Monday, August 1, 2011

True Names

anti-aliasing n. -soc. psych. Curiosity about the real flesh-and-blood people behind internet usernames, whose vivid individuality suggests that when our parents were tracing their fingers along our nameless faces looking for some hint of who we were to become, they really should have gone with Mr. Cookieface, Unicornpuncher, Dutchess Von Whatever, or Wookiegasm.

(The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows)

Two weeks or so into the controversy, Google Vice President Vic Gundotra spoke to Robert Scoble to clarify the company’s position, and Scoble dutifully relayed the conversation to the world. As the person in charge of policy, Gundotra is making some tough choices – Scoble explained – and is prepared to be judged on the outcomes. He is trying to set a positive tone in the new social network. But most importantly:
He says it isn't about real names. He says he isn't using his legal name here. He says, instead, it is about having common names and removing people who spell their names in weird ways, like using upside-down characters, or who are using obviously fake names, like "god" or worse.

Like “god”, or worse. I’d be content to talk about those four words alone this week. The company that told us to go out and put all of the people in our lives in a series of circles doesn’t want us to be messing with esoteric symbols; the corporation whose motto is ‘don’t be evil’ forbids us to interfere with the divine.

But amusing as that is, it’s an exercise in misdirection. Google’s 'real names' policy is not about the scourge of upside-down characters, strange spelling or even god impersonators: it’s about ensuring that the social web continues to fulfil its primary function as the largest and most efficient market research platform ever built.


It started around the 8th of July, when the earliest reports begun to circulate that Google had been suspending accounts on its neonate social network, Google+, due to naming irregularities. The cull included businesses posing as individuals but also individuals who signed up with obvious pseudonyms, such as Second Life avatars. The backlash concerning the latter group was fierce. If you’re interested in the details, the best source is a polemical and very lengthy post by Kee Hinckley. Suffice it to say here that Google’s critics argued in the main for the value of and the need for pseudonymity (as opposed to anonymity) – stuff that by now ought to be utterly obvious to everyone except there will always be people who are prepared to mistake privilege for virtue. Here’s one, a chap by the almost-too-plausible name of Joe Carter:
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t have a lot of respect for the opinions of people who won’t sign their name—their real name—to what they write. Sure, I may engage you, agree/disagree with you, thank you for your comment, etc. But I can’t honestly say that I respect such opinions or give them much thought—and why should you expect me too? I put my name to everything I write on the Web (however imprudent that may be). Why should I take seriously the thoughts of someone who isn’t willing to undersign the statements they make?
Are you gay, disabled, kinky or an anarchist? You need to find yourself a nice little community of like-minded or like-bodied people with whom to discuss your marginal concerns. For everything else, you must sign your real name and constrain your personality and opinions to suit – in other words, be the kind of person who can speak their mind without the slightest fear of repercussion or unintended consequence.

In other-other words: keep the most distasteful bits of who you are the hell out of my feed.


True names is the title of a short but exceptionally clunky novella by Vernor Vinge often credited with articulating the first fully developed vision of cyberspace. In fact Vinge’s Other Plane postdates John Varley’s memory cube by roughly twice as many years as it predates William Gibson’s matrix, but practically its only feature of any enduring interest is that very clunkiness, its utterly literal and schematic prefiguration of the struggle to come between the huddled online masses yearning for free expression and the forces of state and corporate control insisting that every act, every utterance in cyberspace be traceable to a real person in the real world and stamped as to the real time of its occurrence.

In True Names, every user is by definition a hacker, and so to discover the real name of another user means to own them, for they’ll do anything if you promise not to reveal their identity to the police. However when an artificial intelligence by the name of Mailman makes a play to assume control of cyberspace, the hackers have no choice but to turn to the Feds (formerly their ‘Great Enemy’ – really) to help them vanquish this new and even greater threat to their freedom.

This scenario anticipated some of the directions of cyberpunk, albeit without any of the poetic force, but Vinge was also far more comfortable than Gibson, Sterling, Stephenson and the rest with some of the more startling implications of the new socio-technological paradigm. The epilogue of True Names contains in fact one of the earliest genuine forays into transhumanism, in the form of the main female character’s preparations for an afterlife in the Other Plane.
My kernel is out there in the System. Every time I'm there, I transfer a little more of myself. The kernel is growing into a true Erythrina, who is also truly me. When this body dies […] I will still be, and you can still talk to me.
Erythrina’s true name is Debbie Charteris, but the closing line of the novella, spoken by her male counterpart, leaves no doubt as to which name best captures her essence.
Beyond those years or decades... were millennia. And Ery.

There would be a lot more to say about this brand of immortality-seekers that is of interest to the topic of this blog, but for now I just want to place a particular idea in time: thirty years ago cyberspace as we have come to understand it was already being imagined; it was invested with nothing less than the capacity to provide a support system for the human soul; and loss of control over one’s real name was seen even back then, and in a very non-metaphorical way, as the fundamental existential threat.


