Know thyself,” said the inscription outside the Temple of Apollo, the house of the Oracle at Delphi; “Tat tvam asi” pronounces the mahavakya. The ancients, unencumbered as they were by the necessities of the nation state, could afford such all-encompassing definitions of identity. The modern state, its laws and their interpreters, have a much tougher task ahead. The Supreme Court of India, for example, had to marshal resources — from Emmanuel Kant to Richard Dworkin — to make the noble connection between identity, digitisation and dignity.
The task before the state is not an easy one. “Who am I?” may well be a question that members of humankind have asked themselves for millennia, and its answers have been numerous, vague and varied. But “who are you” is something that governments must know. For the sceptics, this is because it is in the nature of states to undertake surveillance. But, and this is important, the individual, to be part of the social contract, must be counted. And it is in numbers, marked and indexed in binaries of zeroes and ones, that will help provide “dignity” to the “marginalised”.
There will, of course, be those who balk at such a dry notion of the self. Digital reductionism, they will argue, is anathema to the richness and diversity of human experience. History, context, geography and attachment; ration cards, pan cards and voter IDs — for both self and society a greater foundation is needed for the individual to flourish in all her complexity. To such critics, the answer to identity, like the question, lies in ancient wisdom, so popular now as evidence for all manner of modern achievements. For Pythagoras, who lived before Plato, and the Advaitians the monad — the one, single unit was the root of all existence and identity. For the great Buddhist logicians and sages, all the self-examination was meant to lead to shunya — zero. The binary code of digitisation, it seems, has been who we are all along.