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The Theory of Nymity (value of True Names)
the thread has been going around about the value of "true names".
this is a complex study of the value of "true names". it dissects
the issue and gets to the core of the matter. it suggests there
is a valuable *psychological* benefit to the use of true names
and that it may even be necessary for "honest communication"
in any "society".
those of you that argue that true names are irrelevant, why is
it that you are the same ones that try to "out" L.D. behind
whatever tentacle-of-the-moment he is hiding behind? do you
really care, or don't you? actions speak louder than words!!
part of L.D.'s demonstrations were the harm that someone with
some ingenuity, flair, malice, and boredom could wreak on any
cyberspatial community through the use of unrestrained
anonymity/pseudonymity. and it appears that some of you still
don't get the point. perhaps another reminder or demonstration
is in order <g>
| /\ |\| /~ L~ ``I have to spew this stuff, or I'd be on the
L_ /~~\ | | \_ L_ roof with a high power weapon.'' -Jim Carrey
The Theory of Nymity
Detweiler was the first to pioneer the "theory of nymity". Observing
that various forms of anonymity and pseudonymity were blurred in the
popular consciousness and that the subject was awash with irrational
emotionalism and ill-defined terms, he sought to formalize and
crystalize the fundamental concepts and distinctions involved.
The cypherpunks definitely pioneered forms of nymity, and passionately
champion the general issue, particulary its ramifications in
cyberspace; however they refuse to confront the issue openly and
overtly, suggesting they perceive some sort of stigma or taboo
associated with their practices. They also refuse to contemplate
negative or potentially disastrous social effects of the associated
scenarios, asserting all forms of nymity are either indistinguishable
or essentially morally neutral practices that invariably extend the
rights of the individual in the face of the oppressive State or
massive corporations. They see all forms of nymity as merely one
unified hacksaw of the serf, useful and effective in cutting away
chains of bondage in the Sisyphean struggle for privacy.
Detweiler confronted the diverse implications of nymity by elevating
the subject of "nymity" to a study complete in itself. Abstracting
from his writings, Detweiler considered the concept of a "nym
spectrum" involving the key concepts of receiver of a message,
sender, and identity. At various points on the nym spectrum, the
receiver has varying degrees of knowledge about the identity of the
In a Detweilerian model of nymity, an abstract communications space
exists in which messages and their identification can be dissociated
from their senders while still being directed at receivers. A set of
"formal senders" is juxtaposed or overlaid on top of the "actual
senders" analogous to the way formal and actual parameters in
structured computer programs are defined and related.
A "formal sender" is the labeled origination of a message sent by an
"actual sender", who may or may not be identified. The "formal
sender" may be identified in some way that is independent from the
"actual sender" identification. If an actual sender A is identified
as sender B in the message, B is the "formal identification" for the
sender whose "actual identity" is A.
Detweiler defined the various forms of nymity based on the knowledge
of the sender, say party C. This is his critical distinction that
cypherpunks denied, arguing that all the forms of nymity he saw a
difference between were really interchangeable and indistinguishable,
and therefore identical. They do not recognize any relevance of the
"knowledge" or mental state of the receiver in regards to messages.
(In a sense the philosophy is similar to behaviorism in asserting
the invalidity of internal mental state.)
A "true name" is defined as a situation where the message is
identified from the actual sender, e.g. message sender is identified
as "A" who actually sent it.
An "anonymous" message is a message with no identification whatsoever.
Detweiler sometimes called this "hit and run anonymity". There is no
attribution in the message to any sender, either formal or actual.
Entity "C" knows the message could be from anyone.
A "pseudonym" is defined as a situation where the message has an
identification, but the receiver is correctly aware that the
identification on the message is not the actual identification. I.e.
C receives a message labelled as originating from "B", but C knows
that "B" is a nym for some other party that *could be* (but not
*necessarily*) actually identified as "A".
Detweiler defined "pseudoanonymity" as the blurred situation between
the anonymous and the pseudonymous message. The receiver C sees a
message as originating from "B", but C is not aware that "B" is a
formal nym that may actually identify some other party such as A.
