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Bryan Boyer’s simple yet elegant entry won

Bryan Boyer’s simple yet elegant entry won I.D. Magazine’s “global identity card” competition. What does an ID card mean for those without enough money to buy a car or have a credit card?

Reader comments

JoshMar 03, 2004 at 10:12AM

Wow, what a pessimistic identity card. I expected the competition to be political, but I'm surprised that it wasn't used as an opportunity for a more positive politics . . . . I would've put the International Declaration of Human Rights on one side, and a big photo and name on the other, personally speaking. Maybe it wouldn't have been 'conceptual' enough for i.D.

barnesMar 03, 2004 at 9:39PM

I've thought about this thing all day, and for the life of me, I can't think of one reason why it isn't just crap.

JoshMar 03, 2004 at 11:22PM

Way to go -- I didn't have the courage to say it before. Total crap.

bryan boyerMar 04, 2004 at 8:08AM

Barnes- Thanks for your constructive criticism! I'm so sorry your cat died.

Josh- This isn't an opportunity for a positive political statement: cheap talk. How are you going to afford a camera, or better yet film and a card printer, in the townships of Cape Town? It's unfortunate that you get defensive about being "conceptual" as that's so obviously what identity needs right now. What bit of legally identifying information on your passport or license couldn't you change if you really wanted to? Does that really define you, or even get close? Design competitions always lean towards concept-- at the end of the day pushing pixels is boring.

barnesMar 04, 2004 at 9:35AM

Bryan, you say that "The relationship between five slots and the qualities of the specific entries do not define the identity of the card holder, but create a field of relative identity," and I simply fail to see how this new "field of relative identity" is in any way more (or less) valid than more traditional approaches. Is it just different for the sake of difference? And since you point out that the legally identifying information on a passport can be changed, aren't the current requirements for identity already "fields of relative identity?"

Also, if your intent is to provide an understandable social identity norm that is inclusive of the "Global South," who can't "afford a camera, or better yet film and a card printer," then why rely on airport codes? I mean, isn't there a substantial disconnect there? I would think that those who can't afford a camera couldn't give a damn about what airport they're close to. Or, is that the point?

It just seems to me that you've created an ID that only has meaning for people who have different codes to fill in -- people that are mobile, and by default, part of the global economy. If that's the case, then the ID is just giving global elites something to make them feel better about themselves.

JoshMar 04, 2004 at 10:34AM

As I understand, the point is two-fold. First, identity in the traditional sense doesn't mean anything anymore, because it is so easily changed, and because that static information does not truly define us any longer (in a postmodern sense); second, most people cannot afford to construct such a postmodern identity, especially in the 'Global South.' So, the idea isn't that people in Cape Town shantytowns can use airport codes to establish identity -- it's that they have no identity at all. Bryan (if you're still reading), I hope you'll correct me if I'm misrepesenting you.

It seems as though an equivalent idea, though one less global, would be to say that nowadays our identities are constructed through consumer choices; people living in poverty can't make such choices and, as such, have no identity. In both cases the poor are excluded from any sort of identity, economically, aesthetically, and geographically. This seems to be the situation that your design is trying to communicate.

Now, my disagreements are two-fold, I guess. First, I don't think this is true; I don't think many people around the world would identify with the world-view in which the card situates them, and I think they would refuse it. Some people do live in a bleak 'identityless' world (like in the Chinese movie "Unknown Pleasures," say); yet it is just irrefutable that each of those people has their own life, their own family, their own culture, and their own identity, even if, from a Western perspective, they may not. It is the Western perspective that bugs me--the idea that people deserve our pity for being identityless. They don't think of themselves as without identity just because they can't fly or wear Louis Vuitton--why should we?

I'm willing to accept that, in postmodernity, we need "a relative field of identity" to make sense of our place in the world. But, if I'm willing ot believe that, why would I believe that "Answering the five questions on this card tells one who you are now and who you may be tomorrow"? What happened to the relative field in which the individual is living an actual life? I could imagine carrying this card as, as it were, a supplement to the photos of me and my kids that are in my wallet. But I would never let it represent me, because it in itself is beholden to a lot of values I'm not interested in upholding.

I think it's great-looking, and I like it more than the other winning designs. I guess, by way of explanation for my unhappy outburst earlier in the thread, I just find the whole thrust of the competition disagreeable. I hope we never, ever see a global I.D. card; I would much rather that everyone design their own, and assert their own identity, instead of being rendered 'identified' or 'unidentified' from the perspective of Western postmodern ideas about globalization. I'm somewhat sympathetic with your globalization concerns; but I think it's wrong to say that "the global South has no complete identity." Maybe, "in our Western world," or "from our perspective" this is the case. It's so, as you write, pessimistic -- I feel needlessly and caustically so.

barnesMar 04, 2004 at 11:05AM

My initial thinking with regard to Bryan's design was that it was akin to a passport filled with the labels from consumer products -- an "I consume, therefore I exist" mentality, but slightly upgraded to draw in the jet-set. This I find problematic because it seems to make an assumption about the effects of location on peoples being that is just as invalid as any other superficial judgement about the nature of individuals or communities and their relative merit.

