Political affiliations are probably the best examples of this phenomenon. People identify with a particular party or movement based on a few major issues, and on peripheral or minor issues (to them), they generally adopt the party's position without much independent thought. The internet hasn't changed this phenomenon -- if anything, it's strengthened it and extended it to increasingly-minor areas of our lives, enabling us to find seemingly-unlimited numbers of like-minded souls without regard to geographical constraints. Now, we can bring the same degree of organization and group-reinforced passion to our love for "Desperate Housewives" as was previously reserved for core political or social beliefs.
Every so often, though, things happen which cause us to feel some disconnect in our relationships; this may be an active disagreement, a vague sense that one doesn't belong, or just a lack of interest in an issue of some importance to the group as a whole. This last one is always the most disorienting to me for some reason. If something's important to everyone else in the groups with which I normally feel right-at-home, why aren't I engaged enough to form some opinion about it?
With the recently-enacted "Real ID" law, I'm in the midst of one of these "unengaged" disconnects. (Wired has had a good overview of the bill's passage over the last couple of days -- see here and here.) The impassioned national ID debate -- e.g., at The Blog of M'Gath and The QandO Blog -- has been swirling around me for weeks, but I still just don't get it. I look around and it seems like we're already so identified that this debate is all but nonsense. Argue about those proverbial barn doors all you like -- anonymity is a horse that has not just left the barn, it's already been turned into glue and dog food.
I have a driver's license (and have had several others over the last several years), a social security number, and a passport. I have credit histories which I know about and other electronic records which I don't. I have a grocery store discount card which tells the store's faceless corporate overseers what I ate this week and frequent flier accounts which show another set of overseers where I've traveled. I've been recorded on several security cameras already today and I'll show photo ID if I need to write a check later. If I decide to knock over a liquor store on my way home, I'll be caught pretty quickly because my fingerprints are on file with the Oregon State Bar and because I just posted that last sentence on a blog for everyone to find. I can be googled and ZabaSearch
The national ID debate is just the latest in a series of similar arguments. When the Patriot Act was enacted, privacy advocates lamented that the government could check your library records; if you're worried about that, why weren't you concerned that those personally-identifiable records are kept by the library in the first place? I know, I know -- if you're afraid to get and use your library card, the terrorists win, and why you checked-out that copy of How to Fly a Jetliner Without Knowing How to Take-Off or Land is your own business. My point is simply that data about us is everywhere and is accumulating in ways we don't necessarily comprehend or appreciate; anonymity is a functional impossibility.
What's more, official identity, whether on a national ID card, a "Real ID" state driver's license, or a compelled answer, is not optional. In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, decided last year, the Supreme Court considered so-called "stop-and-identify" statutes, which require a person stopped by the police (even without probable cause) to give his or her name. The Court determined that there is no right to remain anonymous under such circumstances under either the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches and seizures or the Fifth Amendment's protections against compelled self-incrimination. This is not a good ruling by any means -- it's shot-through with self-contradictions and illogic -- but it is a pragmatic decision and it is, for the foreseeable future, the law.
As a result of all this unofficial and official identity-information gathering, for a person to remain anonymous, he would have to be a complete recluse. He cannot drive (driver's license required), travel (photo ID required), hold a job (social security number required), join any organization which keeps membership rolls, visit any entity which accumulates personally-identifiable information, use anything but cash or bartering for transactions, or frequent any area under police jurisdiction (thanks, Hiibel). Frankly, even if such a person exists outside the realm of the hypothetical, is our society best-served by catering to that fellow's peculiar aversion to identity?
Our collective focus should not be on preserving an already-lost concept of anonymity; rather, we should seek to define and protect that universe of private activities in which we should be left alone -- not necessarily anonymous, but alone. Take the right of assembly, for instance: We should protect your ability to congregate with others, in person or on-line, to contemplate the creation of a socialist workers' paradise in Middle America, the promotion of Adam Sandler to be the next James Bond, or the various and sundry uses for duct tape in both moral and immoral legal pursuits. For us to spend our efforts fighting for your right to do those things anonymously in the technological and legal climate of our modern society would be both futile and counterproductive. Anonymity is a pipe dream; let's concentrate on fighting the good fight for protecting privacy, not identity.