Note — Jul 17, 2022

Soulbinding Like a State

Brilliant piece by Gordon Brander who looks at Web3 identity dreams, self-sovereign identity, James C. Scott’s book Seeing Like a State (1998), maps, territory, Borges, and wallets. At some point it felt like I was going to highlight the whole first half so have a read yourself (the second half is more ‘nuts and bolts’) but basically he points to the important difference between legibility and identity. A lot of attempts at what is called identity are actually creating legibility for the state and/or the network. He gives multiple examples of this but this phrase kind of sums it up for the internet and Web3: “Legibility is disastrous at scale, and the internet is always at scale. The internet is flat, frictionless, and global, and algorithms are totalizing.” We need self-sovereignty, illegibility and privacy, not an indelible identity made available at scale.

When I reflect on the lived experience of identity, I think of something that is complex, personal, intersectional, situational, intersubjective. It seems like the thing we are gesturing toward when we say “on-chain identity” is not this personal lived experience of identity, but something else. What is it? […]

This sounds closer to the mark. When we say “on-chain identity”, we are gesturing toward something that is standardized, certified, registered, recorded. An API for quantifying people. This is reflected in the use-cases cited for on-chain identity, such as one-person-one-vote polling, credit scores, credentials, reputation, mutual rating, resumes, background checks. […]

The greatest danger emerges when legibility is paired with godlike power and totalizing ambition. You can only simplify reality to match your map when you operate at the scale of a god, a state… or perhaps, of a network. […]

The internet is adaptive, and will algorithmically reshape its reality around anything that is legible. Google makes clicks legible, so clickbait manifests. Facebook makes reacts legible, so inflammatory content manifests. YouTube makes engagement legible, so creepy videos for toddlers manifest. […]

Legibility on the internet is hazardous. And if it is hazardous to make clicks or emotes legible to algorithmic forces, how much more hazardous is it to make people legible? Making identity legible at internet scale is seeing like a state.