More on identity and Mask

Who or what is ‘I’? How does our experience of ‘I’ change as we interact with our world?

Yes, I do know that those questions might seem to fit more in philosophy or psychology. But as per the previous post, they also have huge ramifications in user-experience and user-interface design, in product-design, in sensemaking and decisionmaking, and in enterprise-architecture, business-architecture, security-architecture and many other architectures in general.

Quick summary so far:

  • there’s a decision-making ‘I’ – “I am that which chooses”, that which experiences the world as ‘I’ and responds accordingly, and which can be highly volatile, especially in terms of real-time decision-making
  • there’s a kind of presentation-layer of ‘I’, which is expressed through surface-appearance, through digital-personas and suchlike
  • there’s a kind of interaction between each ‘I’ and that presentation-layer – an interaction which is particularly clear in work with Masks, as I’ll return to in a moment
  • there’s a distinct identifier-layer for ‘I’, comprised of identifiers acknowledged or imposed by others as well as self, and typically associated roles, rights and responsibilities for ‘I’ – with the identifiers often associated with external or assigned personas (digital or otherwise)
  • beneath it all, in most cases, there seems to be a kind of unitary ‘I’ that is experienced by self as ‘I’, and perhaps also experienced by others as one’s ‘I’ – though with reservations on that such as indicated by the classic Johari Window model

So, to identity and Mask.

I’ve just finished re-reading Keith Johnstone’s classic ‘Impro: improvisation and the theatre‘. To me, it’s absolute must-read for anyone interested in the human side of enterprise-architecture: its sections on status, spontaneity and narrative can be real eye-openers for understanding how organisations really work. (Or, more often, don’t work…) Yet for me it’s always been the last section in the book that’s always stood out the most: the section on Masks.

The term ‘Mask’ has a special meaning here – hence the initial-capital on Mask, to distinguish it from a more everyday theatrical mask. In many ways the Mask is just an ordinary half-face mask: the difference is more in how it’s used, not just as a costume-prop but as an active persona or literal ‘per-sona’ – an active filter on ‘that through which I sound’.

[There’s also another set of techniques that work with full-face Masks, or Tragic Masks, but I won’t go into any of that here.]

The context in the book is improvisational theatre, of course – not enterprise-architecture. Yet there are a few themes that are extremely relevant for us.

One is that it’s a real and intensive research-environment. True, it’s subjective-research rather than objective-research, but in essence the principles of of investigation are the same, and certainly the level of discipline required is much the same if they’re to get usable results. So don’t dismiss it out of hand because it’s not IT… 🙂

Given that, note what is probably the key theme there: that there’s some kind of interaction that goes on between actor and Mask. It’s not as simple as a one-way ‘I am wearing this prop’: wearing a Mask has definite impacts on the actor, and it seems there’s even some continuity between different people wearing the same Mask:

Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off sideways. Shay Gorman created the character. I took the Mask to a course I gave in Hampshire. The students were entering from behind a screen and suddenly I heard Mr Parks’ laughter. It entered with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted, and looked up as if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept sitting on the extreme edge of a chair as if it wanted to fall off. Fortunately it didn’t, because the wearer wasn’t very athletic. It really makes no sense that a Mask should be able to transmit that information to its wearer.

I’ll very carefully make no comment here as to how that kind of information could pass from one actor to another, just through the medium of the respective Mask: just note that it is so, under those types of technical conditions.

Also explained in the book is that the whole thing depends on some quite specific psychological or psychosocial conditions. To translate it into the terms I’ve been using with the SCAN framework, it’s all happening in the real-time space, and it just does not work on the Belief (‘control’) side of the decision-modality spectrum. It only works either on the Faith-side of the decision-spectrum – where conscious choice of some kind is available, though primarily as a kind of ‘intentional surrender’ – or when there’s no conscious thought at all – which also means no conscious choice.

