Different Needs, Different Perspectives, Different Mental Models

By Joe Andrieu <joe@legreq.com

Three wise strangers: a rabbi, a Buddhist, and an atheist, walk into a bar… It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but in fact, it’s the start of a story that is probably familiar to most identity professionals.

Our religious experts are understandably initially going to interpret each other’s comments as simply wrong. 

The rabbi says, “It is written in scripture that the Messiah will return one day.”

The Buddhist replies “No. He is the way, but he is not the deity.”

The atheist, in disbelief says, “You are both crazy.”

Without the awareness that each holds a different belief system, their comments about God and divinity simply don’t align. What one says about God appears to simply be incorrect to the others, and vice-versa. It’s easy to see how this could turn into a frustrating conversation.

When we gather for workshops and conferences, we often find ourselves talking with others who have a different take on what exactly we mean by “identity”. This is especially true at cross-over events like ID2020 or the International Identity Summit, where organizers make an effort to bring in a more diverse group of participants, but it rings true even at conferences catering to professionals. We’re supposed to know what identity means, right? I mean, what are all these other folks talking about?

Like these three wise strangers, we identity professionals have our own, often religiously held beliefs about exactly what identity means to us, and sometimes, when we hear others speaking from a different, and perhaps as equally deeply held belief, about what identity really means, it can be a challenge to do anything but point out how wrong they are. This makes it hard to have productive conversations. 

But when the wise strangers realize they are people of different faiths, the conversation can take a turn to comparative and collective discourse rather than simple arguments about accuracy and misunderstanding. Recognizing that the others start from a different foundation gives an opportunity to explore and integrate new perspectives. 

The rabbi says, “So how do you handle… ” 

The Buddhist says, “That is true, we believe that means …”

The atheist says, “You are still both crazy.”

Acknowledging the perspective of others as valid won’t resolve all the differences, but it can provide a framework for mutual respect and, if you’re lucky, a foundation for areas of mutual agreement.

The rabbi says “It is good to be kind.”

The Buddhist replies “Yes. Kindness eases suffering.”

The atheist says, “Finally, you all make a point!”

Every one of us understands what we need from identity, what the pain points or opportunities our own systems and technologies help resolve or deliver. We are at these conferences because we have a need for identity. That need is real and palpable and different for each of us. These needs shape our perspectives, which in turn shape our mental models of what identity means, leading to different mental models for different identity professionals.

This is the take in “Five Mental Models of Identity”, a recently published collaborative paper from Rebooting the Web of Trust, written by myself, Andrew Hughes, Nathan George, Antoine Rondelet, and Christophe MacIntosh. In it, we explore five different, valid mental models for identity that we have seen at conferences and workshops over the last decade and more.

No doubt you’ll find your preferred perspective there, as well as the angle from those crazy guys from down the hall. 

What you won’t find is support for those who shout “Stop talking about Identity! It’s confusing and overrated!” 

We think identity is as fundamental to human cognition as language, and that the digital identity systems we build as identity professionals are fundamental to the emerging, evolving digital society we now live in. Identity will happen whether you design for it or not, so we would do well to think deeply about this real-world phenomenon that our digital tools help us manage. If we hope to build identity systems that can scale, with dignity, to every last child, we must incorporate the needs of everyone involved. To do that, we need to find ways to see beyond our apparent differences to understand how best we can best build systems that address the needs of the broadest population of stakeholders. Anything less will be a disservice. 

It’s a quick read, so go read it. Maybe it will help conversations at your next workshop.http://bit.ly/FiveMentalModels

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