Self-sovereign vs. administrative identity

You know who you are. So does the IRS, the DMV, and every website and service online where you have a login and a password for.

But none of those entities really knows you. What they know is what the techies call a namespace. That namespace is not your identity. Instead, it’s an identifier. That identifier is an administrative construction. It’s something created so bureaucracies and technical systems could do what they do.

Who you are isn’t just how you appear in the namespaces of administrative entities. Who you are isn’t even the name your parents gave you. It’s your single, unitary and sovereign self, which remains fixed at the source—you—no matter what you’re called.

The names that matter most to you are the one you were given at birth and the ones you choose to be called by. Neither is fixed. You can change your names without changing who you are. So can others, but managing how you are known is a self-sovereign power. Samuel Clemens used the pen name Mark Twain. Walt Whitman, the great author of Song of Myself, did not call himself Walter.

Yes, some names come about socially, but the choice to use them for ourselves is personal. Take my own example. The name my parents gave me was David. Many friends and relatives still call me David or Dave. Many more, however, call me Doc. That name is what remains of Doctor Dave, which is what I was called on the radio and in a humor column in North Carolina in the late ’70s. (That image above was how I appeared in the column. I was around 30 then. I actually look like that now.) My surname is one my father chose to spell the same as did his father, but not his grandparents.  (They went by Searles.)

The nickname Doc came along after I started a company with two other guys, one of whom was named David. He and the other guy (the late great Ray Simone, who also drew the Doctor Dave image above) called me Doctor Dave around the office, and with clients and suppliers. After awhile three syllables seemed too many, and they all just called me Doc. Also relevant: David was actually David’s middle name. His first was Paul.

Nicknames are often context-dependent. People who knew me through business called me Doc. Everybody else called me David or Dave.

That was in North Carolina, where I had lived for most of the two decades before our company opened an office in Silicon Valley and I went out there prospecting. That was in the Fall of ’85. I knew almost nobody in California, other than a few business contacts who called me Doc. But I wasn’t sure about keeping Doc as a nickname, since in a way I was starting over in a new place. So,  I market tested Doc vs. David when I went to the Comdex conference in October of that year in Las Vegas.  The test was simple. I had two badges made. One said David Searls and the other said Doc Searls. I was there four days and alternated between the two badges. Afterwards everybody remembered Doc and nobody remembered David. So I decided not to dump the nickname, and it stuck.

My point is that I still had control over what I chose to be called. I had sovereign authority over that.

The problem I’m trying to surface here is that we need full respect for self-sovereign identities, and identifiers, before we can solve the problem of highly fractured and incompatible administrative identifiers — a problem that has only become worse with the growth of the Web, where by design we are always the submissive and dependent party: calves to administrative cows.

MoxyTongue puts it this way:

You are a social ID-slave by default today.

I want a Human ID; a personal data construct with sovereign source authority.

Society uses a social construct to give me an Administrative ID.

The difference is origin.

I do not participate in Society primarily as an AdminID.

I am a Human ID by sovereign source authority, backed by American Rights that I know how to wield administratively and matriculate accordingly.

Structure yields results. Therefore, if we get the origin of ID correct, we can get the data administration framework oriented right.

A Human ID -led Society with embedded structural Rights and empowerments is the socio-economic game changer.

That is my NSTIC proposal. That’s my open proposal: a new data administration framework for identity.

Deployed across Society by opt-in opportunity structure.

Deployable across a global ecosystem by data design.

I see an ID as a door. The existence of the door is a social construct… a decision…

But once that decision is made, it is Human executed in every regard.

ID-slavery is what we have by administrative structure today. Our managerial intent in servicing it is flawed by design.

A Human ID comes with #vrm baked in. Such is the bi-directional transactional authority, multi-role nature of it.

And most important… we all approach the door on equal Terms… one door…infinite possibilities.

Self-driven socio-economic structure.

Call it whatever you want…it starts with your identity being structured right.

VRM for me grew out of two things:

  1. The unfinished work of Cluetrain. The ‘one clue to get’ there said “our reach exceeds your grasp.” But it didn’t, and it still doesn’t. Much of the grasp is administrative, and it has to do with defining, for us, who we are. That’s a bug, not a feature.
  2. The unfinished work of the digital identity development community, which I believe will remain unfinished as long as we try to solve one symptom with another one. The symptom we’re trying to solve is regarding administrative IDs as independent variables, rather than as dependent ones. Until we recognize that the only true independent variable is the soul of the independent self, we’ll continue to seek administrative solutions to the problem of administrative identity slavery.

Have you ever noticed that when somebody says “That’s a good question?” it’s usually because they don’t yet have an answer? That applies here. To the question of how we make sovereign-source identity the independent variable, I don’t have an answer. But I do want to work on it.

I’ll be doing that tomorrow at a meeting on identity in Silicon Valley. On May 1-3 in Mountain View we’ll be holding the Internet Identity Workshop again. It’s our fourteenth, and it’s a terrific unconference. If you care about this stuff, you should come. Your sovereign self would like that.


  1. Drummond Reed

    Doc (David ;-), I think this may be my all-time favorite piece you’ve written about identity and identifiers. I too changed the first name I was best known by not once but twice – and learned a lot both times.

    I love the solid ground of sovereign-source identity. Tomorrow if we get a chance I’ll show you exactly where it lives in the XDI graph model – it is the root of all things.

    =Drummond (also Drum and Shad)

  2. Doc Searls

    I’ll have our geeks look into it after they get back on Monday. First time I’ve heard that complaint.

  3. klare

    Privacy concerns will continue to rattle the blogosphere, but it seems unlikely they’ll have any real effect on the daily torrent of 250 million tweets. We might like to imagine companies like Facebook and Twitter altruistically promoting global conversation and sparking revolutions in the Middle East, but at the end of the day, they’re businesses, and they’re selling you to the highest bidder!!internet is anti-sovereignty !its a slave machinery!All you have to do is be connected and have YOUR DATA SOLD by some BIG BOY!

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