The fundamental point in Mask work is that there is a sense not so much of loss of ‘I’, as a kind of negotiation with the Mask as to what that surface-‘I’ will be. And the Mask can impose some fairly severe constraints on what it can allow, its ‘repertoire’ and suchlike: for example, it can be very difficult to do any kind of predefined script whilst doing Mask-work. If there’s no awareness of that negotiation with the Mask, there are two likely outcomes: either the student will attempt to’take control’, which results in poor outcomes and sometimes literally ‘wooden’ performances; or the student will fail to notice the impacts of the Mask, and in effect believe that the results are their own choice of ‘I’, rather than the default sort-of-choices imposed by the Mask. Which might well not be a good idea…

So what on earth has any of this to do with enterprise-architecture?

The answer is this: anything can be a Mask in this sense. Anything.

To be slightly more specific, anything that can act as a surface-level filter or persona – a ‘that through which I sound’ – can act as a Mask in this sense. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it doing so.

And anything that can act as a filter on ‘I’, also in effect changes the surface experience of ‘I’, of how others experience that ‘I’, and also the actions and choices of that ‘I’.

A couple of really simple everyday examples:

— Someone may be the most mild-mannered person face to face, but suddenly an absolute demon behind the wheel of a car.

— Conversations in Twitter often seem artificial, terse, mechanical – the Mask of the 140-character constraint.

Consider all the ‘professional props’ of just about every trade and tradition: the doctor’s stethoscope, the barrister’s wig, the consultant’s clipboard. All of them are Masks: the person’s behaviour, demeanour, stance and language will all change the moment they pick up that prop.

Consider a business uniform, a brand, a shop layout, a user-interface layout: they’re all Masks in this sense too – an active filter for a persona, as ‘that through which I sound’, impacting on and constraining the choices and actions of the respective ‘I’.

Every role is a Mask. Every digital-identity or digital-persona is a Mask. (Think for a moment about the impact of that on the ways that people interact with digital systems – especially when multiple personae intersect.)

Layer upon layer upon layer of Masks, changing continuously throughout every day.

And, if we’re not conscious of those impacts and constraints on ‘I’, will find our ‘I’ seeming to change with each change of Mask, yet not knowing how or why.

In short, the sense of identity may – and probably will – become fluid in the context of a Mask.

And almost anything may act as a Mask.

Often in unpredictable and/or emergent ways.

Affecting interaction with just about everything else.

Hence, also in short, a definitely non-trivial concern for security, privacy, user-experience design, process-design, branding and a whole host of other themes in enterprise-architecture and elsewhere.

Identity and Mask might perhaps seem somewhat abstract at first. A bit less abstract by now, I hope?

Over to you for comment, anyway. 🙂

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
10 comments on “More on identity and Mask
  1. well, to complicate things some more input.
    – from research we know that our sub-consiousness knows 0.4 seconds before our consiousness what we decide. Weird, isn’t it? How to use this pragmatically I don’t know yet
    – I feel that cognitive ergonomy is indeed very important: how to shape a site. like a coffe machine, that the user immmediately understands th emmessag and how it works.

  2. Peter Bakker says:

    @Frans van der Reep

    We also know that not all our “actions” are initiated by our brain. How to use it pragmatic? We should accept that we cannot design/plan everything up front. So we should focus on the infrastructure (the backbone/nervous system) which is needed to deal with “trial & error” and “learning by doing” We should take an example from how babies learn to cope with their environment.

  3. Tom G says:

    @Frans van der Reep – “How to use this pragmatically I don’t know yet” – same here. Hence why this exploration. 🙂

    “I feel that cognitive ergonomy is indeed very important”

    Agreed: again, I have much to learn there too. Can’t quite pin it down as yet, but yes, does feel important. Somehow.

  4. Mahesh Swamy says:

    Been reading the last couple of articles as well as the discussion with Brian Hopkins. Very thought provoking.

    Just to add a different perspective, I like thinking of ourselves as ego-based creatures (I’m not talking Freud here) that have the need to feel important, one way or another. The ego takes our experiences and filters them through our likes and dislikes – thus defining our reaction to any situation.

