Phone numbers and identity

Nicholas Nova points to an NYT article describing the motivations behind various firms providing phone numbers that aren’t attached to a particular handset, enabling people to keep their “real” mobile number private. Leaving aside the point raised by a comment on the post, that fixed-line numbers are the real private numbers (presumably because calls to that number can’t help but invade personal, domestic space: maybe we’ve shifted so much of our lives from there onto the street/train station/office canteen that anything left at home can’t help but be intimate), and the fact that the only use anyone in the article can come up with is lying to strangers in bars, the line that struck me about this came from the founder of one of these firms, Michael Cerda:

“Historically, phone numbers were assigned to a destination, like a home or work phone…[t]hen they were assigned to a device, like a cell[phone]. What we are doing is assigning numbers to specific relationships”

I like this idea very much. I guess it’s not a new one: if you spend an hour on the Bow Road you’ll see people taking calls from (presumably) different people on different handsets, implying that the callers are being filtered by number, and I have an idea from old spy films of calls from different governments coming through on different colour telephones. I suppose the idea of being able to control your relationships through technology has always had appeal.

What the article raises, for me at least, is the question of how authentic a number has to be in order to be used as an indicator of identity. Here in Singapore, I’ve used my handphone number to prove that I called a taxi and to help a receptionist find my details on the hospital system. I don’t know that their having two different numbers would have invalidated their conclusion (that I was definitely me), but there’s certainly something that feels like cheating about the idea. From a social perspective, I understood that what I was being asked for was a facet of my personal identity (like my passport number or FIN) and that to give them something that acted purely as a label would have been dishonest somehow. I guess that’s why no-one uses my SkypeIn number to call me here, even though for people in the UK it’s cheaper: they know they’re calling a proxy, and that’s not how it’s meant to work.

One thought on “Phone numbers and identity

  1. notebook - Noiminative fluidity

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