Identity Thoughts

In the Baixa neighborhood, close to Praza de Commercio, in Lisbon, there’s a small coffee shop, called Copenhagen. They make really good specialty coffee, and huge tostadas with sourdough bread. As I was enjoying my regular double espresso, the other day, standing in front of the entrance (as we’re not allowed yet to have normal seatings, because lockdown and stuff) I saw an intriguing sign just above the coffee shop window. You can see it in the featured picture of this post, but just in case you didn’t have a proper look, I’ll tell you what it said: “Antiga Casa Pessoa”.

Now, here’s where all those years spent in the Faculty of Letters, at the Bucharest University, are starting to pay off. Of course, back then I was thinking they’re already paying off, because I was partying hard – and that’s all there is to student life, isn’t it? Whereas learning about all those poets and literary techniques, well, didn’t seem like much. And yet, 30 years later, on a quiet street in Portugal, I am traveling back in time, to make connections.

Fernando Pessoa is the name of a famous Portuguese poet, one that I learned about in University. As I was close to finish my double espresso, I asked the barista if there’s any connection between “Antiga Casa Pessoa” and this poet. It could have been just a coincidence, after all, there might have been other significant Portuguese people named Pessoa. But the barista confirmed: it was indeed, the house in which Fernando Pessoa lived at the beginning of the 20th century.

And then it all started to come back. Fernando Pessoa, apart from being a very prolific poet, was also an incredible pioneer of identity management. He wrote not only under the name of Fernando Pessoa, but, please sit down while you reading this, under over seventy different other heteronyms. Not pseudonyms, mind you, but heteronyms. What’s the difference, you asked? Well, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this:

The literary concept of the heteronym refers to one or more imaginary character(s) created by a writer to write in different styles. Heteronyms differ from pen names (or pseudonyms, from the Greek words for “false” and “name”) in that the latter are just false names, while the former are characters that have their own supposed physiques, biographies, and writing styles.

All these heteronyms had their own psychological identity, they held different, sometimes extreme views and they were all part of Fernando Pessoa, they were all Fernando Pessoa, in a way. They also had their own biographies, different literary influences, and, again, please sit while you read this, they were influencing each other.

I know the first question is: “Why wasn’t this guy in a mental institution? Writing and talking in more than seventy different psychological profiles is the actual definition of hearing voices, split personality and what not.” I don’t know the answer to this, to be honest, and in all honesty I’m quite surprised too, especially given the period in which he lived, the beginning of the 20th century. People were locked up back then for way less than that. It might have been that the dialogue between those 70 guys was actually entertaining? Who knows? Soren Kierkegaard, a prominent Danish philosopher, was also writing under various heteronyms, and he is (still) very influential in modern philosophy.

But there’s something about Fernando Pessoa, that, beyond the trivial preoccupation with his poet mental health (as if all other poets were sane in their heads, said no one ever), is important for our current times. It’s about his identity management.

When we think abut identity, in our digital lives, we think in terms of logins. When we want to access some content, we need to identify ourselves. More often than not, this identity changes the content that we receive. In the sense that the content to which we authenticate is not universal, it’s not the same for everybody. Try using two different logins in Facebook or Twitter and you will notice something weird: their feed will be different, even if they are following the same people. There ar subtle algorithmic influences that are changing what we experience, based on how we identify.

It’s almost like in quantum physics, which postulates a phenomenon evolves differently based on the observer. If the observer is not there, then the photon might or might not be there as well.

In Buddhism, this is called “emptiness”, or the intrinsic lack of meaning of true reality, which is “empty” of meaning – we are the ones ascribing meaning to this canvas, on top of which we are creating what we call reality.

Where do I want to go with this?

Well, to the blockchain, obviously. Blockchain’s content is immutable, and, after consensus is applied, it will be the same for everybody. Even more, in blockchain the concept of identity is not a building block, is not fundamental. You can, of course, build something similar with a login on top of blockchain, a social identity, searchable and classifiable by comparison with other identities, but the base interaction unit is just a public / private key. That’s the fundamental, the smallest, the irreducible piece of information that you need to access (and interact with) a blockchain. And this pair is void of identity. You can have thousands of them, they will all be, structurally, the same.

Just like Pessoa’s heteronyms, which, although different in approaches, were, in fact, the facets of a single person.

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