On (digital) Signatures, Verification, and Authenticity

Where to start?

Several years back, I wrote my master’s thesis on the changing nature of writing and authorship given the new realities of online publishing platforms (blogs, etc.). If memory serves, it was an overly optimistic piece (or at least a lot less pessimistic than I am now), much in the vein of the majority hypertext and digital writing scholarship of the late 90s – early 00s. One of the topics that I touched on, through my readings of Derrida, was that of the signature.

To wit:

By definition, a written signature implies the actual or empirical non presence of the signer. But, it will be claimed, the signature also marks and retains his having-been present in a past now or present [maintenant] which will remain a future now or present [maintenant]. thus in a general maintenant, in the transcendental form of presentness [maintenance]. (Derrida, Limited Inc 20).

Digital signatures, however, while attempting to carry the same connotations (and legal implications) as the written signature are both more and less. The legal frameworks for digital signatures have developed over the last few decades such that I can now initial or type my name and the date on a form as a form of a legally binding signature. I can also affix a scanned image of my written signature to digitally produced or digitally transferred documents. Further, touch screen and stylus technology now allow for digital written signatures. Each of these have their own implications. The power of the signature was meant to be the implied (deferred) presence of the signatory based on the actual having-been present necessary to perform a written signature. This is no longer necessarily the case. With the first example – anyone could type my initials into a document and thus sign in my stead. And while this remains a crime in the way that forging a signature has always been, at no point is my having-been present required. With the second, my having-been present is required to create the initial scanned signature but afterwards the image can be affixed by myself or anyone with access to the image. The third example – the digital written signature – is the closest to the written signature and seems to require much the same having-been present state of physically signing. Perhaps technology has brought us full circle.

This brings us to the related topic of verification. Online verification (used on services such as Twitter, Facebook, reddit, and other online fora where some (if not all) must prove themselves to be who they claim to be) presents itself much like a signature. “The blue verified badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.” And to receive such a badge, several things are required. Yet there are some interesting and notable differences between verification (especially regarding fora that are primarily text-based). While the requirements of verification would seem to authenticate the individual or individuals responsible for an account (their legal existence), they do not authenticate specific posts.

One example of this would be the many cases of social media managers “going rogue” and publishing content that is deemed contrary to brand messaging. Whether the posts were pre-approved or not being irrelevant in the face of backlash. Another example would be the accounts of celebrities or other people of “public interest” that are primarily written by unnamed (non-signatory) representatives or publicists except when specifically initialed by the verified signatory themselves. A further example would be those bots or automated accounts that claim to be “real” people despite the obvious demonstration of algorithmic behavior (who is the true signatory in these cases? the bot or the programmer?)

A final compelling example is that of Donald Trump. Trump is officially verified under both his own name and that of the office of the President. However, it is generally believed that he does not write many of the tweets that appear under his image and verified “signature.” The account of the office of the President is believed to be written primarily by a staffer and there have been several notable analyses of his primary account that indicate that it is not the work of a single author. Indeed, there is a twitter bot (@thetrumpwatcher) that analyzes each of those tweets to determine both their mood and if they are, in fact, authored by Trump himself (the speculation being that many are not).

This presents a complicated situation. Can we consider this a situation of a surrogate speaking in the President’s name as is a common and longstanding practice? Not exactly. When a Press Secretary stands at a podium and speaks for the President, we are never under the impression that the Press Secretary is the President. Indeed, this is instead an extension of the New Yorker comic sequence about dogs online. internet_dogtumblr_njzlcpxjy91qav5oho1_500

The account is verified, thus is speaks in the name of the President (with attendant “authenticity”) and yet it cannot be understood to be operating in the same context as a surrogate (of which there are many other equally verified Twitter accounts). Moreover, the fact that the verified and authenticated and thus “authentic” voice of the President is often not speaking the actual words of the President does not help to dispel rumors that there are powers behind the throne or fears that the account (accessed via an unsecured Android device) might be hacked. After all, how could we tell?

