Forum overkill

You’ve probably noticed for quite a while that many of us now apply considerable caution at being invited to join a new list, a new forum, a new network, a new way of interacting, or anything similar. Not surprising, I agree. But until now I didn’t have a good formulation of why. I’ve just read a message from a colleague, bemoaning – well that would be too strong a word, but you can guess what I mean and he meant – the lack of activity on a forum that he set up for us a while back. Even when it was being set up, as well as wishing him well, I had a sneaking feeling that there were already too many.

If you know my ideas at all, you will probably know that I’ve been developing ideas on multiplicity of personality/persona/whatever-you-like-to-call-it. Particularly the idea that a set of values attaches to a particular context of value, and in each one of these we usually manage to achieve one or more clear roles, a certain consistency of behaviour, and of personal values. This is the sort of context like “family”, “work”, “club”, except that each person has their own, probably different, list of the value contexts which they distinguish.

And you may have read about another related key idea for the future: that portfolio-like tools could well help us both recognise and manage the information and values relevant to these contexts, contributing to a process of ethical development, to the benefit of individuals and society.

But you are less likely to know about my PhD work, which was more about the cognitive contexts of complex tasks. We can manage a complex task by dividing it up into a set of contexts, in each of which we have a certain appropriate set of rules for action (small-scale behaviour), prompted and fed by a corresponding set of information that is relevant to those rule.

If we think back to the very old days before the Web, when Usenet News seemed to be mainly for technical folk, it was apparent that one newsgroup seemed appropriate for each distinct and separate topic; or maybe task. It was when life on the Net became a little more complex and less easily separable, that I started to think that it would be nicer if we could have fewer newsgroups, but more choices to filter within them. That kind of system still hasn’t become widespread – or at least not that I can tell. I’m still expected to join many different lists, many of which overlap.

Or at least, it has come to pass in a strange way: through blogs. A blog is no longer written in a particular group, but available to anyone, who then filter it: usually only on the person of the writer, but sometimes on the tags which are associated with each post. And I’ll stick with the idea that it is strange, because when writing a blog, I feel disconnected; I cannot be sure of who the audience is. Thus, I am not sure of the values that I want to display or put forward. Perhaps blogs only really work for people with complete integrity?

I’m going around this the long way, but I feel the need for the circuit. If we want to be comfortable with a non-universal value set, we need the security of a known group, where values can be observed, sensed, and acted on. Where those who don’t share the values stand out, and preferably get out. But on the other hand, we want to separate discussions where the topic is of interest to different sets of people.

So, please, someone out there who is writing code, here is a request for the kind of forum where I can join with other people who share my values in a large group, but where everyone only gets to see posts on the topics that interest them.

And I’m still going to be reluctant to join new forums of any kind.

Persona woe

Catching up on blog entries this morning I notice one from Joanna Bawa reproducing one from Andrew Hinton which refers to Alan Cooper’s “The Origin of Personas“. Now particularly because I have been closely associated with the usability and HCI community, I need to take account of how that community uses words. The Andrew Hinton piece clearly implies a usage of the term ‘persona’ to mean some kind of representative fictional character, stereotype or archetype who might use some software, or perhaps be engaged in a wider process – some character thought about and designed for. At the bottom of the article there are some links to other very interesting writings on the topic. People have come in and grabbed the term ‘persona’, uncompromisingly. Time to escape. Oh woe – the “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings”!

And I see why, as well. A ‘persona’, being originally a mask, can be worn by more than one person. It can be seen more like a role. The depersonalized persona?

In contrast, what I have been trying to get at in previous writings (other posts here and here) has been something much more intensely personal. It is the set of typical behaviours of a particular individual in a particular context or setting, along with their values in that setting, their attitudes, their propensities. It’s so close to the idea of identity that I was calling them identities for a while, before I admitted that the term ‘identity’ was too firmly entrenched in the realm of those who write software to check that only those allowed somewhere can get in.