I would think that a better ID solution would be just to have a blank space where people would fill in how they define themselves at any given moment, plus something that doesn't change, like the runner-up that used human-cell/DNA identification in a zip-loc bag.

bryan boyerMar 04, 2004 at 12:14PM

Josh- you're right that it's silly to rely on airport codes when someone can't afford lesser expenses. And that's the point: it's a proposal for a means of ID that cannot be completed by a large portion of the audience (the global population) that it would apply to as a way of highlighting the futility and needlessness of a global ID. I do not think that a global ID card is a good idea for a number of reasons, the least of which political. Don't we have better places to dispose our resources? This proposal was essentially a strawman: first it presents a glossy means of ID for the global elite then it destroys this idea by demonstrating the inability of most people to participate. Like any strawman the purpose of the- eek- deconstruction is to ridicule the original argument. Actually, now that this dialog on Jason's site has moved beyond "your design sucks" my project has achieved more than I could have hoped for because it's getting you to discuss the specifics of how we identify ourselves in the contemporary world.

If you think I pity the 3rd world because they can't buy or identify with LV handbags I've misrepresented myself. However, as an aside, I have no pretenses about people who think their material possessions help define 'themselves'. Would one complain when a pastor cites his bible as a critical part of his life? It is, in the end, a material possession and any immaterial spiritual lessons or, dare I say it, warm-fuzzies therein can be structurally equated to similar emotional qualities derived by some people from their handbags, cellphones, or chocolate bars. As I've stated above, I don't want to pity the people who cannot complete the identity proposed in my design; I want to challenge the idea that anyone should be deploying a global ID mechanism when there are far better things to use our resources for. If the proposal puts a bad taste in your mouth it has done its job! Now you're thinking about what the third world really needs and it's not our mechanisms of defining ourselves, as you pointed out, but our help with food, shelter, and the basics of life. This leads to a long discussion about first world countries trying to help those less fortunate but when it comes down to it we (the global north) have more resources and can aid those who need it. As an architect I am immensely inspired by Shigeru Ban's work for refuges in Turkey and other places. He builds structures from locally produced paper tubes which are easily manufactured everywhere in the world and provide durable temporary housing. This is a great example of the first world working within the structure of third world to better living conditions without an ounce of condescension.

The statement "the global South has no complete identity" should be read only in the context of the ID proposal which, as I hope is now clear, is intended to provoke a discussion similar to that of the paragraph above this.


You're right to question the validity of the five points that I specify for setting up a relative field of identity. My proposal acknowledges that it is hard to pick any small set of datapoints to define a person. In addition to features that almost everyone has (eyes, hair, face, visage) there are actions that everyone participates in. Being in specific locations is something that we all do without trying and, I would argue, your specific location has at least some effect on the way you think about life. That being the case, I propose to use this inherent quality of human life as a way to establish a new means of identifying not the legal corpus but the intellectual/emotional individual. Barnes makes a good point that current ID mechanisms could be seen as relative inasmuch as one can change most identifying features, but if this is the case it's an insincere relativism. My proposal recognizes the futility of establishing anything that is immutable (save, perhaps, DNA which I address below) in the act of identifying others. We are not immutable creatures. I look at my passport picture taken eight years ago and hardly recognize the person there-- physically, emotionally, or intellectually! Because of this constant process of change I propose that identity is not something you have but something you make. It's a verb, not a noun.

Proposing to use some element of DNA bothers me for the same reason any sort of elaborate photocard does: it's resource intensive. Getting a DNA sample is easy but using it is quite expensive. Further, while my DNA tells you everything about my body in exquisite detail it tells you nothing about me as a person. Again, I am proposing ID as a way to identify each other on a personal level not a legal one.

It's also important to recognize the advances in medical technology. Today your DNA is sacred but how long will that be the case? Your DNA will be as mutable as your hair color in the sort-of-near future. Whether the tinkering happens before you're conceived or after you're on the planet humanity is already making great progress-- like it or not-- towards controlling our own DNA.

barnesMar 06, 2004 at 11:22AM

I'm starting to wish that there was an appropriate forum for this kind of discussion. It seems to be a really interesting topic, and I think that there is a lot more to say, but instead, it'll just drift away into the kottke archives...

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.