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Distributed Identity, Distributed Self

Topic Paper for Web of Trust Working Group October 2016

Proposed by Natalie Smolenski, Anthropologist

Recent research in neuroscience has suggested that the human “self” has many neural correlates distributed across different processing centers of the brain. Accordingly, there is no area of the brain in which “self,” as a depth experience or as a category or object of experience, is centralized or can be said to “reside.” Rather, relationships between nodes in the neural network are activated differently on the basis of which “mode” of self is being operationalized: whether it is the explicit recognition of one’s image in a mirror, the ascription of adjectives to oneself, or the prereflective stream-of-consciousness self-experience characteristic of activity that does not depend on self-objectification.

These scientific observations lead to three major questions proposed for consideration by the Web-of-Trust Working Group:

  1. How can a distributed, network-based understanding of identity contribute to innovations in a decentralized web-of-trust?

  2. Identity is operationalized tactically in different ways based on what the identity-bearing individual is doing, whether that is self-recognition, self-description, employing identity as a tool to achieve specific aims, or simply prereflectively “being a self.” Each modality of identity triggers network pathways differently. Could a Web-of-Trust facilitate the creation of multiple identity inflections on the basis of user intentions?

  3. Unlike the human brain, the internet and blockchain are network infrastructures shared by countless users. How could these “shared minds” facilitate forms of individual network identity?

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