Obscurity as a Means of Identity

Free Public Lecture

Obscurity as a Means of Identity

The concept of obscurity plays a profound and under-appreciated role in shaping our identities.

First, obscurity gives us the breathing room to fully develop who we are as human beings. Even when we interact with others in public, we are typically shrouded in obscurity, which gives us a degree of freedom of interaction to experiment and make mistakes without severe penalties. This freedom is being threatened by modern technologies like facial recognition apps and other modes of contemporary surveillance, and it is troubling that the tech industry tries to sidestep the issue of our right to obscurity.

Second, obscurity is a completely necessary precondition for the performative aspect of identity. Drawing upon the work of Erving Goffman and Irwin Altman, Professor Woodrow Hartzog argues that obscurity is the key boundary management technique by which we reveal certain shades of our identity to others. Recognizing what makes up this obscurity, such as semantic vagueness, information search costs, and architectural constraints, is thus much more central to identity than most consider.

Professor Hartzog is the Starnes Professor of Law at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law and an Affiliate Scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

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