Entity A is said to be "pseudospoofing" entity C.
The cypherpunks argue that there is in principle no difference between
Detweiler's "pseudoanonymity" and the classic "pseudonymity", stating
that anywhere there is an "actual" nym, a receiver cannot be sure it
is not really a formal one, and vice versa (i.e., any nym is
potentially a pseudonym or true name). In fact they say there is
fundamentally no distinction to be made between formal and actual
The critical question is of course is how "actual" and "formal" nyms
are defined. What does it mean to "identify" a sender with a nym?
Detweiler adapted to the ambiguities in the following way. He defined
the "actual nym" (or, interchangeably, the "true name") as an
identification for party A if for every context where an actual nym
applies, that party is identified as A. Call this the "actual nym
scenario". The definition appears to be somewhat circular but he was
able to derive conclusions from the premise.
Suppose that a context was established in which the "actual nym"
scenario applied, and a message was identified as from "A". Then "A"
is the actual nym of the sender. Suppose that the context is not
"actual" (the converse will be considered the "formal") and the
message is identified as from B. If there is some "additional
information" that B is a "true name", then B is the actual sender,
and no other party sent the message (forms of the "additional
information clause will be considered below). Otherwise no conclusion
can be made about the actual sender.
In general, in an "actual context" the actual sender is always the
formal sender. In a formal context, the actual sender is dissociated
from the formal identity of the message, but "independent
information" may pinpoint the actual identity.
But the question of how the formal or actual context is established is
still unresolved. Detweiler suggested it would be based on the
declarations of the message. If the message "declared" it was from an
actual sender, the actual context applies. If there is no
declaration, the formal context is assumed.
Obviously contradictions can arise within these definitions if the
sender "lies". Detweiler simply observed that a logical theory could
be built up based on his premises from which conclusions could be
drawn. Furthermore, there is the fundamental observation that in a
formal nymity system, "true" conclusions about actual identity can
only be derived from message contents if participants "don't lie". A
core premise of the theory is that an entity can express statements
such as "my true name is [x]" in the communication system. (This
is one form of the "additional information" clause above.)
The cypherpunks believe that if the communication system includes only
the formal context, there is no such thing as a "lie". Detweiler
however maintained that as long as the actual system exists (or more
particularly the overlay of a formal system over an actual one), lies
can exist, although they may be undetectable within the formal
system. (In this sense it is analogous to a Godel Theorem for Nymity,
making an observation about a phenomenon that "exists" but is
"undetectable" within the formal system, with the parallelism of
"mathematical" and "metamathematical" statements mapping to "formal"
and "actual" communication systems.)
The Detweiler Thesis
Detweiler had a preoccupation for considering the "community", which
is defined as a formal or actual context in which communication takes
place in both ways between a group of entities (i.e. entity A may be
a receiver of sender B and vice versa for all members of the group).
He explored the implications of both the formally and actually
identified communities, and consistently objected to the actual
identification scheme as at least uninteresting and at most too
constraining, mirroring the quintessentially cypherpunkesque
position. However Detweiler diverged from the philosophy by
repeatedly emphasizing a basic premise, which is currently unprovable
speculation much the same way that the Church-Turing thesis is: in
a formally identified community system where participants don't
"lie" about actual identity, the communication of the "community" is
of "higher quality".
A concrete example from everyday experience is that of book
publishing. Some books may exist in a "formally identified"
community in which all the authors of the community agree to
associate their actual identity with the book (the "message"). Other
books may exist in a "formally identified" community in which authors
identify themselves other than with their "true names". Detweiler
asserted that a book could "lie" and state that it was to be taken in
the actual context (i.e. "A is the author of this book, and A is not
a pseudonym"). Cypherpunks denied there was such a thing as a "lie"
this context or even a "true name" in any context. Essentially they
consider any statements in the message that refer to identity or its
formal vs. actual context as nonexistent, invalid, and/or
Detweiler suggested that a "scientific community" was an example of a
communications system dedicated to actual identities, or at least a
formal identification system where the occurence of lying was minimal
and considered anomalous, and that its "success" in achieving an
overall climate of "quality" communication is partly due to the
Detweiler emphasized that it is not the case everyone must be actually
identified in the community to fulfill his thesis (which is expressly
about formal communities, not actual ones), only that parties in the
system "don't lie". The cypherpunks completely, either inadvertently
or deliberately, misconstrue or obfuscate his position as asserting
that the formal context of nymity is never of "higher quality".
