‘I am not a cat’: what this week’s #zoomfail says about the future of identity

‘I am not a cat’: what this week’s #zoomfail says about the future of identity

‘I am not a cat’: what this week’s #zoomfail says about the future of identity

If you haven’t seen the lawyer with the cat face by now, where have you been? What do you mean you don’t spend your entire day glued to Twitter? What is this ‘productivity’ that you speak of?

Anyway, here is the story for the uninitiated: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-us-canada-56005428

Rod Ponton’s embarrassing episode points us to future issues with our digital identity, as the physical and digital worlds merge.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

One of the earliest internet memes, at least in my memory, is the New Yorker cartoon of two dogs in front of a computer. One says to the other “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. It showed that even in the early days of widespread consumer usage (1993), it was already easy to create a distinct digital identity.

Today, we find ourselves wrestling constantly with the issues this presents. Sometimes we’re more focused on the separation of physical and digital. For example, the regular calls for social media accounts to be tied to a ‘real’ identity. Sometimes it’s about how closely connected those two identities have become. For example, the discussion of what our Zoom backgrounds say about us, and the obsession with the books on people’s shelves.

These issues will only intensify thanks to the coming wave of technologies. Think about what digital identity means in these contexts:

  • When your physical presence is perceived differently by others on the street, based on the mixed-reality avatar you project AND the filters they choose. In less than ten years, I think most of us will spend 10hrs/day in mixed reality where the digital world is permanently overlaid on our vision.
  • When you have a digital clone who undertakes certain tasks on your behalf, making bookings, handling admin, shopping and even making phone calls – in your voice and maybe with your face.
  • When deepfake technology is so good and accessible that anyone can be shown to do or say anything, by anybody, based on only limited voice, image and video samples

Shards of identity

In reality, we don’t have a single identity. We are different people in different contexts. The me at the pub with a few beers in me is different to the me at home reading stories to my kids. This is largely a good thing. We should be able to explore different aspects of ourselves and present ourselves differently in different circumstances. It’s an important freedom on pure principle, even before we get into issues of prejudice and threat, and how it might be critical to hide aspects of our identity in some circumstances.

Sometimes the variance in our identity gets out of hand: people say things on social media they wouldn’t dare to say face to face. Hence the calls to connect digital and physical identity – a call repeated by the FA. But while well-intentioned, this is an approach that feels both wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. It would silence a lot of important and legitimate voices. And it will be made all the more challenging as the technologies above come to prominence.

The real solution has to be more nuanced. It requires us to balance the rights to privacy and freedom of expression with the damage people do under the cover of those rights. It requires an approach that will evolve as technology evolves. And ultimately, that will come down to us.

The best protection from fake news comes from teaching people scepticism and ensuring that they are in a secure financial and emotional position not to need to believe it. Likewise, any approach to managing our complex digital identities needs to start with the human issues at the root of any abuses.


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This article is by Tom Cheesewright. This post forms part of the Future of Humanity series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Humanity page.

Tom Cheesewright


Futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright is one of the UK's leading commentators on technology and tomorrow. Tom has worked with a huge range of organisations across a variety of markets, to help them to see a clear vision of tomorrow, share that vision and respond with agility. Tom draws on his experience to create original, compelling talks that are keyed to the experience of the audience but which surprise and shock with unexpected facts and examples.

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