Lance Detweiler & The Theory of Nymity
Lance Detweiler & The Theory of Nymity
A long time ago, in 1995, on the Cypherpunks list there was a disturbed individual using the name Lance Detweiler. LD, as he was referred to elsewhere, seemed to be genuinely distraught that folks on the net could claim to be male but be female, or otherwise create fantasy identities and relate through them. This is one of his rants.
Subject: Theory of Nymity
Date: Sat, 25 Mar 1995 12:10:21 -0700
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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 sender.
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 nyms.
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.)
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 meaningless.
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 convention.
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
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.
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 quality?”
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.
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 interactions.
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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