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The electronic 'me'

By Kevin Cox - posted Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Human culture and society in all its diversity is built upon individuals interacting with other individuals. In a similar way that a termite mound is an emergent property of the sum of individual interactions of thousands of termites, so human culture and all of society's artefacts are emergent properties of our individual interactions with each other.

These interactions and the resulting outcomes are vastly more complex than those of termites, but the principle still remains. Human culture and society are the result of an evolutionary process built upon multiple, relatively simple, one-on-one interactions.

This means that if we change the way day to day interactions happen, we will change culture and society. Bear with me while I explain:


As cognitive humans we have the ability to determine how we interact and as a society we have the ability to evolve our social institutions to meet our overall needs. We make choices on how we operate as a society and hence our fate is in our own hands. This is particularly important today because our social structures have created the ability for us to destroy ourselves - be it through nuclear warfare, emergent pandemics, or more likely through changing our physical environment so that the earth becomes uninhabitable for our current physical form.

The move to a networked society is changing the way we interact with each other and we must expect that this will result in societal evolution and changes to our culture. The choices we make in how our networked society transactions operate will determine our resulting society.

An important part of any interaction between people is the concept and operation of identity. Our identities are formed and take meaning in our relationships with each other. In a world where there are no interactions there is no need for the concept of identity. When we talk about identity we are talking about the sum of our relationships with others, making identity a critical part of our interactions and therefore critical to our ability to survive as a species.

Given that the way we handle identity in the networked world will have a bearing on the way society evolves, it is important for us to understand what we are doing with identity and to look for the resulting changes to emergent properties.

If, for example, we change our transactions, so that the participants involved in every electronic interaction we have is potentially known to anyone, then the society that evolves will be different to a society in which all transactions are known but the identity of the participants is unknown.

A society where the identities of participants to a transaction is always known will be a society with less co-operation, less interaction and with widespread avoidance and corruption of such transactions. However, for society to evolve we need interactions; and, in general, the greater the number and quality of transactions, the greater the benefit to society in areas such as understanding or wealth generation. In developing electronic transaction systems we want to encourage the characteristics of transactions that make it easier for them occur.


There is considerable evidence that systems which remove the need for identification are systems that encourage transactions. The invention of money removed the need for identity in trading transactions. The original form of trade was bartering and for this, identity was important. If we knew who was behind the barter, we could judge for ourselves whether we trusted the value placed on it. Later, money provided a way of measuring value and providing trust. The identity of the other party to the trade was unnecessary as trust was put in the currency. This made trading more efficient and so reduced transaction costs, helping to create an explosion in trade and with it the wealth of societies.

When we examine the behaviour of people in online interactive games, in online auctions and in online forum discussions the most successful systems are those that do not require a person to be identified but still give ways for the interaction to be controlled.

To see how this is done, try participating in an online community system such as Contract Bridge, purchase something through EBay or join a virtual world game. These systems are anonymous in the sense that you do not need to know any personal information about the other participants. You need to know the characteristics of people but not their identity. The systems have evolved so that games identification is separate from personal identification.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Cox is an entrepreneur. Previously he has taught Information Systems in Canberra and Hong Kong and worked with computers for various multinationals in Australia, the USA and Indonesia.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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