Then this January came a new book, “Multiplicity”, from Rita Carter, which simply uses the term ‘personality’, indeed, making a virtue of the connection with multiple personality disorders. You could class it as popular psychology if you like, but in any case I think it is very worthwhile. Of all the people who have discussed matters in this area, Rita Carter is the one who comes closest to identifying just what it is that I regard as so important. The main thing that she does not go into as much as I would have liked is personal values, which to me are very clearly a function of the personality (in her multiplicitous sense), not the individual.

Addendum: Carter suggests this as a short definition of personality: “a coherent and characteristic way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and behaving.”

The most recent paper I have written much of, presented in the Medev event in Newcastle recently, does talk about professional identity, and fleetingly uses the term persona, but dwells more on what is really personal. Is it time to move on, led by Rita Carter, and switch term from ‘persona’ to ‘personality’?

ePortfolios, identity etc. Newcastle 2008-02-28

When we saw the initial announcement, it looked like a good thing to go to, as it overlaps areas of keen interest. So Helen, Scott and I had written the paper – Social portfolios supporting professional identity – and Helen and I went along to the one-day conference in Newcastle organised by Medev. It was a good day.

Why, then, have I been hesitating to write a blog entry about it? The usual good lot of people were there, including a pleasing number of those I didn’t know. The proceedings were printed admirably. The food, the arrangements, were all very good. Even our paper went down well (OK, actually it was the presentation, not the paper, which had some, what shall we say, interesting content). There was some very stimulating discussion around that.

And I’m sure it was very interesting and useful to many. But to me, the interest and use was in the networking, which one can’t really blog about so easily, as it is much more personal. The presentations were all worthy, but perhaps one may be forgiven for not remembering much that stood out as being different from the many other portfolio conferences that some of us have been to.

More on the nomenclature of identity/personality

Back on 26th July I wrote about this issue. I was at the time sticking out for using the term “identity” to refer to that complex of personal qualities and attributes associated with particular contexts, groups of people, roles, etc., and having strong implications for personal values.

I’ve recently changed my mind, and reflected that in my LEAP 2.0 work. (Translators of) Jung used the term “persona”, just like Nicole Harris. I had some problems with that. One of them is that “persona” is too close to the very frequently used term “person”. But what about the term “personality”?

Personality has plenty of common language meaning. Comparing the relevant Wikipedia entries for identity and personality, I’d say that personality as a term has a lot going for it. Though I wouldn’t want to base terminology on pathology, “multiple personality disorder” does seem to display the right kind of exaggeration of what I’m trying to get at, while the terms “multiple identity” and “multiple personality” seem to be used together quite often in the same context.

Development is a very important concept for me. “Identity development” seems to be used in a sense which implies one identity per human being (leaving aside the pathologies above). “Personality development” lives less with psychology and more with life coaching – not very far, I suspect, from the “personal development” that is better known to us.

But I like the greater scope for plurality in “personality development”. It sounds, to me, more like something that can be put on at will. It leaves nicely open the options, firstly to accept or cultivate several personalities suited to different situations, and secondly to work towards an integrated personality. The very fact that people talk and write about “well-integrated personality” or “fully integrated personality” implies that one can have something that is not fully integrated. If it is not integrated, there must be disparate parts.

I also particularly like the connection with personality inventories and such like. Whereas the assumption seems to be that we have just one “personality”, I think this is an idealisation. More likely, one’s responses to several personality inventory questions would be affected by the situation of the test, or the situation in which one is asked to imagine oneself when taking such a test.

Identities, personas or what?

What may people have several of?

Nicole Harris from JISC dislikes the phrase “multiple identities” but prefers the term “personas”. (And I was flattered to see my own blog appearing on her blogroll :-) ).

Googling for “identities personas” or “identity persona” I find other blog posts like this (though it’s from 2005) and this article. Maybe it’s time again to get serious about the matter of the terms to use – particularly as people were already struggling with it a few years ago.

Then there’s another distinction made by Scott Wilson among others: between identity and principal. (I referred to this before in a previous entry.) It seems to me somewhat pleasantly ironic that this discussion, grounded in the technical side of identity management, is a basis for separating an “identity” from the real embodied human being that may be associated with that identity among others.

