Who Are You? No, Really.

A monk asked Joshu in all seriousness: “Does a dog have Buddha-Nature or not?” Joshu retorted: “Mu!”

The problem of “identity,” as we would style it today, is the sort of thing that zen masters make their students struggle with, as in the famous dog koan set out above, which tackles the matter elliptically. “Who am I?” — “Who are you?” — are questions that human beings have been worrying since the dawn of consciousness, presumably.

Now, I’m not going to get all gnomic on you here: it’s not the place for it. But the deep question is not so far removed from the shallower question of identity in society, for both have a tendency to elude easy answer, and it’s our continuing difficulty with the latter that I want to work with a bit in this post. Think of this, by the way, as a teaser for a column coming up on Monday by John Gregory on authentication; I’ll roil the waters and he’ll calm them and provide legal clarity.

To start with, it might be good to remind ourselves that “identity” has as a core sense the notion of being the “same as” something else — that is, it’s a comparative notion. Think “idem”: it always follows the cite of the original. So, for various official purposes, your identity papers — passport, driver’s license — are the same as you. Are you. All of which simply means to remind us that there is no essence at the centre, simply a set of deemed equivalences (one of which happens to be “your” body — or, maybe, behind that, one of “your” mental states, as some neurolegal researchers might argue). It’s all about equivalences, then.

And the body’s enough for most legal purposes. Habeas corpus and all that. This has always been tricky: I show up in Venice in 1653 wanting to do business; I show you a letter from the Venetian ambassador to England telling you who I am etc. etc. Did the ambassador really write the letter? Did he write it about me?

But when my effect in the world was constrained by what we regard as limited technology, the problem of identity was smaller. I worked in a more or less constrained area where I was known: enough people could point at my body — the usual “equivalent” — and aver “That’s ‘im!” Now, of course, my effect is everywhere. Trains and boats and planes and the internet have seen to that. It’s this last transportation device that causes most problems currently. Freed from a community of body watchers, I spawn avatars, descending at will here and there, Vishnu appearing as Krishna, Zeus as a swan. . . . And now we have the age-old problem in spades.


Things might be okay if it weren’t for human nature — or divine, for that matter: after all Krishna and the swan did take advantage of innocents. Our old friend the law steps in to channel, if not control, human nature, shall we say. So, there are laws against pretending to be someone else if done with wrongful intent in our Criminal Code, ss.403ff, for example. But many jurisdictions have similar laws that were created in pre-internet days and are felt to need updating. In California a new law, needing only the Governor’s signature, explicitly outlaws impersonation on the internet done with “intent to harm,” harm being undefined.

In blogs or news websites that are open to comments, it’s common to see people use pseudonyms. Of course, floated free of their authors’ bodies, these pseudonymous comments can become expressions of some of the worst in human thinking. In response, many blogs do as Slaw does and moderate comments. But where this would be impractical because of the number of comments, news sites have adopted other ways of tying the comment to a thing that is in turn tied to the commenter’s person. The Buffalo News, for instance, now requires name, address, and phone number from would-be commenters, and informs them that someone from the News will telephone them at the number given. I have to say, it sure makes a welcome change to read comments signed with full names.

And even in the most mundane matters of everyday business, identity on the internet is proving problematic. Take a look at a short piece written by Khoi Vinh, until recently the design director for the New York Times’ web presence. He complains that the people he’s doing business with now still want contracts signed and wind up using fax machines to accomplish this old ritual, and he finishes with:

If you think about it, there’s nothing inherently secure or authentic about a signed contract sent via fax, and yet we place a tremendous amount of faith in such authentications. Electronic signatures aren’t without their security issues, but it’s hard to argue that they can’t be more secure than hand-signed contracts. They’re just at a disadvantage because they’re unfamiliar.

And so the hunt goes on for that which is really you — a you substitute, at least, sufficient to get me satisfaction from the real you (there we go again) if you do me wrong. Tune in Monday morning for John Gregory’s column to see how the hunt is progressing in law.

I am his Highness’ Dog at Kew. Pray tell me Sir, whose Dog are you?
Alexander Pope

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