Actually, Detweiler frequently expressed an aversion to the actual
identity community and championed the formal context of communication
as an embodiment of privacy, just as the cypherpunks. But he diverged
from the cypherpunks by insisting that "lies exist" in the formal
context which they heatedly denied.
Another of Detweiler's observations was not only were "lies" possible
in a formal communications system, but there were "worse lies" in
formal systems that embodied two-way community communication. An
example of this is cyberspace, where a sender can ask questions of
the receiver such as "are you using a pseudonym?" or "are you
communicating under formal names other than [x,y,z]"? (These are
examples of the "additional information" clause above that
discriminates pseudonymity from pseudoanonymity.) He noted that
questions like these can be answered "truthfully" while at the same
time not necessarily divulging actual identities, a distinction
critical to the understanding of Detweilerian theories. The
cypherpunks either asserted that such questions were fundamentally
illegitimate and invariably deserved no answer by the receiver, or
even that any answer (including a "lie") was justified in response.
Detweiler observed that some formal identification systems have some
other useful properties, such that "if [a] and [b] are different
formal names, [a] and [b] denote different entities". Or, "for all
formal names [a], there is a single entity actually identified as
[a]." Furthermore, in a community where senders don't "lie", these
properties can actually be derived by asking particular questions of
the senders. (The question of whether the receiver *must* answer
certain questions, or not at all, leads to additional ramifications.)
Detweiler's very critical observation, however, was that even though
there is additional "knowledge" about the uniqueness of identities in
these systems, the mappings of formal nyms to actual identities
cannot necessarily be derived. This is the basis of his claim that
even if the entities in a formal system "don't lie", they don't
necessarily reveal their actual identities, and that this critically
desirable property of "privacy" is preserved.
The idea of a "true name" is a very problematic and perplexing
concept in the same way that the concept of "absolute space" is
troubling to the theory of Newtonian mechanics, which Einsteinian
relativity sought to remove, starting with the premise that "there is
no preferred reference frame". The cypherpunks cite the absurdity of
the "true name" concept in an analogous argument and attempt to
discredit Detweilerian theories on this basis. However the theory is
not based on "true names" but the existence of "entities", hence this
cypherpunk position translated to its most basic form, becomes,
essentially, "unique communication sources (such as 'humans') don't
exist" (or analogously in the Einsteinian metaphor, "mass and energy
do not exist").
In other words, assuming that "unique entities exist", and statements
about identity can be made in the communication system, it is
possible for entity A to say "my true name is 'C'" in one message and
in another "my true name is 'B'", a situation which would be
considered a "lie"-- the significance of the reference to the entity
as "A" is irrelevant. The "true name" of an entity A is simply
defined as an arbitrary but unique nym which, if considered the
actual identity of A, would not contradict the statements of any of
A's messages (or replies to questions).
Simply put, the "true name" has the property that if two derivations
in the form "[x] has true name [y]" and "[x] has true name [z]" can
be made from the meanings of [x]'s statements in [x]'s messages, then
y = z. Hence, if entity [x] simultaneously states "my true name is
[y]" and "my true name is [z]" in any messages (the receiver is
irrelevant) and y != z, then entity [x] is "lying".
The essence of the idea of "true identification" is that there is a
one-to-one mapping between "entities" and "true names". The
representation of the "true name" is irrelevant. Detweiler certainly
did not make the absurd claim that a "true name" had any special
syntactic properties. He also did not claim that "true name
registries" had to be erected to provide the feature, although they
could support it. At the core of the concept is the idea that every
entity in a "truthful" system must make a choice as to their actual
name identification and not "lie" about its properties in messages
that refer to it.
