A User? Me? Part 2

I took part last week in my very first Internet Identity Workshop (IIW), notes from which are being finalised on a dedicated Wiki. A theme that surfaced a couple of times was around the issue of the relationship between a “real” person, their name(s), their personae online and how they are identified in different situations.

In my last post, I expressed my concern about the blanket – and ultimately “meaning-less” – term “User”, arguing in particular that “it immediately and instinctively entails systems-focussed thinking and ignores entirely the relationships and behaviour of individuals outside and independently of technology.”

It struck me last week even more forcefully in a separate discussion about “user interaction and interfaces”. One axiom of user interface design is that, from the point of view of the human confronted with interacting with any system, “the interface IS the system” – that is all the human has to work with and cannot, by design usually, is precisely precluded from getting behind that interface. So I thought – well what does it look like from the other side of such an interface?

MIcrosoft Surface (now "Pixelsense") Data Visualizer - mapping what the system "sees"
Microsoft Surface (now “Pixelsense”) Data Visualizer – maps and provides data about what the system “sees” – each finger touch is an “Actor” in this system

From the point of view of a digital system (to the extent that an inanimate box of wires, bits and bytes can have a point of view), there is a similar issue: the system is unable to reach out beyond the interface to “sense” the human beyond – it too relies entirely on the interface. In good systems design, the flesh and blood human is recognised as playing a “role” – as an “Actor” in formal UML terminology – and that this role is played via a “Boundary Object” (such as window, a dialog box, a menu, a button, etc.) that serves as the interface between the real-world and the system and that should appear in different well-conceived use-case, sequence, collaboration, robustness and process diagrams.However, far too many systems designers drop (or never model) the boundary object and model relationships directly between the Actor and the two-dimensional stick figure is further reduces to a single-dimensional bit-stream. Worse, the UML “Actor” construct is also used to represent any other non-human “thing” that interacts with a particular system, including other systems, interactions that take place usually through some application program interface (API). What results, from poor design therefore, is a system-view that makes little or no distinction between a flesh-and-blood human and another digital system.

But there is another problem, of particular concern in the realm of online identity and trust.

Even when the best modelling approaches are used, the human “Actor” can only, at best, be represented by those (relatively few) aspects of that human that are known and presented to a system interface. The fact that a single person – for whatever motive, usually benign but not necessarily so – may want to present different online “personae” to different systems is of no help from a system view: the human “recognised” by a system (by creating an account, login credentials, or whatever means are used) is no more than the persona created by that human and presented to it. That persona in turn is modelled and represented as an Actor within a system, with behaviours, characteristics and preferences only to the extent that they are both 1) modelled, and 2) known to the system. The “Persona” could itself be a specialization of another “Persona”, rather than be related back to the flesh-and-blood human – and so we have a problem, conceptually looking out from within the system: we cannot “know” for sure whether an in-system Actor ever truly reflects the behaviours and intent of a human. We can make a best guess. And to even do that requires unbundling some fuzzy and ambiguous terminology.

It doesn’t mean interrupting and closing down conversation every time a word is “misused” – But, as we discussed in one of the final sessions at IIW, it does means being constantly alert to the relevance of terminology, particularly in such multi-stakeholder organizations such as the recently established IDESG – where you can be sure that citizen or privacy advocates, telco’s, IT companies, retailers, advertizers, etc. will not use the same terms to mean the same concepts.

All of the terms that we do use – human, person, principal, subject, actor, agent, persona, consumer, citizen, customer – reflect a value for whoever uses them and is intended to convey some contextual sense and meaning.

All that is…except user…

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