I find myself in two minds. One of my minds likes the term “persona”, and would like to use it. But I can’t help feeling that just calling the things we’re talking about “personas” is a little weak: a bit like trying to reassure ourselves that we really know, don’t we, what people’s real identity is? And all this persona stuff, well isn’t it a bit like Second Life? “Who is that green lizard?”, or whatever the question might be. It is true that separating “identity” and “persona” would be one way of distinguishing those of us who are interested in personal identity (identity as in “crisis”) from those who are interested in identity management (identity as in “cards”). But maybe that is a little too easy, too neat. The relationship between the two ideas of identity may not be close, but it does exist: people often use different identifying information, in terms of different usernames and passwords for instance, to authenticate themselves in different roles or for different purposes.

This brings us back to the question, what is the essence of identity? It is certainly possible to see identity as being about a physical body, or ultimately DNA (except it isn’t ultimate: consider identical twins and clones). But would that get us anywhere? We could call that “genetic identity”. It is most certainly of interest when considering inheritance, paternity, evolution and related issues. Some of these issues are legal, and that’s not surprising, because genetic identity is provable and stable (except for identical twins etc.). But when considering the sense of self, and other psychological matters, it loses its grip.

What matters about people? In our culture, at least, people do not normally enter into voluntary relationships with others on the basis of their genetic identity. (In other societies, maybe kinship – close to DNA – is or was a more pervasive factor.) Rather, people want to associate with others on the basis of an understanding of “who they are” that is not closely related to genetic identity, but is more to do with their “character”: what they can do, what their intentions and values are. If we are going to have a useful concept of identity for our society and our social software, then it doesn’t make sense to base it on DNA.

However, non-genetic identity is much more fluid, if not slippery, and harder to define. Not surprisingly, I think that what we need in terms of identity is related to the personal information that can be represented in e-portfolios.

Enough for today.

Values in the workplace

Dave Snowden has this appealing habit of making provocative points in his blog – I’m sure he appreciates that! Anyway, in his latest he writes (emphasis original) “Good leadership does not attempt to control values, it lives them.

I’ll willingly pick up a role I have already tried out, that of Dave’s extender (though not too much like a mediaeval rack, I hope). There is an ambiguity between one’s own values and the values of others which needs to be drawn out. The only values one can live out are one’s own, but the values Dave is noting the control of are the values of others.

What could better be said, in my opinion, is that good leadership develops the values of others, and develops (probably only) one of their identities. That process of development of values should be the natural follow-on to more prosaic personal or professional development, which at the prosaic end deals with skills and competence.

Developing values involves reflection. It can be the classic “can I look at myself in the mirror” scenario – that is, am I comfortable with my self-image as a person who does that kind of thing I am reflecting on. Ideally it involves rooting out hypocrisy – if I espouse one value in one context, I shouldn’t be doing something different in another context. To me, that’s a major moral imperative.

If hypocrisy is tolerated, the danger is that the substitute process can take place of moulding one’s ethical behaviour in a certain situation just to match the prevailing values practiced in that situation, or indeed to match the values of the people responsible for one’s promotion – which is what Dave is rightly complaining about.

To relate this to work (and JISC CETIS) I could point out that values include educational values, which are vital to learners’ engagement in educational processes.

LSE SSIT 7 workshop, 2007-03-19

The LSE’s SSIT 7 workshop “Identity in the Information Society: Security, Privacy, The Future” took place 2007-03-19 and 20 (Monday and Tuesday).Well, it was certainly a change for me to attend an event where there is no one who I have met before, and where my badge, declaring “JISC CETIS Portfolio SIG” drew curiosity but no recognition. The usual suspects were absent. And it’s refreshing to be reminded that there are a whole lot of people out there interested in identity coming from different starting points.

One of the starting points, relating to the venue at LSE, was the political slant. Human rights good, government interference bad; social workers good, information systems – well, if not entirely bad, then certainly highly suspect of being tools in the hands of an oppressive government. Confronted with what seemed to me like ancient lefty attitudes, I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just throw in a couple of questions into the pot. I tried the last, but to little effect I think.

