Social Identity in the Digital Age

Digital Anthropology takes place in a wide, interesting and, varied manner. The Digital Age has brought in its wake situations where the individual extends themselves into this convoluted network of extended personalities that is the very stuff of the digital age, for instance, sharing an online friendship with someone from an entire different culture, our interaction with the internet, especially in the manner of an epistemology. We often think of having a formal identity as an enabler for social and economic inclusion, but as a matter of factly, identity can have entirely the contrary effect. Once socioeconomic interactions are based on a standardized notion of identity, it is likely that social status based on past achievements, family histories, personal connections, political backing, wealth and education levels will influence socioeconomic outcomes — thereby potentially reinforcing the established class hierarchy, now you do not need to be a genius to see how the Kenyan society exhibits this phenomenon. Systems that are based on anonymity might in fact be the most equitable and inclusive, in the sense of ensuring equal participation by all, by systematically stripping out social status.

However, here is the caveat- anonymous systems carry a high cost in terms of efficiency. Reputations would be impossible to establish, contracts would be hard to enforce, and there would be more insecurity as it would be much harder to track and clamp down on illicit activities. It is therefore not at all certain that the poorer segments of the population would be better off in absolute terms if the economy worked on the basis of anonymity.

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Promoting digital identities for inclusive access

In fact, giving lower-income people digital identities would make it possible for them to participate in the modern digital economy in many ways: to open accounts and receive moneys from anyone, assert their rights over digital services they have contracted and digital assets they have purchased, settle disputes, etc. But establishing a formally recognized identity can be a major hurdle in itself, especially in countries that do not have digitized national ID schemes.

It is ironic that the difficulty of establishing formal identity in the first place often prevents so many lower-income, and especially rural, people from accessing digital services. Identity systems with selective coverage of the population create a double whammy of inequality: on the one hand, these partial systems help the haves to carry their social and economic status symbols and reputations into every market interaction they are engaged in, and on the other they negate digital visibility and access to digital services for the have not´s. This, my gentle-folk, is the very essence of Digital Marxism.

I believe that it should be the government´s responsibility to ensure that every citizen in fact has a digital identity, not merely to create a platform that enables people to have digital identities. For instance, the Indian government´s Aadhar push to provide everyone in India with a unique number ID linked to biometrics is a good example of such a policy. Perhaps this is where the Kenyan government got its idea of redoing the issuance of a formalized identification system.

What are the demands of identity verification systems?

The problem is that different policy agendas converge on the issue of identity and have different requirements for a digital identity platform. What works as an identify standard for financial systems may not be good enough for law enforcement agencies. The risk is that governments adopt the highest standard, with the result that the inclusion agenda and the needs of the poor are ignored. Of course, quite the case in Kenya.

If there is no centralized government system for identity, then what we need is a system that:

-Lets the issue of identity be resolved in the first instance within the communities where poor people live, shop and work (for example, through attestation by known local figures).

-Draws people into seeking and improving their digital identities over time, much in the way that they develop their social network over time.

But I feel this might prove cumbersome here in Kenya, especially with reference to the first point above-mentioned, perhaps may be at first, but I fear our tribal, political affiliations, et cetera would serve to impede such a reality here; but, I do not say that it’s impossible.

This is the notion of social identity. Let people with meager resources help each other overcome their limitations: each may have very little voice, but collectively they represent a potentially vast information system for official identification purposes. Conversely, this is hard to reconcile with the way governments and formal institutions tend to handle identity verification: in silos, contained within databases and cards. We need more flexible notions of identity, which build layers of identity information and verification through social networks – as well as bureaucratized ID-seeking processes. Most people here in Kenya can say have gone through that infernal waiting process that has become etched into the Kenyan culture in seeking government-approved documents.

The Digital Age notion of identity should be derived from a collective consciousness that identifies a people in the face of an evolving world. Digital Psychology understands these shifts in pragmatic aspects of identity.


Thought Projection: Imagine a future where you’re identified by/as a computer program, much like in the movie, “The Matrix”; especially towards a technotopic society where yet-to-be-real-identification systems exist. The Rise of the Quantified Self.


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