What seems to be one result of the attempts to verify and authenticate “accounts of public interest” is a further decline in trust and in authenticity itself. Who decided that corporations are in the public interest? Who is determining the interest? Of what public? And if we can only tell that the President is actually writing because of the persistence of typographical and grammatical errors (because a too polished presentation is obviously false, obvious a con), we then lose the shortcuts and conveniences that allowed us to trust public speech at all. Everything becomes branding, PR, propaganda, or advertising. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the public could then be counted upon to verify and authenticate information for themselves (through the myriad of new means that digital/networked/online tools and environments offer). However, that does not yet seem to be the case. Instead of opening up language to its inevitable polysemy and differance, to the inability to communicate without noise and interference (even in person, even with the face to face) we are getting increased ideological fragmentation, tribalism, and partisanship. Instead of celebrating quality news and diverse voices, we are falling for more advertising and propaganda. Instead of critical thinking, we are stuck with covfefe.

a W88 (475 kt) thermonuclear warhead is a tool

The second definition for tool in the OED is “A weapon of war.”
An issue this complex is never just one thing. However, we might lay significant blame at the feet of “education.” Education, as an institution, is, like every institution in society, designed to reproduce society (within narrow ideological constraints). Thus, education in America today is geared primarily towards the reduction of capitalism, middle managers, and wage slaves. This should not be controversial.
How many schools teach rhetoric? Critical/creative thinking is often written in to course objectives, but since the Gentleman’s A- is now becoming par, is the object ever significantly achieved? After all, everyone is entitled to their opinions and widely-believed facts, regardless of whether or not they rest upon fallacies. Who am I to deny your paranoia simply because it is not as well researched as mine?
One could lament education, or the echo chambers of the Internet, the increase in sectarianism and tribalism, the marketing of fear and catastrophe, biology, ideology, neoliberalism, and so on, and so on. Etc. &c.
But what would be the point? 

Lamentations don’t solve the problem. A problem that we can’t even agree exists.

Does life matter? Whose and how much?

All life? Human life? Human life plus our pets? Plus livestock because bacon?

And this is all presupposed on the ability to define life. To limit and delimit life. 
And who am I to demand that you not wallow in ignorance?
Yes, a gun is a tool. So is a fleshlight. 

Give me Certainty or Give me Depth

Tell it to me straight, doc. I can take it. 

I can tell you that there is no reason to believe in God. That God provides no explanation that cannot be otherwise explained with evidence. That the burden of proof should fall on the believer and lo, they are yoked to a heavy burden. But it is unlikely I will be able to convince you. Either you already doubt and disbelieve or you cling desperately to you faith (and the notion of certainty you define it to provide). We are all always already called by our neurobiology and ideology. 

I could assert that climate change is real, man made, and likely disastrous (but how disastrous? and for whom?). All available evidence indicates we are, at best, on thin ice and quite possibly already drowning. Of course there is room for doubt. The point of science is to be falsifiable. But not inaction. And doubting the role of man in creating God and the role of man in destroying creation are not equivalent.

The same could be applied to the lethality of guns, the efficacy of vaccines, the demand for hospitality. People with guns kill (people). That is what they are designed to do. Vaccines save lives. Immigrants are welcome. 

Certainty is impossible. 

Ask Heisenberg. 

Ask Gödel. 

And yet. And yet. 

And yet, so many insist upon it. Demand it lest they never rouse themselves from inaction. Is it laziness? Is it ignorance? Is it brain chemistry? 

Does it even matter?

We must give up certainly in order to glimpse the hope for a better world in the no future to come. 

On Gun Nuts & God Botherers

Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there telling me I’ve got to beware. 

– B.S.

What’s the point? 

The lines have already been drawn. 

The line, the drawing of the line, the demarcation of inside and outside, of self and other is the origin of noise, the origin of exclusion, exception, & the failure to understand. 

And no one is backing down (compromise is for the weak and we must never show weakness — think of the children — unique not special). 