What did puzzle and disappoint was that this workshop seemed to be put together on the premise that people wanted to get together to join in criticism for anything that could remotely be associated with surveillance and control, and in particular identity cards and databases with personal information, but neither to accept any positive reasons why these things should be put forward in the first place, nor to offer any constructive alternatives. The spectre of Orwell’s 1984 still seems to have the power to deprive people of many of their critical faculties, despite times having moved on. Why don’t people bother at least to suggest ways in which the feared technology could be kept more under control?

Bruce Schneier seemed to fit well into this mould. I felt there was an element of scaremongering, and I couldn’t discern much by way of serious analysis. I look forward to having a look at his newsletter, “Crypto-Gram“, to find the constructive and valuable things that I didn’t get from this presentation. A serious point of criticism I have relates to his view of law. If we want protection, we must have laws that enact that protection, he seemed to be suggesting. But since when have criminals, and particularly organised criminals, respected laws? Laws do “change the dynamic” for law-abiding citizens, but I’d say that law-abiding citizens aren’t the main problem.

Bruce thought that the idea of the “death of privacy” was overrated. But what exactly, I started to wonder, is this “privacy” that people champion? Do people want to interact with the information society by withholding all information about themselves, and being asked every time for their permission to access every smallest piece of it? That would seem pretty shortsighted and timewasting to me: the thought wasn’t mentioned in any case.

The next speakers were at least very stimulating and entertaining. Simon Davies and Gus Hosein (of Privacy International as well as visiting fellows of LSE) seem to have made a bit of a career out of challenging the government specifically about the Identity Card proposals. Nice to see some material reported that could have come out of Private Eye.

The highlight of the day for me came in the afternoon, when I was about to give up hope of anything solidly interesting. Prof Brian Collins is the Department of Transport’s Chief Scientific Advisor, with a distinguished earlier career. He gave a thoroughly professional presentation on some of the technical pitfalls and challenges associated with Identity Management. He sees no reason why people should not use multiple identities, allied to an assumption of minimum disclosure. I hope his slides become available to prompt more recall.

The following morning we were back to old themes for a while. Terri Dowty, the Director of Action on Rights for Children, did give a useful catalogue of the different databases on which personal information about children may appear, now or planned. But this was all in a sinister-toned presentation which, for example, almost portrayed the Connexions service as an agent of repression. How about, I asked, proposing something positive, rather than just criticising the negative aspects of current and planned databases? What would she suggest? More front-line workers like social and youth workers; more money to help families … you probably get the picture, though she didn’t say “tax the fat cats”. What I rescued with my other question was that parents and children are in principle allowed to see records on “ContactPoint” (used to be called “information sharing index”) which is where much of this information is brought together. Perhaps that is what we ought to be advising people to do: at least to know what is there, and correct if needed.

Terri seemed to have a pretty rosy picture of the world in which only about one in 500 children need any urgent intervention. She portrayed a society where the constant intrusion into children’s private lives accentuates their dependency and interferes with the development of their sense of self. I couldn’t see it, personally. What is credible is that people won’t use a service if they suspect the information may be passed on to others. I think that lesson has been taken on board in the e-portfolio community already. What it does highlight for me is the need to elaborate ideas on ethical development.

Another positive highlight followed: Ross Anderson of Cambridge University talked about “Identity Privacy and Safety in e-Health” (though e-health is not a term he likes). This was a brilliant and committed expose of the pitfalls of large government IT projects, and hence the risks inherent in the NHS IT project. Interestingly for us, he sees the way forward as being with standards-based interoperability, and an open market in IT systems development. This is how Sweden manages to have a system that works.

For me, privacy needs a model different from the one implicit at this workshop. I’d say, better and more constructive to stop focusing on what one doesn’t want others to see, and start focusing on just what one does want different groups to see – or conversely, who is allowed to see any particular piece of information. It seems to me that here is another lesson that has already been learned, a while ago, by the e-portfolio community. Perhaps when one’s focus is on systems controlled by others, it is easy to focus on the dangers, not the opportunities given by systems if under the control of the individual. Clear lesson: let’s make sure that we continue to clearly advocate the user-centric design and development of user-controlled systems.

