Cryptographic IdentitiesCurator: Quinn Dupont, Research Associate, Postdoctoral Fellow, iSchool, University of Washington | November 2016 | Collection ongoing
Collection Editor: Isabel Pedersen
Collection Archivist: Quinn Dupont and Sharon Caldwell
Since 2009, the decentralized ledger technology originally used for Bitcoin and similar “cryptocurrencies” has been mooted as a disruptive force in society. More recently, the technology has expanded into new fields and applications, known as “blockchain technologies” because of the way that blocks of transactions are bundled into immutable chains. These cryptocurrencies and blockchains, and other kinds of similar rhetorically-explicit cryptographic technologies, now stand in as new and speculative personal identities—doppelgangers for everything from personal wealth to medical records to voter identification.
This curated collection was first developed in 2016, a pivotal year for cryptocurrencies and blockchains, which shifted in focus from experimental and ideologically-driven toys to the serious work of enterprise applications and financial technology. This collection is therefore anticipatory, projecting into a possible future where the range of personal cryptographic technologies has expanded into more visible markers of difference alongside invisible modes of governance and power. Specifically, this collection anticipates the emergence of new kinds of identity management, thoroughly remediated by cryptography, and looks beyond technologies which merely include some cryptographic routines as part of their operation (which are, at this point, already ubiquitous in digital technologies). Motivated by security concerns and a desire for ubiquitous privacy-enhancing technologies alike, a new class of personal technologies has emerged to fuse cryptographic systems with the neoliberal subject. When identity is formed in cryptographic technologies it becomes mutable, fungible, and mobile. Online and “offline” authentication services increasingly permit “hot-swapping” cryptographic selves, as one might have previously worn a new fashion or hid behind a mask. With the emergence of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technologies, identity management has become an area of entrepreneurial exploration. So far, this exploration has filtered down into commercial products that hold Bitcoin for payment (financial identities), and products that augment and remediate exchange between individuals (or properly, Deleuzian “dividuals”). As these technologies move from fashion accessories (e.g., rings, bangles, and jewelry) to hosting biometrics sensors, the conceptual linkages to identity become harder to ignore. The potential dark side of these changes includes persistent tracking, new kinds of identity emerging from the integration of technology into human lifeworlds (“unnatural” and neoliberal identities), and the risk of collateral damage when essential and high-value systems are inevitably hacked or exploited. A key challenge to tracking the emerging future of cryptographic identity will be to disclose and make visible the largely infrastructural and evanescent fabrics of digital life.