Pangolo Junction
Life, arguments, and kunu... with Max, Nat and Zack

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Who are You?

(Hello again. You join me just as Nat is walking into the Junction to meet our two other protagonists.)

Nat: Hello, guys! (Takes a seat.) I've just had this very strange encounter.

Zack: What happened?

Nat: Well, I met this guy I haven't seen since my uni days. We used to be very good friends, so I was very happy to meet him again, except... (a puzzled look comes over Nat's face)

Zack: Except what?

Nat: Except he didn't seem to recognise me at all. He said yes, he went to the same university and yes, he also studied electrical and electronic engineering, but no - he didn't recall seeing someone like me.

Max (incredulously): Really? Perhaps he was 'taking style' to snub you?

Nat: Well, no... he looked just as puzzled and as anxious to clear up the mystery as I did. Very strange indeed.

Zack: Perhaps he did study the same course at the same university as you, but he did this in a different year and you have confused him for your friend?

Nat: Hm... that's possible. I didn't ask him which year he attended the uni. But it just shows that faces aren't as reliable an indicator of identity as most people seem to think.

Zack: But they are still very reliable in the overwhelming majority of cases. Think about it - isn't that why you're so surprised that you've got it wrong today?

Max: Well, they may be reliable today - but who can tell what will happen tomorrow? With the growth of plastic surgery, perhaps in a hundred years time you'll have people changing their appearance like they change their clothes. (Grins) That'll be sweet if you want to avoid your creditors.

Nat: Well, that may not be such a good idea. Remember, just as your creditors will find it more difficult proving that you are you, so also you will find it more difficult proving to your debtors that you are you.

Max: That can easily be dealt with. You'll send a message out to all your debtors that you plan to change your appearance, and you'll include a photo of what you plan to look like.

Zack (grinning): Ah, but then an enterprising debtor might demand for a discount in his debt and threaten to reveal to your creditors what your new appearance will be if you don't agree to his terms.

Max: Ever heard of the phrase "the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing?" Would I be so stupid as to tell my debtors who my creditors are?

Nat: Or he might decide that "what is good for the creditor is good for the debtor" and decide to change his identity without telling you.

Max: Hmm... well, it's clear that we won't be able to rely on faces as a means of identifying people. I can imagine that there'll be all kinds of interesting fallout as a result - I'm thinking of those situations where a man and woman who have undergone plastic surgery are attracted to each other purely on the basis of looks. They might be thinking "I want to marry this person because we're going to have really beautiful children". So they go ahead and get married, but when they have children...

Nat (laughing): It'll be a case of the wind blowing and exposing the nyash of the fowl when they see how unbeautiful their children are! You can change your face, but you can't change your genes.

Zack: So perhaps genetic testing will become a standard way of identifying who people are?

Nat: I don't know... it might be appropriate for situations where you need to formally identify someone, perhaps if a serious financial transaction is supposed to take place - but I can't see it being used in more informal, social situations. All that cutting, spitting and pin-pricking to get hair, saliva and blood for testing would be too awkward and cumbersome.

Max (making a face): Not to mention disgusting and potentially unhygienic. Anyway, it won't work in Nigeria. Too many people will be worried about their body parts ending up in some shrine or other.

Zack: So perhaps a better way of identifying people is how they behave in various situations and what memories of their experiences they have. For example, let's say someone rang you and said they were me. Then you'd try and find out if they know certain things that you know only I know about. (Grinning) Or if they said they were Max, you could respond by saying "This is Nuhu Ribadu of the EFCC calling to enquire about one or two questionable deals you've made in the past". If the phone line went dead before you had finished saying "Ribadu", then you would know it was Max for sure.

Max (smiling wryly): The phone line would go dead, because I would realise that I'd dialled a wrong number and got a joker on the line - Nuhu Ribadu would never say that, since he knows that all my deals are always above board.

Nat: That's an interesting idea - identifying people based not on their physical characteristics but on what you remember of their behaviour. I'm thinking about how this gives rise to the idea of virtual identities that are less tied to a person's physical being but are more tied to their words and behaviour.

In fact, with the the proliferation of online forums, e-mail and long distance phone calls where people interact without seeing each other, these are becoming more important. Someone who communicates using these means may never have seen the person he's talking to, but he still has a very firm idea of that other person's virtual identity - simply because of what he remembers of that other person words and behaviour from previous interactions.

And as the use of the virtual identities grows, you'll have different types of identities developing... people having several virtual identities... several people collaborating to create a single virtual identity... mass produced identities... throwaway identities... fictional identities... identities created by identities... and it'll be difficult telling one identity apart from another.

Max: I can imagine. For example, you could read a story about three identities who sit down in a bar and discuss whatever topic happens to be floating around in their heads, and you could end up wondering whether they're fake, real or a mixture of the two.

