What is it about?

Credentials are documents we are required to have in our possession in order to achieve certain ends. For instance identity cards, driving licenses, passports, credit cards. A credential in this sense is, for example, a boarding pass which we need to board a plane, or the machine-readable access badge we need in order to gain entry to the building where we work, or the supermarket club card we use for shopping. The article is an exploration of the ontology of credentials, and of the acts that we perform with their aid. People use documents not only to store, display and transmit information but also to bring about a variety of further ends. Credentials thereby extend the scope of what we can achieve through the performance of mere speech acts.

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Why is it important?

We believe that our analysis is significant because, as paper and plastic credentials give way to electronic credentials in your phone, or in an RFID chip implanted in your earlobe, new types of uses for credentials are being invented that are transforming modern societies, uses which involve execution by software. Already credentials stored on your phone can enable you to get a loan, refill a prescription, disclose your medical data, request a car and driver to be sent to your current location, or take control over a car or bicycle or scooter that is left on the street. Besides, credentials were used already in Biblical times as instruments to control migration flows. With the growth and ubiquity of electronic credentials, the possibilities for such control have of course increased by orders of magnitude. They will manifest themselves both in good ways – for example in allowing more effective means of controlling traffic flows by exploiting the credentials built into our car wifi and autonomous driving systems – but also in bad ways, by enhancing the ability of the state to control its citizens’ thought and behavior.

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This page is a summary of: On Credentials, Journal of Social Ontology, August 2020, De Gruyter, DOI: 10.1515/jso-2019-0034.
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