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 Noise Arts

The Delta Brainwave Society is a Divers Noise Arts Collective. But what, you may ask, are the noise arts?

Noise arts is a catchall term. If it is produced with the mindset or noise art, it is. This, naturally, cannot be the only designator of what makes an art ‘noise’. Indeed not. Intention would never be so solely magnified. Noise arts can only, however, be provisionally defined. They are the aspects of the arts that highlight the gaps, the breakages, the ruptures, the limitations, the failures. They are the strange stranger, the heretic that can never be orthodoxicized. They are the fringe. Sometimes for the delight of the fringe and sometimes because they have been pushed away by everyone and everything else and it simply where they find themselves. “No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter / Sometimes that’s just the most comfortable place.”

Perhaps, when it comes down to it, the simplest way to phrase it is this:

Life is a noise art.

We are culturally programmed to narrativise. Most of us see ourselves as some version of the protagonist of our own story. We want to find the meaning written into cultural products (novels, movies, pop songs) in our day to day. It is never really there. Life is too erratic, unplanned, unpredictable, chaotic in its normalcy for that. Life is too alive. This is where the desire to claim a divine (but unknowable but I’m still certain it exists even though all evidence is to the contrary) plan comes from. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. 

But in embracing the noise of life, in making art of it, we gain a fair measure of understand and a potential level of control. 

Don’t Panic. 

The human life is the art. It is an extended aesthetic project (often unknowing & unwitting). But acceptance of the noise and art of living leads into the further noise arts. If one’s life is embraced as noise, so to one’s music, speech, writing, film&video, etc. 

This is art as the expression of living as noise. There is no meaning save living as noise. The art is an extension of the life. The life is an extension of the primal chaos. 

the Massive Archive (“I have forgotten my umbrella” & tweeted about it)

I have argued elsewhere against the futility of the Infinite Archive – as expressed through various projects, many of them by google (like the desire to scan and digitize every book ever). But the futility of the Infinite Archive is built into the dream: its being is its perpetually unfinished becoming. The problem is thus not with the Infinite Archive (that at least can be thought and conceived. The problem, rather is with the Massive Archive.

Human beings can think infinity. We can grasp the concept. Sure there are vagaries that escape some and nuances that escape others. We are not all mathemagicians. But the infinitesimal and the massively massive are much more difficult entering into impossible. There are not infinite grains of sand on a beach. Planck length can be grasped mathematically but conceptually? As numbers approach the massively huge and minusculely small, we humans lose the ability to fully grasp their meaning.

Why does this matter? How does this relate to the archival project? Consider, if you will, the process of collecting the libraries, works, letters, files, papers, and documents of the notable. Various libraries and universities pride themselves on the collections that they possess and the research potential of those archives can, indeed, be tremendous. But what will happen to the collected papers of a contemporary figure? For some, it may be little different. But what about those who maintain a significant digital and social media presence? Who conduct research, writing, & public speech, etc. through those various platforms and the platforms to come? Will their archives necessarily include their Twitter feeds? What about deleted tweets? Saved but unpublished blog post drafts? The value of these archives is that they often include personal documents but how will we decide which private messages and private feeds are to be archived? How many of the endless stream of digital photos saved in ever cheaper digital storage? What part of our search histories (even the ones on incognito?)? Ironic and/or informative hashtags? Location data? What portion of the cloud? Will the NSA contribute what they have gathered?

The personal archive of a contemporary individual is not infinite. But the process of archiving a digital life in order that it might be useful and meaningful for later generations is going to involve a whole new form of culling and curation. Because surely keeping everything would make the archive unwieldy, spoiled for riches and thus starving because of its own excess. How can Nietzsche’s laundry lists compare to Istagramming our meals? But who decides what is archived and what is left to the digital landfill? Who decides which fragments and feeds might be relevant in a century or two? And what would that deciding look like?

There remains hope that the metadata of the future might resolve this issue down the line (for those down the line) but since the process of attaching appropriate metadata to current archiving and digitization projects is so complex and time-consuming at present, one wonders if that will provide much help to the present. One can conceive of a search capable of “finding what we are looking for” but is there a practical way of implementing such a vision? Keywords and tags are useful but certainly flawed.

Perhaps the solution lies in curation, perhaps in improved metadata, maybe in some really cool thing that I don’t even know about, but the issue of the Massive Archive remains and remains to be solved. And now, this.

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.