards.

You may agree or disagree with his policies, but you can’t argue with the truth in what Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his inaugural speech: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

I think it’s time and past time we all remembered that.

What “The Lord of the Flies” Taught us about Free Markets

I’ve often said that: Laws are only needed when you can’t trust people to do the “right thing.” Looking at another way, you could say that the honor system only works when you can trust everyone involved to be… well, honorable.

Because of the simple facts of probability, as a population grows larger and larger, the probability of everyone being “honorable” decreases, until you reach a population size where it is 100% certain that some people will be dishonorable. At this stage, laws are required if you wish to retain any semblance of order.

When people are left alone in a situation where there are no laws, no outside authority, chaos results – call it the “Lord of the Flies” effect.

Flickr image by Enrico Fuente

Flickr image by Enrico Fuente

This has ramifications for what is traditionally called the “free market.” Remember that the entities involved in a “free market” are, if not people themselves, they are companies which are run by people (and are treated legally as people).

The ideal “free market” is one “free” of any regulation – letting the market “regulate itself.” When you consider that the “market” is just people (acting through companies) – you realize that the “free market” approach is, essentially, leaving corporations (run by people) alone in a situation with little to no laws or regulation.

Obviously, the idea of such a group “regulating itself” is absurd. The inevitable end result of such a system can only be chaos: a “Lord of the Flies” situation, but with companies instead of people. Brutal authority from the strongest, meanest, most vicious and largest. Innocent people – the ones who try to do the “right thing” are pushed aside and eventually killed.

Consider this carefully. This is a very disturbing consequence for those of us on the “outside” of the market, because we are effectively the “Piggies” in this situation.

Traditionally we have tried to deal with this situation with laws – the rallying call of “regulate! regulate! regulate!” But laws have their own problems, which stem from deep, fundamental flaws with our classical lawmaking mechanism.

The problems with laws are that laws reflect the culture of the lawmakers. (I don’t mean the “culture” in the larger sense of the people from which the lawmakers come, although that plays a factor. Instead, I refer to the culture of lawmakers themselves.)

In a society where lawmakers’ primary vested interest is not the “rightness” of what they do, but rather their own welfare (in the form of being elected again), the resulting policy created will be one reflective of these values – short term solutions that only serve to get lawmakers elected again, rather than doing the “right thing.” Problems are pushed on the next generation, after the current generation (of lawmakers) is gone (term limits). The “planning horizon” of such a government is limited to the length of the terms of its constituent members. This creates a problem in that these term lengths are usually much less than the lifetime of the people who are governed. As a result, laws are short-sighted and ill-conceived – the “law of the week” effect.

It would seem then that the challenges involved in solving the problems which afflict us are so deep-seated as to be unsurmountable. But I do not counsel despair!

We know the changes we would like to see, the behavior we would like to encourage – so the answer is to simply reward the behavior we want, and discourage (or punish) the behavior we don’t. This answer is so simple and obvious as to be almost laughable – but it has been proven to work, in more ways than you might realize.

We often use these same techniques on our children – allowances for when chores are done and behavior is good, revoking privileges (TV, access to the car, computer time, etc.) when behavior is bad. We use similar techniques when training animals – reward desired behavior, punish (by way of revoking attention or treats) undesired behavior.

These then are our possible solutions: to make lawmakers accountable to the laws they create long after they have left office. In democratic societies, perhaps to make the people who elected lawmakers accountable for the mistakes of the lawmakers after they have left office. In other words, make the primary motivating factor of the lawmaker not be their immediate re-election, but rather their long-term reputation; the long-term reputation of the laws they create.

When we have done this, then we can give proper attention to the “markets” which seem to dominate so much of our society in this day and age, and make laws that are not just punitive, but thoughtful and deeply connected to encouraging good behavior in all respects.

If we can do these things, we will have set up a situation where markets can truly be both “free” and “good” in that they will be encouraged to do the “right thing” always. Instead of enforcing arbitrary “thou shalt not” laws, we will have set up a system which by its very nature is conducive towards creating and maintaining a responsible, ethical, and fundamentally “good” market. I think that such a market will be infinitely better – and, arguably, more free than our current, so-called “free market.”

Don’t Be a Slave to Technology

It might come as a surprise to some people to hear me say that I am not a slave to technology – after all, I’m a self-described “computer geek.” You’d think, therefore, that I walk around with an iPhone or Blackberry (or both!) strapped to my chest at all times, checking email and looking up information on-line everywhere I go.

However, you couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While it’s true that I am a major computer geek, and I would love to have (say) a nice little netbook for looking up information, sending email, writing blog posts, etc., the fact of the matter is that it’s because I’m a computer geek that I’m not a slave to technology.

Because I’m confident about it, I don’t allow it to control me – I control it.

For example, I know many people with mobile email who are, quite frankly, addicted to it (think: crackberry). They’re always checking email – all the time – no matter where they are. Even if I had a mobile email device (which I don’t), I wouldn’t be checking email all the time. As it is, I don’t check email often, even when I’m at my computer. I’m confident enough with the technology to know that I don’t need to answer every single email at the moment it comes in – that I don’t need to be “on-line” all the time. I control the technology – I use it when I want to, not the other way around.

Another example is when the power goes out – for people who are slaves to technology, to computers, the Internet, email, Twitter, social networking, what have you, the power going out is like having their “fix” cut off – they don’t know what to do. Without email, chat, or whatever, they’re lost. They’re so badly enslaved that they don’t know what to do when they are “freed” from it, for whatever reason.

As for me, even though I spend my entire day at the computer (and often much of the evening, too), writing code, answering emails, being online, writing blog posts like this one and so on – when the power goes out, I just shrug, grab a book from my bookshelf, and go read. Or, if it’s dark, I’ll go for a drive, or a walk, or just plain go to bed.

I control the technology around me – it doesn’t control me.

For many people today, the opposite is true. It’s worth it to sit and really take a look at yourself and see whether you are one of those people – whether you’re a slave to technology. Even in today’s connected world, it’s important to be able to just leave it all behind sometimes, to just “let go.” It’s the difference between being controlled and being in control.