    I am trying to verbalise this in a blog post myself, but off the top of my head: understanding how the ego is likely to act in any one person within any given context will greatly help us shape their experience. It will also help us understand the correct level of control and governance, amongst a great many things.

    So, then, perhaps our online identities allow a mask (each with their likes and dislikes) to surface and project their voice into the world. These contexts are different and satisfy our ego in different ways.

    There was quite a lot of content to follow in your posts – I hope I interpreted it correctly thus far….

  5. Stuart Boardman says:

    Having kicked all this off with my comment on Brian’s blog (Technology Will Shape Who We Are As People And Businesses) and then pulled Frans into the discussion, I’d like to highjack this one to talk about what got me onto the topic of Identity in the first place.
    It started with digital identity. I had the good fortune at a fairly early stage to have a very far sighted colleague who pointed me at user-centric identity and the ideas of amongst others Dick Hardt (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrpajcAgR1E – essential and amusing watching). What was central to all of this was the idea that digital identity should mimic as closely as possible real world identity. What was also important in the discussion at that time was getting people to understand that what was then called digital identity had remarkably little to do with identity at all, consisting at best of some attributes associated with an identifier. As Dick put it back in 2006, “identifying” myself with my login credentials confirmed only that “I” was……a directory entry. (Unfortunately not too much has changed since then).
    Inspired by that, I found myself looking at how identity was used in the “real” world and quickly coming to the depressing conclusion that in that world too (and leaving serious scientific/philosophical study aside) there was a lot of misuse. When it comes down to it, my passport says remarkably little about my identity – unless you combine it with other information. Moreover when someone asks me to identify myself, they’re usually not interested in finding out exactly who I am but just whether I’m in possession of and appear to be the owner of a valid credential (e.g. a passport) – which is not really inherently different from being a directory entry.

    So I then found myself increasingly concerned with trying to get Identity properly understood. Even though my work in this area was primarily aimed at people implementing digital systems, it seemed obvious that, if we were ever going to do digital identity properly, we’d need to start by understanding identity properly. So when the Jericho Forum came along with their Identity Commandments and introduced the idea of persona, it seemed obviously the right approach. Persona, as Tom has explained, fits very closely with the Mask concept but (philological discussions aside), I think it may be useful to keep them linked but separate. In order to explain that I need to make a visit back into the digital world. I think we can find parallels in the “real world” but, let’s face it, the boundaries between the real and digital world are becoming fuzzier.

    In the digital world we may choose to use multiple personae/masks but we typically have far more of those foisted on us. Some of these are recognizable as a persona or mask (e.g. the profile Amazon builds on you) but others are on the surface just login credentials to various websites and applications. From the Jericho perspective this would be a persona. Your employer, for example, typically associates an employee number with you, issues you a login name (if you’re lucky, just the one) and a set of attributes such as your title, role(s), entitlements, salary etc. I suggest this may not be a mask. The mask associated with my relationship with my employer is more the one embodied by my business card, my profile on the site of, for example, The Open Group or is implicit in the template I use for official presentations or indeed any situation where I am a representative of my company. That’s not a fundamental issue in the discussion but it may simplify the discussion if we keep them apart. Getting back to Jericho, something which for them is fundamental is that the kind of attributes I listed and arguably the persona itself are assigned to me by my employer. Jericho says that’s fine. They can manage and delete them and in fact should do so, when my association with the company ends – or at some later time prescribed by applicable laws. What they (or any other instance) should not do, is to store or manage any attributes not assigned by them and in particular not attributes associated with my core identity. One example is a citizens registration number. In many countries this is used as part of validating someone’s identity or authorization to perform certain acts (e.g. open a bank account, gain employment etc). This may be used (under controlled circumstances) but not stored except where it is necessary to comply with laws (e.g. providing salary and benefits information to the tax authorities). So the Jericho model very specifically relates ownership of attributes to personae. This may not really be relevant for a mask but I’m open to being persuaded that it is. As long as we leave the Jericho principles in place.

