Obsessive about Real Identity?

Back to the point, what is important is to recognise the power of extracting meaning from partial information. For me, one of the hardest challenges to replicate the workings of the human brain is not the intense pattern-matching that we constantly do; it’s dealing with partial information and still get a correct interpretation.

This is naturally important to establish trust. You don’t need to have someone recite all their deeds in the past since the day they have been born to get an idea if they’re honest or not. A few scattered examples — sometimes even wildly unrelated, like the example with birds flying away from trees meaning “a tiger is lurking in the underbrush” — are usually enough to know if you can trust this person or not. In fact, the major difficulty of constantly keeping up a good lie is this very same issue: you might get “caught” by moving to a totally unrelated field, which will trigger the warning that this person has lied before. Let’s take the movie example again. You might have some doubts after watching the French intellectual movie with your new friend, and are prepared to accept that he only meant “blockbusters”, but let’s assume, in the middle of the conversation during dinner, that the waiter brings you a strange-looking dish which you don’t recognise. “I have a bad feeling about this”, you might say, and giggle at the common reference. If your date goes “huh?” that’s a very bad sign. Any blockbuster fan would immediately recognise the reference to Han Solo in Star Wars. But if your date was lying about being a movie fan, when the conversation is completely unrelated to movies (but food!), the connection is lost. Even a very good liar would never recognise this connection (you would really need to be a fan of blockbusters to know the reference). A good liar might be able to “recover” from that situation and say: “oh, oh, of course, Star Wars, gosh, I watched that so long ago, I don’t remember any lines any more, I really need to watch it again to remember the plot”. Convincingly said, this might persuade you that this guy just has a bad memory. A bad liar would be stumped at this point.

So one might establish that at this level, reputation is the ability to prove facts related to a certain field or area of conversation/expertise that is claimed to be mastered, even on subtle relationships which might not bear much relevance in a discussion. That’s why we usually have reputation “in a field” and not “reputation” as merely having a vague “good reputation”. It’s also more usual to employ the word “reputation” when speaking about your (claimed) area of expertise, be it professional, or a hobby.

Now we have to examine how this reputation is “measured”. In normal conversation, on a daily basis, it means connecting with people in the same area or field of expertise, and see what experiences they have relating with this person. If someone claims to be a Terry Pratchett fan, and you talk to other Pratchett fans, you can ask them: “did this person correctly quote Lord Vetinari’s views on democracy?” If a sufficiently large number answers “yes”, you can be assured of this person’s claim to being an expert Pratchitte. You don’t even need to ask the person yourself! And here comes a crucial point: the mere network of connections will establish that reputation, even if the person claiming to be an expert is not able to answer. Thus we come to a point where direct interaction with the person is not necessary. In fact, when you think about the meaning of the word “reputation”, you’re much likely to think in terms of this network and much less on the individual.

In fact, the Wikipedia defines reputation in the following way:

Reputation is the opinion (more technically, a social evaluation) of the public toward a person, a group of people, or an organization. It is an important in many fields, such as education, business, online communities or social status.

So you can see reputation as an emerging characteristic of the social space which applies to the person. The individual can be “honest” or not, or not even aware of their reputation; what matters is what the public says. And how does reputation emerge?

We can go into very deep thinking on this:

Working toward such a definition, reputation as a socially transmitted (meta-) belief (i.e., belief about belief) concerns properties of agents, namely their attitudes toward some socially desirable behaviour, be it cooperation, reciprocity, or norm-compliance. Reputation plays a crucial role in the evolution of these behaviours: reputation transmission allows socially desirable behaviour to spread. Rather than concentrating on the property only, the cognitive model of reputation accounts also for the transmissibility and therefore for the propagation of reputation.

Whew! So this is quite complex. On one hand, evolution is at work here: as we’re gregarious (e.g. social animals), we tend to evolve behaviours that benefit groups at a whole. A good reputation is a measure of an acceptable behaviour for that group; thus, since we’re also cognitive, sentient beings, we tend to spread information about “good” or “bad” reputation (in the sense of having more benefits inside the group, or damaging the group’s cohesion), and that’s how this “reputation”, attached to an individual, is “spread”. On the other hand, it’s also a cognitive faculty. We are exchangers of information, and one of the many kinds of information we exchange is our “meta-beliefs” about other people. But it’s also an ethical value: if you conform to a social group’s norms and conducts, that means you’re a valid member that benefits the group, and this information gets widespread inside that group (and, conversely, if you behave outside the group’s acceptable norms, that information will be spread as well).