Which makes it all the more extraordinary that Google should have failed to anticipate what the reaction to their crude and clumsily implemented policy would be. Faced with the onslaught, the company’s apologists deflected the attention of the critics towards the extent in which a pseudonym is in fact allowed – namely if it’s the name you’re commonly known as. Say, Mark Twain. Or Lady Gaga. Or Vic Gundotra, instead of whatever his legal name is (what’s the bet it’s Victor Gundotra?). But if the condition for the use of a pseudonym is that it is publicly associated to your real name in real life, then it fails the test of a useful online pseudonym.

But like I said, this is not what it’s about. Facebook's policy surrounding account names, subject to the service’s grandiosely named ‘authenticity standards’, are even more stringent than Google’s:
  • Your full first and last name must be listed. Initials cannot stand in place of your full name. Nicknames can be listed if they are a variation of your first or last name, but only in the format "First Name ‘Nickname’ Lastname."
  • Your name must be listed using characters from one language only.
  • Your name cannot consist of any titles, symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, or punctuation.
In spite of earlier pronouncements in praise of 'the freedom to be who you want to be', Google has chosen for its own social network an approach that is only fractionally softer than its rival’s because unique, traceable identities are very valuable to its actual customers – advertisers. And the endgame, remember, is not to sell advertising as such: it is to construct the ultimate social graph, a graph capable of matching your online behaviour to your consumer preferences in order to expose you to the perfect ads, thus maximising the revenue of both the platform and the advertisers. In time, the product sold by both Google and Facebook will be not so much the advertising space as the graph itself.

To prevent spurious aggregation of the demographic data, accounts on both networks are strictly personal. Says Facebook:
Please keep in mind that Facebook accounts are for individual personal use. Accounts representing groups, families or couples are not allowed.
But the principle of truthful representation is even more important. The requirement that ‘[y]our profile should represent you’ – a pillar of the ‘community standard’ on which Google’s policy is based – is not there to prevent us from lying to each other, but from lying to Google. Were I to impersonate a historical figure, or a person of another gender, or engage in any sort of conscious role-play altogether, I might declare to like products and services other than the ones that I actually consume, thus introducing false data into the set and polluting the graph.


Now I’m not saying that Facebook or Google will actually ever master the social graph, at least not any more than I’m saying that Vernor Vinge or Marvin Minsky are going to live forever inside their computers. But it’s a powerful fantasy, one that is forming very real perceptions about the values of companies’ stocks and – more depressingly – the social exchange itself. We may perceive its impact as promoting exclusion from these services, which is bad enough – for belonging there will soon likely have to be considered optional only in a very narrow sense, like it’s optional to have a telephone. I have talked about this. But in another, less immediately obvious sense, these restrictions promote a further narrowing of the meanings of the word identity.

Think about Web 1.0, with its sometimes ugly, sometimes startling or pretty homepages that took forever to load; with its the lack of templates not just for communicating your interests, but for thinking of yourself inside of a giant global house. Cast your mind back to before the Web itself, to email and bulletin boards and Usenet with their ubiquitous pseudonyms, as well as the sense of possibility: for personal reinvention, for activism, for accessing kinds of knowledge that you never even suspected could possibly have mattered to you – but did. And now think about the prescription to be yourself on the internet, and how it forecloses the multiple identities you might wish to play with, each orthogonal with your various interests, curiosities, public or secret kinks, and the languages you speak. Think of the requirement to be one person, separate from friends and family, mates and lovers, comrades and foes; to be of your own gender, and be interested in men/women/both; to be of your own race, of your own class. And watch your social imagination be eroded, inch by bloody inch.


There is a grotesque coda to this story. In the middle of the controversy, Norway happened, and some days later somebody had to ask: Why didn’t Google catch Anders Breivik? It was one of those weasely questions that journalists – or, in this case, academics – like to put in the mouths of the public sometimes, posed only so that it could be unpicked and debunked. We know that Breivik spent an alleged 200 hours on Google searching for terms relating to bombs. We know that he published a 1,500 word manifesto under his own name. But for god’s sakes, we also know that Google is not the internet, and it’s not a secret service, and it’s not empowered, nor is it subject to the necessary checks and balances. And we’re not fucking stupid, so we’re not even asking the question. Yet we must sit patiently while we are told the answer.

Not in the category of the horrific, but of the chilling, are the images of Breivik that have circulated. Two in particular: the one in which he is wearing the blue Lacoste sweater and the one currently on Wikipedia. How polished they are, like professional portraits. That is the perfect Facebook face. That is a man that is comfortable with who he is. And this is also what the massacre was about: obsession with fixed identities – racial, cultural and political – the disease that is eating Europe from within.

Perhaps it was Facebook that ought to have caught Anders Breivik. Perhaps that’s what was reckoned by the person who filmed Breivik’s Facebook page before it was taken down and then put it on YouTube with the accompaniment of an epic score. Perhaps there should be another graph – an anti-social graph, a murderers’ graph – that accounts for the darkness, the madness, the criminal intent.

Except it is a dangerous fantasy that these identities of ours are unique and transparent, and a perverse imperative that we should seek to hold them together at all times, and always be true to our true names.