We revert to tribal behaviors. I don’t believe that I am a fascist or a terrorist, thus my desires must be universalized. 

Kant wept. 

I learned it from you (people). 

And nothing is being done.

I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t believe the way I do (if only they saw the facts [as I see them]). 

While the capitalists count their money. 

Semantic arguments based on the failure to understand synecdoche. Incomplete and inconsisten comparisons. (I’ve got a definition of ‘tool’ for you.)

Because we only preach to our choirs, only ask after Echoes.

Neither Good Host nor Effective Parasite, ever failing our Guest Right. 

And the capitalists count their money. 

But it’s not my fault. I was born this way. 

Blame it on the brain. (Gotta blame it on something). 

God is dead, God remains dead, and we love a good zombie. (Here we are now, entertain us. Send money.)

I don’t seek or claim certainty. But there is no convincing those who believe they have it that there is no such thing. 

The more I sneer, the more you fear.

And the capitalists count their money. 

The greatest American liberty

The greatest American liberty is to be left alone to do and say as one pleases (ending at (just the) tip of the other’s nose).

You can call this religious liberty or freedom of speech or any other sociopolitical semantic construction you desire. What many of the conservatives in the room seem to be forgetting of late is that this live and let die policy demands that you don’t get upset by what you see if you insist on being a voyeur and spying on your neighbors.

Exponentially worse than the linguistic decision to allow literally (because of such rampant misuse) to also be defined as figuratively, is the application of law to enforce ‘religious’ liberty. Liberty is based on what one can be forced to do or kept from doing (or, rather, the absence of that force). It is not (in any way) based on what one can be asked to tolerate, to accept, to understand, to learn about, or to accept as fully human. Religious liberty (or liberty of any legally enforceable kind) is unrelated to what one may or may not agree with (despite deeply held beliefs). Otherwise my religious liberty invalidates your capitalism and willingness to destroy the planet.

Given that so many of those ‘deeply held beliefs’ are based on modern interpretations of ancient, translated writing  (mythologic, figurative, and often marked by extreme poetic license) the claim becomes even more tenuous. Social reality is based on consensual construction and shared meaning. Liberty is not, and cannot, be based on the attempt to force shared meaning, especially such culturally specific (in this case evangelical) meaning. The inability to accept that meaning is constructed or the inability to believe that history did not happen the way one wants to believe it did is not a basis upon which to insist that others blindly follow the path of ignorance. One is entitled, in America, to be ignorant and useless. One is not empowered to insist that the government protect that ignorance or force it upon others.

Concerning the drift: the separation of evangelicalism

At what point does American evangelicalism become recognized as a wholly separate religion, as different from early Christianity (even post-Nicean Roman Christianity) as early Christianity was from Second Temple Judaism?

Perhaps this is not a new idea, but here are some brief elaborations of the point as they have become prominent in current news trends:

  • “Traditional” identity politics
  • Young Earth creationism
  • Prosperity Theology
  • Biblical ‘literalism’
  • Millenarianism
  • Theocratic ambitions
  • Martial inclinations

 

It is not that there is not a certain basis for these teachings and practices within the Bible or the history of Christianity but rather their confluence that sets evangelicalism apart. The Bible maintains a number of “traditional” marriages that are not between one man and one woman (Abraham relationship with Hagar comes to mind, or, more pointedly, Jacob marrying sisters Leah and Rachel, or Solomon’s 700 wives plus the 300 concubines). Opposition to marriage equality is thus not based on Biblical tradition as such, but an interpretation thereof. Prosperity theology seems to directly contradict Biblical references to camels and needles or upsetting the moneylenders. Millenarianism and Young Earth creationism both stem from a certain literal interpretation of what historically been understood as figurative passages (in the books of Revelation and Genesis respectively). The martial inclinations and theocratic ambitions are not unique to modern evangelicals – the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Conquistadors provide some historical analogs. Of course those historical incidents have their own significant deviation from the red letters.