The major point to be made here is that ironically reputation is less linked to the individual than we might think it is, but it’s linked to what the group thinks/believes about the individual. I hope this makes you suddenly go “oh, wow, I never thought of it this way”. In reality, it’s a fallacy to think that one individual, in isolation, can “magically create” out of nowehere a “good reputation”. They can claim to have that reputation — usually because this is how people think about what reputation means, e.g. that someone with a good reputation would be honest and not lie about their own reputation — but that’s not really the same as “having a good reputation”. You cannot “have a reputation” outside the group where that reputation applies.

Here is now a more breathtaking concept. Suppose that you wish to know if this guy you’re going on a date with is, indeed, a movie fan — before you go out with him. So you ask a group of movie fans about this guy. The group’s answer might be: “well, he loves to watch recent blockbusters, but is not really familiar with anything produced before 1995”. In that case, it’s most likely this guy would never see the reference to Han Solo; also, going out to watch a French intellectual movie is very likely a very bad idea.

So far so good, but… this also means something more. In fact, by establishing this guy’s reputation — through what the group says — you’re going to project that reputation on top of this guy’s personality. So well before you go on a date with him, you already know what to expect from his personality: he likes recent movies, but not French movies. This will make him fit into a little box with a label in your mind; and you will react to him accordingly. Now all this happens well before you have met him! So you can infer someone’s personality from their reputation, and this is mind-boggling. In fact, Wikipedia even claims:

Reputation can be considered as a component of the identity as defined by others.

We’re now using a completely new approach to what it means to trust someone. If you have a way to ask a social group what they believe about a certain person, you can define their identity (or at least, part of it, namely, the part you have an interest in). That’s all you need.

But we can argue that this might be very interesting in philosophical terms, but, in the real world, that’s not how it works. In the real world, we have ID cards, social security numbers, college diplomas, all sorts of certificates, a plethora of documents to “prove” that we are whom we say we are, and that we have the skills/knowledge/competence we claim to have. Philosophy is very nice, but that’s not how the world works.

How short are our memories!… in fact, the notion that a piece of paper printed by Government gives someone their “reputation” — and thus establishes their “identity” — is a rather novel idea. I would claim that it’s something that only started to be addressed during WWII, and, strangely enough, it’s at the root of totalitarian regimes (be they left or right; that hardly matters, both behave similarly). So we have barely three generations that have spread this “belief” that a bit of paper establishes “reputation” and “identity”; all generations before these have developed rather complex civilisations without that need.

Nevertheless, this didn’t suddenly pop up into existence from one day to the next. “Government seals”, for instance, are millenia old. The idea is that in the absence of a group that validates your reputation or your identity, you rely on proxies to establish both. So a messenger would bear a message from the King which would be accepted because it exhibited the King’s seal, which was reputed not to be easily forgeable. Governments would emit credentials for diplomats (the origins of our passports!) because you might not be able to establish the reputation of the diplomat directly, but you might be able to use the government’s own reputation as a proxy. If reputation is the free exchange of meta-beliefs over an individual inside a group, and you trust a member of that group, you will rely on that group’s word to establish reputation — you don’t need to ask the whole group. When a Government is part of the group that establishes reputation (and identity!), you trust what this Government says about the individual.

We might not go that far, of course, and see things at a lower level. For instance, while examining a doctor’s reputation, you might be unable to ask all fellow doctors about their opinion (you might not even know which ones are in touch with your doctor!). So you’ll have to rely either on an association of medical professionals to emit a certificate saying that this particular doctor has a good reputation in the field, or read the university’s diploma to validate the claim that this doctor has actually studied there. Thus, reputation-by-proxy is a more abstract level of establishing reputation, one that allows our complex society to work.

In fact, and going to the original examples in this chapter, you might now understand the need of “incorporating” a company. Incorporation will mean that this particular company has been validated by Government and is complying with all regulations and laws. Again, we have the two elements establishing reputation — the group (in this case, a nation) and the norms of social conduct (the nation’s laws). You rely on a proxy (Government) to establish that this particular company complies to the norms of social conduct inside the group (the nation, in this case). You don’t need to ask all other companies to know if this particular company complies to laws or not; the proxy is enough to establish reputation.

Here is where things get tricky.

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