“The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by aid of the god.”
“How know we but that she may be an eleventh sibyl or a second Cassandra?”
“Who the fuck are you?!?”
— Pete Townshend
— Who Are You?
Bennett Garner has a new piece at Coincentral. You can read it here:
Garner’s focus is on “Sybil attacks” which he defines as:
“A Sybil attack is an attempt to control a peer network by creating multiple fake identities. To outside observers, these fake identities appear to be unique users. However, behind the scenes, a single entity controls many identities at once. As a result, that entity can influence the network through additional voting power in a democratic network, or echo chamber messaging in a social network.”
Garner touches on how the ongoing questions surrounding allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election center, in many respects on the creation of multiple identities and efforts to identify their creators. He also explains that the use of multiple identities, as a kind of anonymity, is not necessarily a malign influence, as individuals (sic) or companies may have perfectly legitimate reasons for creating and using multiple personae.
At the other end of the spectrum, under the heading, Disproportionate Control, he details the negative or threatening possibilities:
“A Sybil attack grants undue influence to a single entity simply because that entity controls many pseudonyms. We hear all the time about fake Reddit accounts that upvote posts on behalf of a given company or cause. Amazon sellers can buy fake reviews from accounts around the world. These pseudonyms are hard to detect and remove.”
He then explains a few methods for countering a Sybil attack, including various verification protocols and raising the cost to users who, in theory would find the increased server usage cost prohibitive.
For the average would-be thief these countermeasures would probably prove too expensive. For large, well funded criminal organizations, with wealth approaching that of small states, or for governments with what amounts to infinite scalability – as in, server farms the size of a city – the countermeasures described would be minor obstacles.
This in turn not only highlights the never ending, or infinitely regressing nature of “security” but throws us back to the idea of the Sybil.
The appeal of cryptocurrencies rests on two assertions. First, that by being “decentralized” cryptocurrencies would be a kind of postmodern currency safe from the vistitudes and whims, if not deliberate manipulations of standard, government sanctioned currencies. Like gold stashed under a bed, cryptocurrencies would by their very nature be free from either mistakes or the criminal attempts to corner or crash markets.
The second assertion is that the system itself, being an algorithm could not be hacked, manipulated or controlled to benefit nefarious operators.
Needless to say, none of that is true in that cryptocurrency like all systems are their own Trojan Horse – they are a sub-system of the dominant system which is human consciousness and for that, no one has ever designed a wall that it cannot breach.
This is in a sense the issue of to what extent human consciousness is a dog chasing its tail in perpetuity. All definitions are themselves, by definition part of the system, as defined by the act of defining the system.
This tautological reality is both a mirror and a reflection. The impulse to create a fortress, a wall that cannot be breached is as old as the first idea. But along side this impulse are stories in which each assertion of finality is broken.
Eden is perfect, set off from everything that is not itself and within it, the first humans are themselves hermetically sealed and secure – walled off from knowledge of who they are. But the walls is of course breached.
The Trojans in turn suffer a similar fate and to this day, a Trojan Horse attack is the very definition of a trick that betrays not just the fact of the wall, but the idea that the wall – the system – is definitively secure.
And so to the Sybil.
From its earliest iteration the nature and number of Sybils was in dispute. Different sources from antiquity into the Middle Age and the late Renaissance, all count different numbers of Sybils and enumerate fakes from the genuine article. In some versions the Sybil is conflated with Cassandra – cursed by Apollo with being able to predict the future but to be ignored or never believed. Cassandra is of course the daughter of Priam, king of Troy who, one assumes would have benefitted from advanced intelligence regarding Greeks and their gifts.
Here is James Frazer, the mythologist, addressing the issue of verification:
“At first, the Greeks seemed to have known only one sibyl. (Heraclitus, cited by Plutarch, De Pythiae Oraculis 6; Aristophanes, Peace 1095, 1116; Plato, Phaedrus, p.244b). The first writer who is known to have distinguished several sibyls is Heraclides Ponticus in his book On Oracles, in which he appears to have enumerated at least three, namely the Phrygian, the Erythraean, and the Hellespontin.”
Then there are the words of the Sybil themselves – open to the widest possible interpretations. The purpose of the Sybil was of course to divine the future – to speak the code that upon being cracked would reveal the right path that would secure one’s safe course of action.
Or, if you prefer, they were designed to tell fake news from genuine information.
In other words, the Sybil was a server, an intelligence source, or living dossier, and the words spoken were a code and the code’s purpose was to secure the system of action and protect the user from life’s hacks.
Of course, the system failed. But it also persisted. The Sybil as both metaphor and system of prophecy, continued for centuries. In action it represented an attempt to define the individual – right action, prophesied, became the definition of the user, who by being correct arrived at a moment of safety and completion. Failure in contrast resulted in catastrophe; being incorrect and failing to be secure and then being punished if not erased from existence.
As an illustration of the desire for a system that arrests risk, consider this myth about the Sybil:
Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates that the Sibylline Books, a kind of encyclopedia of prophecies, was offered for sale by the Ceauman Sibyl, to Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh and last king of Rome. The king refused to pay retail. The Sybil staged an insurance fire and burned six of the books. The king panicked, caved and bought the remaining three at the price she had originally asked for all nine. The three surviving books were stashed in a secure location – in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill, to be consulted only in emergencies.
They were destroyed in the fire of 83 BC.