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Re: Anonymity and Intellectual Capital

The analogy between corporations protecting physical capital and
anonymity protecting intellectual capital is interesting, and I will
write a bit about it here.  I don't think it quite works in all ways but
it does suggest some ideas.

Capital, as I use the word, means stuff which helps you be productive.
Money can be physical capital, as can machines, computers, and so on,
but generally not consumer goods.  Traditionally, intellectual capital
by the same definition refers to training, knowledge, experience,
education - those mental skills and characteristics which help you
produce.  We have sometimes extended this notion here to reputation
capital, which we often use just to mean your reputation itself, your
good name.  But if we are going to call it "capital" it should really
be those aspects of your reputation which lead to productivity.  To the
extent that your good reputation helps you accomplish your productive
goals, it can be considered capital.  Particularly if you are a manager
or performer in some other position where people's opinions of you make
a big difference in how much you get done, you have a lot of reputation
capital.  Business reputations have many of the characteristics of
capital, too.

For some uses of anonymity it does make sense to think of them as
protecting reputation capital.  If you are going to send a message which
carries a risk of harming your reputation, perhaps because it is terribly
stupid or harsh, then anonymity can protect you in that way.  I think
some people do communicate anonymously for this reason.  However there is
another motivation, too, and that is fear of physical consequences.  Some
anonymous messages might lead to lawsuits or retribution in other forms,
such as firing or blackballing.  There is more involved in these cases
than just loss of reputation capital.  Physical capital is involved as
well.  So this is one way in which I think the analogy does not work.

Another difference relates to the number of people involved.  As I
understand it, the motivation for the corporate veil of immunity from
liability is so that people can safely band together in business.  If
there were no veil, and one harmful act by a member of the corporation
could result in any stockholder being held liable, then few people would
be willing to commit their assets to such an activity.  The risk would be
too great.  The point is that this protection is oriented towards
protecting large numbers of people.  It does not make much sense for a
single person to incorporate in order to try to protect himself from his
own harmful acts, and in fact I understand that the veil can often be
easily pierced in such situations.

On the other hand, with anonymity we are generally dealing with single
individuals.  There is no apparent need for people to pool reputation
capital in an endeavor, and have it be protected by the use of
anonymity.  The closest I can think of would be for a bunch of highly
regarded individuals to announce that they were going to join together
and create commentaries which would demonstrate all the insight, wit,
and other traits which gave these people such a high reputation in the
first place, but that the resulting missives would be released
anonymously, so that if one of them ended up reflecting badly on the
writers, there would be no way to know who had actually created it (it
could be a fake created by an imitator).

While I can't rule this out, it doesn't seem like a likely scenario, and
it doesn't seem to offer the opportunities that corporations do for
increasing productivity.

Another issue is the different forms of anonymity, which don't have clear
analogies with physical capital.  Using a pseudonym you can build up
reputation capital (or at least reputation) in the nym, but then you no
longer have immunity from harm if it commits some gaffe.  (Actually I
suppose this is not too different from the corporation whose assets can
be attacked but not those of the shareholders.)

Then there are the limited pseudonyms discussed by David Chaum, where
there are limits in how many pseudonyms of a particular type a person
can create.  You could have one "committed" pseudonym, unlinkable to
your True Name, which you post under; but you'd only get that one.
(You could post under other pseudonyms but they wouldn't be able to get
that "committed" stamp.) You'd have to be pretty careful what you say
via that nym, much as you are today with your True Name (which BTW a
lot of people don't realize yet).  Then people could filter so they
only received messages from committed nyms, figuring that senders would
be more likely to put meaningful content into these kinds of messages.

Chaum's system of credentials also could allow you to transfer
endorsements from one pseudonym to another.  We have discussed the idea
that such endorsements could be considered an embodiment of reputation
capital.  You could post a wide range of messages under different
pseudonyms, collect the positive endorsements (and discard the negative
ones), and attach them to your True Name or committed nym.  This might
encourage people to abandon their natural caution in making postings
which will come back to haunt them years hence (again, this will be more
an issue once people realize that this will happen).