There’s one other principle I’d like to float, and it is about the visibility of traces of accessing information. My intuition is that if one could reasonably guarantee that all accesses of personal information were both properly logged and available to the “data subject”, then we would be much less unhappy about our information being on the databases in the first place. Is such technology feasible? What would it take?

Identity as a programming language

If Sam can do it (and at the same time claim that Scott and Adam have as well) then I guess we all can…

You are C++. You are very popular and open to suggestions. Many have tried to be like you, but haven't been successful
Which Programming Language are You?

It is very interesting to note how compulsive these kind of tests are: it seems like we all want to know how we are rated by others. Very natural. Perhaps we can get a hold of this and link it in to the domain of assessment and the issue of identity?

Also, there should be an easy way of presenting the results of such tests (OK, perhaps more serious ones) in an e-portfolio, and make that available to others to search on. Perhaps I’m saying no more than something about FOAF and another way in which it could be used: this certainly links to Scott’s approach to e-portfolios.

About identity

Found a very nice PDF file called “A Sociological Approach to Self and Identity“. I’m heartened that, despite my knowing next to nothing about this literature, many of the points here seem to echo things Anna and I said in our paper on “Ethical Portfolios: Supporting Identities and Values“, which I’ve also mentioned in previous blog posts.

As far as I can see, there is a common idea that people’s (several) identities are bound up with the roles they play and the groups they interact with. It’s a short step to introduce values (which the cited paper does, though not centrally) associated both with the groups and with the roles people play when interacting with those groups of people. Because we all interact in various different groups, playing various different roles, everyone has several different identities.

Going beyond the paper first mentioned, the challenge for personal ethical development is to develop a set of core values which permeate one’s behaviour across one’s whole life, without leading to rigidity and the inability to play the various roles one chooses to play effectively. It’s relatively easy to see examples of people who don’t seem to have developed a decent, good set of core values; but much more challenging to examine oneself critically in this regard.

Maybe one could see this as a kind of Holy Grail, or Philosopher’s Stone, of personal development. I hope that, if we (CRA, JISC CETIS) do manage to go ahead with a conference on identity later this year, we can include this developmental side of identity issues.

More on identity and e-portfolio concepts

Another of Scott’s posts (the one titled “Identity and Principal” ) takes the credit for sending me to look at This blog post by Dave Snowden. Dave Snowden is here interesting and intellectually amusing, certainly, but also a bit disappointing. Of the given five “characteristics of an identity”, three are negative or privative:

  • An identity is not the same thing as a role.
  • An identity does not have rigid boundaries, nor is it susceptible of precise definition.
  • Identity is not absolute, it can change in context or over time

one is rather recondite

  • Identity in human systems is a strange attractor

and the last

  • Identity is established by robust resilience

asserts more about how identity operates than about its nature.

What I get positively from Snowden is fuel for the idea that the principal unit of social analysis should not be the individual, but the identity. Snowden writes “that focusing on identity not the individual as the primary unit of analysis resolves a lot of otherwise intractable problems.” Very nice, and I am heartily inclined to agree. Sometime I’d like to add more to the discussion on the nature of identity.

So back to Scott. He says

“The issue for ePortfolios is what are they intended to evidence – an identity or a principal? For me, identity is a far better choice and more easily accomplished. However, we have to give up the concept of one-portfolio-per-principal, as principals are no longer within the scope of concern. This also means no one system for managing portfolios.”

I agree and disagree. I support the idea that e-portfolio systems revolve primarily about identities, rather than “principals”. We said things to that effect in our paper for the EIfEL 2006 ePortfolio conference in Oxford. But the idea of one-portfolio-per-principal is not one which bears any scrutiny: I’d classify it as a straw man. Everyone is familiar with the idea of one CV per application, not per person. Most e-portfolio systems that allow presentations are built around the idea that different things will be revealed to different people.

The logic of the following point depends on the confusion between portfolio as presentation and portfolio as e-portfolio management system (EPMS). Of course one EPMS can manage several different presentations.