Identity is a concept as old as humanity itself. The concept of identity has evolved in concert with human society and the understanding of self. For example, early humans would alter their appearance to signify their membership in a tribe, such as tribal tattoos and jewelry. Throughout history, human societies have used markers to denote status, such as only noble women being allowed to have long hair.
Humans have also sought to affirm individual identity. Royal seals and signet rings have been used in the past to confer authority on official documents. While seals and signets were for those in authority or recognized standing, names have been the primary means of identifying individuals. Naming conventions have evolved to establish family heritage while also conferring uniqueness.
Identity has proven more naturally managed within a community. Communities are relatively small (<150 people) and have a large number of interactions. The interactions go beyond knowing someone’s name and provide knowledge of someone’s character. The community model grants a strong foundation for identity. At the same time, the reliance on interaction makes establishing identity and trust in the group much more difficult.
Communities have also successfully interacted with outsiders, even at the tribal stage. Interacting with anyone is a matter of trust, and trust is transferable. A new outsider will be accepted if introduced by a trusted party. Personal introductions, tokens, and letters of introduction are early ways of transferring trust. As governments have become more established, so has the practice of the state helping institute trust. Trust by a state actor has been established through letters, documents, and, more recently, passports and other identity documents.
For most of human history, identity was associated with the physical person and artifacts used to establish identity. The information age has created an opportunity to interact and transact in a virtual space, creating a need for a virtual identity that is as real as the physical person. The information age has accelerated globalization and the ability to connect across greater distances. It has created the need for identity to be virtual but also an identity that is recognized across jurisdictions. The information age and globalization have contributed to the rise of the individual. The emphasis on individual identity furthers the need for globally recognized virtual identities to be provided at scale.
Identity is a fundamental aspect of human existence. Humans rely on identity to establish trust. The concept of identity has changed as humans have changed how they organize and interact. Humans now need ubiquitous, globally recognized identity tools to fully participate in the global community. The establishment of such an identity system can also be leveraged as the mechanism for enabling movement of people in the physical world.
This article is part one of the four-part series Identities – Foundation of Trust, written by Yogesh Kadiyala and John Bentley, II.