9 years, 6 months ago

More on identity and Mask

Link: http://weblog.tetradian.com/2012/01/23/more-on-identity-and-mask/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=more-on-identity-and-mask

Who or what is ‘I’? How does our experience of ‘I’ change as we interact with our world?

Yes, I do know that those questions might seem to fit more in philosophy or psychology. But as per the previous post, they also have huge ramifications in user-experience and user-interface design, in product-design, in sensemaking and decisionmaking, and in enterprise-architecture, business-architecture, security-architecture and many other architectures in general.

Quick summary so far:

  • there’s a decision-making ‘I’ – “I am that which chooses”, that which experiences the world as ‘I’ and responds accordingly, and which can be highly volatile, especially in terms of real-time decision-making
  • there’s a kind of presentation-layer of ‘I’, which is expressed through surface-appearance, through digital-personas and suchlike
  • there’s a kind of interaction between each ‘I’ and that presentation-layer – an interaction which is particularly clear in work with Masks, as I’ll return to in a moment
  • there’s a distinct identifier-layer for ‘I’, comprised of identifiers acknowledged or imposed by others as well as self, and typically associated roles, rights and responsibilities for ‘I’ – with the identifiers often associated with external or assigned personas (digital or otherwise)
  • beneath it all, in most cases, there seems to be a kind of unitary ‘I’ that is experienced by self as ‘I’, and perhaps also experienced by others as one’s ‘I’ – though with reservations on that such as indicated by the classic Johari Window model

So, to identity and Mask.

I’ve just finished re-reading Keith Johnstone’s classic ‘Impro: improvisation and the theatre‘. To me, it’s absolute must-read for anyone interested in the human side of enterprise-architecture: its sections on status, spontaneity and narrative can be real eye-openers for understanding how organisations really work. (Or, more often, don’t work…) Yet for me it’s always been the last section in the book that’s always stood out the most: the section on Masks.

The term ‘Mask’ has a special meaning here – hence the initial-capital on Mask, to distinguish it from a more everyday theatrical mask. In many ways the Mask is just an ordinary half-face mask: the difference is more in how it’s used, not just as a costume-prop but as an active persona or literal ‘per-sona’ – an active filter on ’that through which I sound’.

[There’s also another set of techniques that work with full-face Masks, or Tragic Masks, but I won’t go into any of that here.]

The context in the book is improvisational theatre, of course – not enterprise-architecture. Yet there are a few themes that are extremely relevant for us.

One is that it’s a real and intensive research-environment. True, it’s subjective-research rather than objective-research, but in essence the principles of of investigation are the same, and certainly the level of discipline required is much the same if they’re to get usable results. So don’t dismiss it out of hand because it’s not IT… :-)

Given that, note what is probably the key theme there: that there’s some kind of interaction that goes on between actor and Mask. It’s not as simple as a one-way ‘I am wearing this prop’: wearing a Mask has definite impacts on the actor, and it seems there’s even some continuity between different people wearing the same Mask:

Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off sideways. Shay Gorman created the character. I took the Mask to a course I gave in Hampshire. The students were entering from behind a screen and suddenly I heard Mr Parks’ laughter. It entered with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted, and looked up as if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept sitting on the extreme edge of a chair as if it wanted to fall off. Fortunately it didn’t, because the wearer wasn’t very athletic. It really makes no sense that a Mask should be able to transmit that information to its wearer.

I’ll very carefully make no comment here as to how that kind of information could pass from one actor to another, just through the medium of the respective Mask: just note that it is so, under those types of technical conditions.

Also explained in the book is that the whole thing depends on some quite specific psychological or psychosocial conditions. To translate it into the terms I’ve been using with the SCAN framework, it’s all happening in the real-time space, and it just does not work on the Belief (‘control’) side of the decision-modality spectrum. It only works either on the Faith-side of the decision-spectrum – where conscious choice of some kind is available, though primarily as a kind of ‘intentional surrender’ – or when there’s no conscious thought at all – which also means no conscious choice.

The fundamental point in Mask work is that there is a sense not so much of loss of ‘I’, as a kind of negotiation with the Mask as to what that surface-’I’ will be. And the Mask can impose some fairly severe constraints on what it can allow, its ‘repertoire’ and suchlike: for example, it can be very difficult to do any kind of predefined script whilst doing Mask-work. If there’s no awareness of that negotiation with the Mask, there are two likely outcomes: either the student will attempt to’take control’, which results in poor outcomes and sometimes literally ‘wooden’ performances; or the student will fail to notice the impacts of the Mask, and in effect believe that the results are their own choice of ‘I’, rather than the default sort-of-choices imposed by the Mask. Which might well not be a good idea…

So what on earth has any of this to do with enterprise-architecture?

The answer is this: anything can be a Mask in this sense. Anything.

To be slightly more specific, anything that can act as a surface-level filter or persona – a ‘that through which I sound’ – can act as a Mask in this sense. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it doing so.

And anything that can act as a filter on ‘I’, also in effect changes the surface experience of ‘I’, of how others experience that ‘I’, and also the actions and choices of that ‘I’.

A couple of really simple everyday examples:

– Someone may be the most mild-mannered person face to face, but suddenly an absolute demon behind the wheel of a car.

– Conversations in Twitter often seem artificial, terse, mechanical – the Mask of the 140-character constraint.

Consider all the ‘professional props’ of just about every trade and tradition: the doctor’s stethoscope, the barrister’s wig, the consultant’s clipboard. All of them are Masks: the person’s behaviour, demeanour, stance and language will all change the moment they pick up that prop.

Consider a business uniform, a brand, a shop layout, a user-interface layout: they’re all Masks in this sense too – an active filter for a persona, as ‘that through which I sound’, impacting on and constraining the choices and actions of the respective ‘I’.

Every role is a Mask. Every digital-identity or digital-persona is a Mask. (Think for a moment about the impact of that on the ways that people interact with digital systems – especially when multiple personae intersect.)

Layer upon layer upon layer of Masks, changing continuously throughout every day.

And, if we’re not conscious of those impacts and constraints on ‘I’, will find our ‘I’ seeming to change with each change of Mask, yet not knowing how or why.

In short, the sense of identity may – and probably will – become fluid in the context of a Mask.

And almost anything may act as a Mask.

Often in unpredictable and/or emergent ways.

Affecting interaction with just about everything else.

Hence, also in short, a definitely non-trivial concern for security, privacy, user-experience design, process-design, branding and a whole host of other themes in enterprise-architecture and elsewhere.

Identity and Mask might perhaps seem somewhat abstract at first. A bit less abstract by now, I hope?

Over to you for comment, anyway. :-)