Nat: True. And I haven't even begun to talk about the kinds of virtual relationships these identities will form. I don't think they'll be any less intense than relationships in the real world - you only have to look at how people insult and curse themselves out on online forums - but I think that as people invest more and more of themselves in these virtual relationships, they'll want to know whether the person behind the identity is real or fake so that they know that their investment is worthwhile.

Zack: Why can't they just meet the person in the flesh? You guys are just going over the top with all this talk of virtual identities.

Nat: Why? How about lack of time? Or lack of money to make a long distance flight?

Max: Not to mention lack of visa. Or even lack of desire to meet the person.

Nat: Lack of desire? Surely there comes a time when where you absolutely want to see the face and hear the voice behind the identity.

Max: Not necessarily. Sometimes, you just know the reality cannot match the hype - and you really don't want to find out how far the reality is from the hype. There was this girl who I was once corresponding with online who I definitely didn't want to meet, because I sensed she was 'fronting'...

Zack: ...or more likely, you were 'fronting' and you didn't want to be found out!

Nat: But back to the real world of flesh and blood, and I guess that Zack is right. If someone believes that only you know certain things and only you behave in a certain way, then if you can show him that you know those things and behave in that way, he'll decide that you are you.

Max: It's a bit risky to rely too heavily on what someone says to decide he is him. For example, look how a con man operates if he wants you to think that he is another person. He first finds out a few significant facts that the person knows, and then he mentions those facts to you in order to convince you that he is that person.

Zack: That's true o. How come he can successfully pass himself off as the person even though he only knows a few facts about the person?

Max: Well, you have to look at how he does it. First of all, the few facts he knows are usually highly significant, and he can combine that knowledge with open-ended questions to get more information from you about the person. Secondly, the facts he has have a short shelf-life, so he's under pressure to make them pay dividends fast. He usually does this by injecting a huge dose of emotion to help him - like greed, when he says you are about to win a million naira - or fear, when he says your father is on his death bed.

Nat: And when emotions enter the picture, they end up scrambling your brain so that you completely forget about asking him lots of questions to determine whether he really is the real deal.

Max: But let's not assume that having someone assume your identity is always a bad thing. Look at students who aren't smart enough to sit an exam - that's why some of them get someone else to pretend to be them to sit it for them instead.

Zack: That may be good for the student - but it's bad for potential employers who will employ this dim student based on the grades that someone else got for him.

Nat: Yep - no matter how you slice it or dice it, there's always the potential for someone to suffer when identities get confused, whether by accident or design. And that's because every time you mistake a person for someone else, you say or do the wrong thing based on your ideas about how that person should or shouldn't behave.

Max: So all this identity palaver is really just to help you decide how you should behave towards someone?

Nat Yeah... pretty much so.

Max: And the decision you take is based on the assumption that a person with a particular identity will always behave in a particular way, so a particular response from you is appropriate for that particular behaviour, right?

Nat: Er, yeah... look, where is this leading up to?

Max: I was just thinking... supposing I vary my behaviour so randomly that nobody can predict how I will behave ten minutes from now? Then instead of having one coherent identity, it will be like I have many short-lived identities following each other in rapid sequence. There would be no point in trying to tag me with an identity, since that identity wouldn't tell me anything about me.

(Smiling) Then I would be free to do whatever I liked... slap a mobile policeman in the face... eat at a fast food restaurant and leave without paying... break noisy wind in a jam-packed danfo... and if anybody challenged me, I could say "That wasn't me. That was my identity of ten minutes ago."

Nat: Well, I can spot at least one flaw in your plan - you might be able to get away with all sorts of things, but conversely only someone of unsound mind will now want to have dealings with you. How would they know which of your many serial identities they would be dealing with?

Zack: And enlarging on the theme of unsound minds, there can only be one way for the public to regard a person who is so suicidally reckless that he slaps a mobile policeman and excuses himself by saying it was one of his multiple identities that was responsible. In fact, for you to have thought of this idea, one of your more insane short-lived identities must be taking over already...


  • lol @ unbeautiful children. Well the parents can go ahead and arrange for plastic surgery for the kids if they want...LOL.

    By bulletin boards, you mean forums?

    Scary thoughts in my head right now about identity theft....

    Nice one again, this is really thought provoking.

    By Blogger Nilla, At February 13, 2007 3:50 pm  

  • nice

    By Blogger Omodudu, At February 13, 2007 4:43 pm  

  • Good stuff! I might be back to leave a lengthier comment...

    By Blogger azuka, At February 14, 2007 6:48 pm  

  • Nilla,

    Shout it on the mountains of Mambilla... proclaim it in the valleys of the Ethiope river... I, Atala Wala Wala am a listening blogger. I heard what you said about 'bulletin boards', and I have consigned that phrase to my virtual incinerator. I hope you like the replacement phrase.


    This post was a bit 'heavy'... but I'm glad you found it worth readin.

    By Blogger Atala Wala Wala, At February 15, 2007 1:44 am  

  • Yeah I like the new replacement...

    I had to go google Mambilla.

    By Blogger Nilla, At February 17, 2007 5:38 pm  

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