At a service stop on the Merritt Parkway over the weekend, I was approached by a young couple in a jam. They were halfway to their destination, had pulled in for gas, then realized neither had brought a wallet. They were both on their phones, working the problem, and the guy looked up to ask if I’d heard of a roadside assistance program that could help in that situation. I wound up giving them ten bucks. Maybe it was a scam, in which case I only lost $10. But maybe it wasn’t, in which case I helped some folks in need.
Ten bucks wasn’t enough to get them as far as they said they needed to go, though. And later I got to thinking about how we might have created enough trust, in an ad-hoc way, for me to make a short-term loan of, say, $50. It’s an interesting thought experiment. I wonder what solutions you can imagine? Here are a few that occurred to me.
Web identity. Given a web connection, I could have searched for the couple’s names, found their web footprints, and verified that their photographs, locations, and other attributes matched what they claimed.
Six degrees of separation. If we could trace our connection through social network space, that might be enough. It might even be possible to do that with voice calls, but with a web connection it could be almost trivial.
PayPal. Given a web connection, we could have brought up a browser and done a PayPal transaction. In that case I wouldn’t even be making a loan, I’d know that the funds had been transferred before handing over cash.
Losing my wallet while traveling is a nightmare scenario for me. It’s never happened but I dread the thought. I hate being so dependent on documents that I carry around in a wallet that could easily be lost or stolen.
Those documents embody claims made on my behalf by identity providers that we have all agreed to trust. That arrangement became necessary when society grew beyond what interpersonal trust could scale out to support. And it will remain necessary. But as voice and data connectivity become ubiquitous, and as interpersonal trust scales out in ways it never could before, I wonder if we’ll see a re-emergence of pre-bureaucratic modes of identity.