Reducing Identity: Reductionism vs Holism in System Design

dataI got into a big discussion / argument once with a friend and colleague about how to define identity. The argument went something like this, human beings are defined by their identity (I said), yes, but identity is just made up of pieces of information and so the concept of identity does not exist in its own right (he said). And so it went on, back and forth becoming more complex, until finally we both went our separate ways on the matter and talked about much more important things like the weather.

A few years later and I still mull over the matter. I am becoming though, increasingly more receptive to the idea of using a reductionist approach to identity access management (IAM). However, I need to warn you that the story does not end there and my friend hasn’t quite won the argument…

Lets start out by looking at what reductionism is. I am going to look at it from a behavioural ecology / anthropology standpoint because, after all, we are talking about human beings here, the technology of which should follow – a point eloquently made by another colleague in this LinkedIn discussion here.

The debate around reductionism vs. holism in the world of ecology is a raging and unresolved argument. Reductionism resolves any given system down into its component parts, holism, looks at those parts as a whole. Reducing systems into their component parts can potentially miss effects that are only seen when those parts are working together. And looking only at the whole can miss opportunity to make effective changes to that whole by making subtle changes to the components. The question is, are the parts actually greater than the whole and will reducing an identity system to its component parts be better than setting the context of the use of the identity by the human operator?

I believe that you do not need to choose one side of the argument over the other. In creating complex technology systems which will serve as our digital me, we should be looking at both sides of what is essentially, the same coin. Yes, we can break identity down into its constituent parts, data, but then, these data can mean different things within different contexts. My friend was right, identity is just about data, but how we use that data in the human / technology interface needs to be designed holistically.

p.s. I am going to explore this theme further and look at the effects of approaching data platform design from both a reductionist and holistic methodology. As an ex chemist and anthropologist, the scientist in me craves a proper scientific approach to this subject. Maybe someone out there is looking at this? If you know of any research into this area of identity and data please let me know.

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