Proving for Human in the Digital Age

Image created using DALL-E 2

We are running ever faster and more wildly into the Digital Age, careening hither and yon, our brains bombarded by notifications, new technologies slamming into us like forwards on a rugby pitch. So rapidly and in so many compounded ways are digital technologies evolving that our culture too is struggling to keep up. This is means we have to prove something we’ve never had to before.

Generative AI and its tools like ChatGPT and DALL-E, Midway, mean we are facing down a giant tsunami wave of text, audio, video and images that could wipe out human authenticity in the digital world and leave us floundering, awash in a murky digital sea of meaningless nonsense. It’s why we need, in part, a digital identity system or systems.

For the first time since we fell out of trees and started rambling about this large watery ball, we suddenly find that we now don’t have to prove just who we as individuals are, but we have to now prove that we are indeed, human.

This is a very weird stage in our evolution that is in many ways, existential. But essential to surviving in the digital age.

When humans started building more sophisticated societies, we also invented bureaucracies. Writing and using various materials to record things, made bureaucracies able to function. And it’s where we began to use ways to identify ourselves in societies. And lest you think that when humans started to write it was to share wonderful stories and knowledge, it wasn’t. We started writing to make records of things. The stuff we made, traded and stored.

The Andean cultures used the quipo to record debts, land ownership and social contracts. Egyptians and Romans had incredibly complex bureaucratic systems. Part of those systems involved means of identifying the citizens of those societies. Usually elites, lower class citizens didn’t have much in the way of rights.

Today, a passport tells the people in another nation who we are, where we come from. Agreements between nations ensure we have certain rights and protections, even if they’re sometimes ignored and abused. A drivers license tells police who we are so they can send along a rather annoying fine for speeding. Or we can go fight the system, perhaps today using AI, to fight that ticket.

But we’ve never had to prove we are indeed, a living, breathing, thinking, procreating human. We’ve long had to prove who we are but never that we actually, well, really do exist. That we are not a machine.

As we face down the deluge of digital desiderata and become ever more entwined with machines proving we are human becomes not just something to facilitate transactions, but a critical part of a functioning digital society. The machines we carry in our pocket, put on our heads, operate remotely, wear on our wrists and bodies and the AI that is augmenting us ever more.

Some governments and corporations, from startups to enterprises and non-profits know this. They are working on it. Society will benefit.

This may seem dystopian too. Indeed, many a science fiction novel and movie have featured some kind of digital identity as the underlying method by which bureaucratic systems can hold the threat of violence over us and keep us controlled. From mind police to hit squads. That may well be the case in today’s autocracies. But it doesn’t have to be in democracies.

We tend to like a certain degree of autonomy in our lives. It is a constant source of tension in a healthy democracy between our rights and freedoms and the power and reach of the state. Different societies react to this in a variety of ways.

A digital identity system doesn’t mean losing any of our current freedoms or rights. If done properly. In fact, such systems are unavoidable if we are to take advantage of all that AI and other digital technologies offer us. We cannot put these cats back in the bag. The cats are out and they’re having a rather lovely time. Sometimes, one scratches us though, maybe even bites the hand that feeds it. But this has always been the case with humans and technology.

The cat that is biting us with regards to digital technologies are the black-hat hackers, cyber thieves, those rich uncles and aunts that want to give us millions because, well, they’re just that sweet. The lonely, desperate trolls hiding under digital bridges and pouncing on unsuspecting people, hauling them down into their pit of misery by attacking our psyche. The writhing mass of tinfoil hatted demons convinced the evil is not themselves but some vague beast plotting their demise in some castle on a mountain.

We need a digital identity system to bring these feral cats out into the world. Some to punish when they deny the rule of law. Others to help and heal.

Then there’s the wild cat of Artificial Intelligence, wandering an ever wider range across our society. Slipping into open windows and doors ajar. Some of those dark denizens we know, are already using it to cheat us of our heard earned money. Marketers are feeding the data hungry beast of search engines, clamouring for clicks and likes in a meaningless hunger to drive analytics to prove their value to the executive. But more humans are figuring out brilliant and ingenious ways of using AI tools to improve productivity and make our world better.

AI tools work the best when humans are guiding them, leveraging their immense value and placing human creativity and intuitiveness ahead of the machines. Yes, IBM may have won at chess, but humans working together with average computing power, can still beat the AI. For now.

We will have no choice but to prove that we are in fact, human in the digital age. From the aesthetic aspects of culture such as art, music and literature to politics, economics and military. Defining what is machine and what is human will be essential to evolving healthy economies and societies. To celebrate what is human and when we have achieved human things leveraging digital technologies.

It is also one of the ways we will need to help stop crime, deal with disinformation and hold back the evil uses of AI and influence activities of foreign states looking to interfere with and disrupt democratic, civil societies.

Eventually, we will get there. Some will protest against digital identities, seeing them as a threat to their freedoms. We need to understand this and the legal system needs to help ensure our rights are protected. But digital identity systems using blockchain and other technologies, can ensure our humanity without ever having to reveal any personal data. We have this capability.

Eventually, we will have global standards like IEEE or ISO. These systems have ensured the safe use of electricity and is why you don’t think about putting a plug in a wall and not getting fried. It is why when you hand that passport over to be stamped, you know you’re going to be let in to that other country. That the customs cat isn’t going to scratch you. Unless you’re carrying illegal catnip. That’s on you.

It is a weird concept, to prove ourselves as human. But here we are.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.