What seems relevant, then, is the efficacy or validity of such historical/theological appeals. If what qualifies as an abomination is selectively applied, if who qualifies as a neighbor is not universally extended, appeals to “God is Love” seem misplaced and may explain their ineffectiveness. Christianity broke from Judaism in, among other things, a selective application of scripture and law. Is this not a manifestation of the same?

This is idea is already given weight in the way that modern polls and surveys are conducted. Routinely, evangelicals are separated from Roman Catholics and “mainline/mainstream” Protestants. This is likely not even a devision that evangelicals would themselves protest (as it is a common enough belief that they are not of the same faith as Catholics). What would seem contentious about this claim, really, seems to boil down to a single issue – who retains the name “Christian”?

Powering Down: towards equalization

Knowledge only becomes power in the absence of power.

 

Power, as exercised through force be it violence, coercion, ideology, money, or influence, is not an exercise in ignorance, is not without knowledge. But the truism ‘knowledge is power’ is false so far as it concerns the pursuit of knowledge as such, knowledge in the form of science or philosophy or education for education’s sake (and not the sake of employment, etc.). Consider this: scientists overwhelmingly know that the globe is warming, that the climate is changing, that the oceans are acidifying, that more are more species are going extinct. This knowledge has not, in any real sense, given them the power to change policy to actually do something about it.

Knowledge should directly translate to power and thus education to empowerment but at present it does not. And changing an ‘ought’ to an ‘is’ is no small matter.

Instead, force is power. Force, like knowledge, is currently unequally distributed. Force, unlike knowledge, is not well suited to equal distribution. The solution is not to give everyone nuclear launch codes or even their own gun but instead to reduce the individual and collective capacity for violence across the board. And then to move from a power economy based on force to one more adapted to knowledge – a ‘commodity’ (not that I like to think of it as such) far more suited to equal distribution if efforts were made and resources made available (combined with a completely revised philosophy of education and its purpose).
As an interesting digression, one might be compelled to speculate as to whether human technological advancement has actually hindered our biological evolution. Technology, in a significant majority of contemporary cases, is created to solve social needs and problems created by previous technologies not biological needs. What biological purpose do guns serve? Certainly, as a ranged weapon, they extend the lethality of the human body in hunting and the pursuit of food. But the capacity of firearms to hunt actually exceeds the human need. It might be noted here that the current human population of earth is only supported through advancements in technology (agriculture, etc). But that begs the question of the current human population vs. overpopulation/the carrying capacity of the planet for human life. Is 7.2 billion sustainable? Or the projected 10? Sustainable for whom? For what? And in what sense? One might also question modern medicine. Certainly medical and hygienic advances have extended the length and raised the quality of human life. But much medical advancement has been in areas that industrialization, pollution, and technological advancement have directly caused.

What evolutionary benefit has technology offered vs what they have hindered? (“so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”)

I think it is fair to say that media are the extensions of man and we have become over-extended. Our reach has exceeded our (and the planet’s, and our fellow living creatures’) capacity to adapt. Our rate of (technologically enhanced) change is matched only by those species that have coevolved with us – maize, rats, toy dog breeds, superbugs. Perhaps future of the Anthopocene will be humans living in disinfected bio-enclosures (both terrestrial and orbiting) with our HFCS and miniature pugs while superbugs and rats enter an evolutionary arms race for who will dominate the hot sweltering open air.

 

This circles back to the original thought. Power as force and the capacity for force needs to be reduced and eliminated. The concept of political empowerment and enfranchisement should not focus on extending the individual and collective capacity for force to more and more people but on reducing that capacity overall. The capacity for annihilation should not be possessed, desired, or sought (“I suppose I could part with one doomsday device and still be feared.”). Moreover, incidental or accidental annihilation (antibiotics have created superbugs and carbon emissions are driving climate change) needs to be better understood and equally avoided. Through knowledge and the power that it would convey in the absence of force.