    We all make increasing use of electronic media and services to carry out all sorts of personal and employment related activities. This means that a significant part of our engagement with other people and institutions, which previously took place in the physical world now takes place in the digital world. The “real” world therefore encompasses both. So all the concerns we have about what identity really means in the physical world need to apply also to the digital world. In fact they may need to apply even more, exactly because the digital world foists so many personae on us.

    Which means in turn that the architecture used to manage digital identity needs to reflect these principles. And that in turn means we need to abstract identity from entitlement from access control. Identity is often used for access control but a) often incorrectly and b) is equally well used for other purposes. Access control is more properly based on entitlements (you get through the door because you have the right entitlements, not because your name is Frans van der Reep, Tom Graves or even Tom Jones). Entitlements are granted based on attributes, which are often as not attributes of a particular persona. This is not about any specific technology, even though some technologies fit the model better than others. This of course is worthy of a whole new discussion but that might be abusing Tom’s blog a bit too much.

    Short version of this story. Digital Identity needs to be approached the same way as physical world identity, because there’s no excuse (anymore) for treating them as different. Tom’s exposition in the last two blogs provides a solid grounding for understanding Identity. The Jericho Forum Identity Commandments provide a set of principles and a framework (implicit) for doing it right in the digital world. There’s still some architecture work to be done around this. We’ve started that within the Open Group. I’d be delighted if anyone wanted to join in – directly or indirectly.

  6. Tom G says:

    @Mahesh Swamy – many thanks!

    Two comments (one of which I’m going to repeat to Stuart in a moment 🙂 ):

    1. Yes, this is important, and it needs a blog-post of your own – somewhere more visible and more publicly-accessible than tucked here in the depths of someone else’s blog. Seems to me that the more people we can engage in this conversation, each with their different perspectives, the better outcome we’ll all have.

    (The only minor request is that you come back and post a link to your blog-post when it’s done? 🙂 )

    2. On “perhaps our online identities allow a mask (each with their likes and dislikes) to surface and project their voice into the world. These contexts are different and satisfy our ego in different ways.”

    Yes, agreed, though that’s slightly different from what I’ve been saying above – it suggests more ‘control’ over the mask than I’ve been seeing. (The impro folks might see that as the difference between wearing an ordinary mask versus developing an interaction with a Mask.)

    I’ll leave it there, though, until you’ve had a chance to develop your own thoughts on this. Looking forward to see what you come up with in that blog-post! 🙂

  7. Tom G says:

    @Stuart Boardman – thanks Stuart!

    As promised, I’m going to repeat the comment I’ve just made to Mahesh: this is important, and it needs a blog-post of your own – somewhere more visible and more publicly-accessible than tucked here in the depths of someone else’s blog. 🙂

    “if we were ever going to do digital identity properly, we’d need to start by understanding identity properly” – very strong agree. (This is also in part one of the key points that Dick Hardt makes in the video you link to.)

    “I think it may be useful to keep them [Persona and Mask] linked but separate” – again, strong agree. They’re related, but they’re not the same – especially given the common usages of ‘persona’ in the digital space.

    “Your employer, for example, typically associates an employee number with you, issues you a login name (if you’re lucky, just the one) and a set of attributes such as your title, role(s), entitlements, salary etc. I suggest this may not be a mask.” – again, agree, though perhaps with some reservations. This is not so much either a mask or a persona, as an Identifier that attaches to a persona, that then is used to confer or confirm various ‘rights’.

    I’d just add here that when digital-identity folks talk about ‘identity’, what they usually mean is Identifier – not identity in the more human sense I’ve used above. It’s one of these ‘the map is not the territory’ things – it’s very important not to mix the two! 🙂

    This is illustrated by your comment “They can manage and delete them and in fact should do so, when my association with the company ends – or at some later time prescribed by applicable laws”: we would definitely hope that it’s just an Identifier that’s being deleted here, and not your own identity! 😐

    “the Jericho model very specifically relates ownership of attributes to personae” – yes. The persona is a ‘recognised proxy‘ for the identity in the context of that business or website or whatever – the attributes are attached to the persona via an Identifier.

