Questions of personal identity, along with the reliability and availability of information relating to it, are fundamental to virtually every human relationship: the relationship with oneself, with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours, strangers, the local community and with society at large.
When discussing them, however, it is all too easy to talk at cross-purposes and to become entangled in misunderstandings.
Modern, mass society, in which the vast majority of people are strangers to each other, offers ideal conditions to that side of human nature (our primitive, animal side) that has no scruples about deceiving, exploiting or harming others in pursuit of its own narrow self-interests, helping those who indulge in anti-social or criminal behaviour to avoid detection in the anonymity of the crowd. This has always been a major down side of urban civilisation, although quite explicable in view of what we now know about man's animal origins. Millions of years of evolution programmed us to take advantage of the natural environment, which as far as our primitive programming is concerned, includes other individuals and groups which do not belong to our own small (family) group. Customs developed to regulate behaviour within a wider population and between neighbouring groups (customs which might be conveniently set aside for the purpose of colonisation, exploitation, war etc.), and which in the modern world have largely been replaced by national and international law (which powerful individuals or governments are still want to set aside when it suits their purpose).
Recent technological developments, however, enable those of us who want it to create an alternative “nonymous” society of individuals who are open about themselves, i.e. who they are and what they do, and prepared to allow verification of the information they provide. I envisage an ever increasing proportion of current anonymous society transforming itself into a very large number of diverse communities, which together will constitute an alternative, sustainable and nonymous socio-economic order.
Many people in our anonymous, mass, consumer society are obsessed with "privacy", the right to remain anonymous and keep secret information about their identity and activities (especially those relating to money). I cannot help wondering what it is they want to hide. I envisage quite a different, nonymous society, I expect its members to be a lot more open about themselves, about who they are and what they do. Not to satisfy a perverse curiosity or to gain unfair advantage (quite the contrary), but in order to facilitate the creation of a society largely free from non-sustainable and anti-social behaviour, as well as from criminals, terrorists and commercial (or any other kind of) exploitation.
I do not wish to belong to the same society as people who would harm, exploit or behave anti-socially towards their fellow citizens - be they criminals, terrorists, social parasites, fat-cat executives, or whoever.
At the moment, to the extent that we participate to a greater or lesser extent in the plundering of our planet - squandering its natural resources, decimating its biodiversity, disrupting its climate and life-supporting ecosystems - we are ALL criminals. The victims of our crimes will be our own children and descendents.
But what constitutes personal identity?
There is no single answer, or even a complete assemblage of answers, to this question. Exactly who I am, ultimately remains a mystery even to myself. While among the relatives and friends I know best, I sometimes realise and have to admit that I hardly know anyone at all.
We tend to equate familiarity with knowing someone, often saying, "I know you", when what we really mean is, "you are familiar to me" (for example, someone you often see on the way to work, but have never spoken to). Even members of our family are often more familiar than known to us.
What do we need to know, what can we know about other people?
The most important thing we need to know is whether someone is "friend or foe", whether they are likely to help or hurt us.
A smile says, I won't hurt you, but help you if I can. But it can be used deceptively, as a ploy to get close enough to exploit or hurt you: the salesman will smile to win your confidence and sell his wares (whether they are good for you or not), the criminal or terrorist to evade detection before robbing you or letting off his bomb.
How do we know whether or not we can trust someone? We can never be absolutely sure, but at the personal level we make assumptions, initially based on circumstances and intuition, which are strengthened, weakened or perhaps contradicted by experience and/or information that we acquire subsequently.
But what about at the non-personal level? Of the millions of people who constitute society at large, we can only get to know a tiny number well enough to judge their trustworthiness. On the other hand, a criminal or terrorist, while being a threat to society at large, may well be trustworthy and benevolent towards family and friends and thus remain unrecognised even by those who know them personally.
A major source of confusion and misunderstanding is the subjective nature of the terms criminal, terrorist or social parasite. It often happens that one man's criminal or terrorist is another man's provider, hero or freedom fighter. To the inhabitants of 9th Century Britain, the Viking invaders were the equivalent of today's criminals and terrorists, but they no doubt saw themselves as looking after their own. Modern equivalents can be seen in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. And what about Britain's and America's terror bombing of German cities in 1944/45 and the dropping of atomic bombs on two Japanese cities? Many continue to justify these massive acts of terror, while hypocritically condemning all modern forms of terrorism, even when it is directed against an occupying power. The fact is that there is no consensus as to what constitutes crime or terrorism, with those who condemn it in one situation often justifying it in another.
There is a similar ambivalence about the term, "social parasite": a man who chooses to live from state benefits rather than work is generally scorned and held in contempt by society, while a person who inherits a fortune and lives the life of a lord (perhaps literally) from unearned income is usually admired and shown deference.
We are programmed and conditioned to defer to power (wealth and social status), regardless of how it is acquired. It is a pertinent demonstration of how our "more animal than human nature" still determines social structures, attitudes and behaviour. Through the eyes of our more enlightened, human nature, both men are social parasites and in my vision of a sustainable society, would not be tolerated.
There is no need for bitter arguments for or against "nonymous society ". No one will be forced to join. And those who do will decide for themselves exactly what information they wish to disclose. Notwithstanding that certain, verifiable information will be necessary for full citizenship in Roger's World (my vision of a fair, humane and sustainable society).
For the time being, however, I have no means of verifying anything. Any information provided will be taken on trust. But be warned: one day it will be checked out and any lies (deliberate untruths) that are uncovered will be an embarrassment, to you or your family.
To give you an idea of the kind of information I have in mind, here is an incomplete and very rough draft of my own Identity File.