The cypherpunks ruthlessly ridiculed this concept of communication
explicitly involving "trust" and "honesty" between participants. One
famous objection was that "that which cannot be enforced should not
be prohibited". That is, if the unique mapping of true names to
actual entities was not a precise, mathematical certainty, it
effectively does not exist. Hence the cypherpunks generally base
their model of the reality of communications on fundamentally
different premises than Detweiler which reject the existence of the
concept of "truthfulness".
Detweiler countered by suggesting that communities with communications
based on trust and honesty and the contrary not only both exist, but
that discrepancies between the two probably existed as well and
furthermore were worthy of study. (Again, he conjectured that the
"dishonest" communications forums led to "disharmony" without further
defining the term.) All these distinctions lie in the area Detweiler
denoted under the heading "morality" which again the cypherpunks
generally deny exists in an abstract communications system.
Hence the key formal ideas of the overall theme that communications
systems could lead to significantly different scenarios based on the
"honesty" or "truthfulness" of members of a community with respect to
identity had been addressed for the first time by Detweiler, but at
great cost to Detweiler's credibility within the cypherpunk circles,
which have rebuffed, ridiculed, and excommunicated him. Detweiler
tended to take this as evidence that the core cypherpunk philosophy
was not about seeking privacy, which he went to pains to demonstrate
existed in his "honest" systems, but rather a sort of denial of the
existence of morality in cyberspace-- that the question of "whether a
message 'lies' about it's authors identity" is inherently
meaningless, a premise he strongly rejected.
The Sociology of Cypherpunkism
Detweiler went far beyond theoretical study in his research of these
areas of Nymity. He considered the cypherpunk beliefs in these areas
worthy of a systematic sociological survey because of the apparent
taboos and stigmas the cypherpunks apparently associated with some of
their positions, either applied by themselves or that they perceived
were held by others. He found they were reluctant to reveal their
true beliefs on the subject and consistently refused to answer even
vague questions like "how many pseudonyms are you using? are you
using any at all? do you think forums where pseudonyms are not used,
by agreement of participants, are desirable or could have superior
Detweiler believed to have found signs the cypherpunks actually have
very complex beliefs, practices, and techniques in the areas of
identity subterfuge which they refuse to reveal except to fellow
"insiders", something like an elaborate secret religion or unorthodox
sexual practice. For Detweiler, cyberspace and cypherpunkism are a
microcosm of the way that humanity seems to mix the concepts of
accountability, morality, and identity in an intricate, tangled,
inscrutable web, a place where the ideas of "candor" vs. "privacy"
are viscerally manifested.
Detweiler often observed the interplay between "true name,
pseudonymous, and anonymous" messages was somewhat analogous to the
Freudian concept of the dance between the superego, ego, and the id,
or formal vs. actual identification systems like the subconscious vs.
the conscious awareness. (He once even compared pseudospoofing
scenarios to demonic posession and multiple personality disorders.)
Perhaps his most relentless and enduring theme was that nymity
issues are an area inherently worthy of serious or even intense
scientific inquiry because they lie at the core of human society and
The Detweilerian distinctions are very critical in understanding the
cypherpunk philosophy and the schism with conventional morality he
claimed it embodied. Essentially the cypherpunks assert "lies about
identity don't exist in cyberspace". Detweiler argued not only that
"lies about identity in cyberspace exist", but further claimed that
"lies about identity diminish the quality of communications within
the community" and that "privacy is not necessarily compromised by
honesty". However his position is often erroneously lampooned by the
cypherpunks as a ridiculously (but hilariously) distorted
charicature such as "true name identification should be enforced by
strict laws of the State because pseudonyms are inherently evil"
when in fact his distinctions, conclusions, and claims are far more
sophisticated and subtle.
Whether the Detweiler Thesis asserting "superior quality communication
in honest formal indentification systems" can ever be demonstrated,
and whether the unrecognizably distorted portrayals of his theories
by the cypherpunks are deliberate or due to the inherent
incomprehensibility of the concept to peculiar brain anatomies, are
the key, unresolved, "open" questions and matters of further
research in the study of the sociology of cypherpunkism and the
theory of Nymity.
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