A classic British phone cabinet

The future belongs to identities, not identifiers

For a very long time, the quintessential sign that someone had more than a cursory interest in you at a bar was their act of sharing their phone number. Books have been written on how to get a date and the “number” is a linchpin step in most of them. However modern technology may soon make that obsolete as the use of identifiers is replaced by referencing someone as who they are.

Technology has a way of inveigling itself into our daily lives by offering bits and piece of convenience. Despite its rapid development, technology has gained a remarkably great degree of acceptance. It has become something we are so accustomed to we almost never question the terms and conditions it puts on our coexistence. Because technology always works and plays by rules and we’re more often slaves to those rules rather than their masters.

As technology has developed and matured, more and more of those rules start to be on our terms and more compatible with us as humans. As I argued in a previous blog post, designers and creators of technology have become better and better at working for us as humans, instead of against us, according to their own idea of the perfect or the ideal.

However some things have become so ingrained in us that we rarely consider them to be limiting restrictions. Most people do not question them, having been raised with the technology and now take it for granted.

Identifiers are one such example.

“You’ve called the switchboard. Whom are you trying to reach?”

The introduction of the telephone was a major breakthrough. It didn’t just simplify communication, it also opened up new ways to sell and market. New services and products were born as a result of widespread adoption of the telephone.

The first telephones operated by manual switchboard so you identified the person you were calling by name and the part of town they lived in. As more people installed phones, this system became impossible to maintain and the number system was born. From then on, in order to use a phone you had to know one thing: the number of the person you were calling. The number is the telephone network’s way of telling on subscriber from another and allows you to route the call. It’s an identifier.

Looking at this from a more anthropological perspective, it’s clear that the first system was superior in terms of how we think and reason as humans. You call your dad, aunt, friend or colleague. It was beautifully natural, intuitive and obvious. But with the introduction of phone numbers, we suddenly had to keep track of everyone’s number. Phone directories were born. On the other hand, calling was cheaper, faster and you could reach more people.

This was a trade-off we made. We tolerated a worse user interface for the benefit of more value in terms of usefulness and speed. Today, no one likely ever reflects over this. Phone numbers are a natural part of how we think about calling.

Modern phones have also helped us offload numbers and instead we call people by tapping their name. In the past, almost everyone knew the number of their significant other. Today, based on my own anecdotal evidence, I believe almost no smartphone owner does. You add the number once and then it’s done.

From having put restrictions and enforced a system which added a cognitive burden on humans, phones are now designed to offload some of that. And we’re about to see technology that will take it another step further.

The end of identifiers

A startup called Keybase is pioneering a technology which will hopefully make phone numbers, email addresses, URL’s, bitcoin wallet identities and usernames things of the past. You only need to know who you want to reach and the system keeps track of all identifiers and connects them to the identity you want to interact with. This has a dramatic effect on the role of identifiers as you no longer need to concern yourself with them.

  • You just need to call Carl (a fictional friend). Your phone knows what Carl you are referring to.

  • You never have to worry about typing Carl’s account number wrong for fearing of transferring the money to the wrong person.

  • You never have to worry about what Carl on Linkedin you just sent an invite to.

  • Come the holiday season, you will not have to write Carl’s address on the greeting card. The postal service’s system routes the letter for you based on the address Carl maintains in his identity.

As you realize, forcing us to learn and keep track of a computer system’s internal identifier was a bad idea to begin with. I would argue it’s a result of the engineering mindset where human preferences and abilities have for a long time not been the goal for design but rather an afterthought.

This is why every time a company asks for my “customer number”, when I call them or need to deal with customer support, I tell them its their job to keep track of that. It’s absurd to expect your customers to adopt your internal identifiers for your own convenience. Furthermore, it’s a perfect example of the inside-out thinking that leads to poor customer service.

Ironically it’s technology like Keybase’s that offer a way out of the cognitively taxing situations that technology has forced upon us. I believe that if we were less tolerant of the strain that technology puts on us and weren’t so forgiving, we would see computer software and technology that offered much higher usability. It would lead to less frustration, stress and accidents.

It’s time we stop tolerating thinking derived from technos and instead begin from who we are as humans, celebrating and empowering our humanity, not shackling it to artificial technological constraints.

Photo credit: http://www.pexels.com/photo/145/

This article was updated on 2020-03-01

Jakob Persson

Your host. A founder and entrepreneur since 20 years. Having worked as a freelancer, consultant and co-founder of a successful digital agency has shaped his skills in and insights into business. Jakob blogs at blog.bondsai.io, speaks at events and consults with agencies and freelancers in growing and developing their companies. He holds degrees in media technology and cognitive science.