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"Identity Through Knowledge" mind matters
November 4, 2002

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During an interview regarding privacy, Tim Berners-Lee (credited as inventing the World Wide Web) stated that groups are essentially defined by the information they don't share with others.

I wanted to think about this and started with large groups. Corporate entities and governments have internal policies and secret knowledge. Some of the information might get out, but many details are restricted from outside observation. They have stores of information kept hidden, particularly from other companies and governments.

Then there are smaller groups, like sports teams and social circles. These are united by shared experiences. Outsiders feel unwelcome or uninvited because they are refused an unrestricted flow of outgoing information. It could be as simple as not understanding an inside joke.

Finally there's the smallest group, the group of one: individuals. Assuming a willingness to be honest and forthcoming, there is still "subconscious information" which can't be shared. I'm talking about how we think and sense, concepts that at best are difficult to explain or measure. For example, I dislike eating olives, but there is no way I can explain in detail what I taste when I put them in my mouth. I can invent a "likeness scale" from 0 to 10, and I can use metaphors, but you'll never sense exactly what I sense.

Similarly, my thought patterns are hidden from you. There are resemblances to those of others, but the connections I make in my head are based on my singular life experience. My abilities to invent ideas, explain sensations, and experience the world around me make me different from everyone else. They, too, are impossible to express.

I am a group of one, defined by those things other people cannot know completely: my feelings, my thoughts. These define me as an individual.

Consider how groups develop. They require an exchange of knowledge in order to change. Promotions and layoffs are followed by alterations in the flow of company information. To build a romantic relationship you must share something of yourself, and in exchange you become less "single" and more "couple." This is Berners-Lee's argument: the boundaries of knowledge exchange are the boundaries of identity.

Here's the potential downside: sharing damages identity. If I had a secret code and gave it away, I lose a part of myself; I'm no longer identifiable as "the guy with secret code" because others have the code, too. Our individualities get lost in relationships, groups, and companies. Your hobby makes you unique, until you discover there's a magazine out there on that very same topic, with hundreds of subscribers.

A balance exists between the truisms "Knowledge is power" and "There's strength in numbers." If you keep secrets, then your knowledge lends you power. You can be identified as special, like the guy with the secret code. But if you share this information, you expand your identity group, exchanging uniqueness for diversity and flexibility. These are strengths.

In our lives, we choose our specialties by managing what information we share. Whether horded or given freely, it is knowledge that both empowers and defines us.

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Copyright 2002 Seth Maislin

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