    “This means that a significant part of our engagement with other people and institutions, which previously took place in the physical world now takes place in the digital world. The “real” world therefore encompasses both.” – yes, again.

    Another way to look at this is to use the distinctions I drew in other posts in terms of asset-dimensions: physical, virtual, relational, aspirational. Many of these identity/identifier-issues seem to revolve around relational (person-to-person) and/or aspirational (person-to-abstract – i.e. ‘reputation’ or ‘recognised identity’, in this case) in terms of access to resources, which are primarily physical and/or virtual – hence your note that “So all the concerns we have about what identity really means in the physical world need to apply also to the digital world”. I suspect this needs yet another long post that I need to explore… 😐 – but might be better as a discussion between half-a-dozen people in a room full of whiteboards?

    “In fact they may need to apply even more, exactly because the digital world foists so many personae on us.” Agreed, though perhaps the key difference – as indicated fairly early in Dick Hardt’s talk – is that we don’t a digital equivalent of photo-ID, which helps a lot in person-to-person Identifier encounters.

    “that in turn means we need to abstract identity from entitlement from access control” – yep. Exactly.

    “This of course is worthy of a whole new discussion but that might be abusing Tom’s blog a bit too much.” – it’s not ‘abusing’ Tom’s blog at all, though I do think it needs to be in a much more public and context-appropriate place than here! (e.g. a Jericho blog? or a site already dedicated to digital-identity etc – i.e. somewhere that the relevant people are more likely to find it?)

    “I’d be delighted if anyone wanted to join in – directly or indirectly.” – likewise. My only reservation is that although I might hope to be able to be of some use in the conceptual side of the story, I’m well aware of how little I know or understand of the digital side… 😐

    One other point to throw in here, although it isn’t directly linked to what you’ve said above. Seems clear that I need to do another blog-post on the whole issue of identity (as distinct from Identifier), around change and choice: there’s a tag-line that’s been bashing about in my head for years about “I am not that which changes, I am that which chooses“. This again seems to be where persona can become Mask, by constraining our choices or imposing its own: the sense of identity can be lost or fragmented there, even though the Identifier and persona remain intact. Something to explore another time, anyway.

    Thanks again!

  8. Stuart Boardman says:

    Thanks Tom. I’ll take up your suggestion and continue in a more dedicated context. There may nonetheless be a couple of points I’d like to pick up on from the perspective of base setting. But not now.

  9. Mahesh Swamy says:

    Thanks Tom, yep working on it. It feels like I have opened up pandoras’s can of worms… I am trying to unite the thoughts into soemthing understandable for the moment. I will definitely post a link.

    For the moment, I would like to add to Stuart’s comment –

    Short version of this story. Digital Identity needs to be approached the same way as physical world identity, because there’s no excuse (anymore) for treating them as different.

    This is certainly true, and will be the major driving force of the evolution of the internet as a whole. The seperation that existed in the past of our digital and online selves is dissolving at a rapid rate. Google, Bing and other search engines have made it all too easy to amalgamate the different personas we wear and this allows any other human to gain a much better, more accurate understanding of who we are, in our day to day existence than it would have been say 30 years ago.

    This, then, is why I believe it is important to understand the guiding principles behind human behaviour. While I dont want to digress into pshycology and philosophy too much, adapting well thought through principles into formal frameworks and architectures is what we are good at (or atleast like to think we are good at) in IT. It’s all about nailing the right principles to the right level of detail, I reckon.

    As I mentioned, its not very concrete in my head at the moment – still working through it all. keep the discussion burning! 🙂

  10. Mahesh Swamy says:

    Hi Tom,

    Some theorising on my part, as promised.

    http://commonsenseanalysis.tumblr.com/post/16560811227/online-identity-part-2-our-personas

    More to come as my mind untangles and my time frees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*