True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

by Vernor Vinge

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Since its first publication in 1981, the short novel True Names by Vernor Vinge has been considered one of the most seminal science fiction works to present a fully fleshed-out concept of cyberspace. A finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novella and winner of the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, True Names was an inspiration to many innovators who have helped shape the world wide web as we know it today.
The paperback edition of True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier, published in 2001, also contained a feast of articles by computer scientists on the cutting edge of digital science, including Danny Hillis, the founder of Thinking Machines and the first Disney Fellow; Timothy C. May, former chief scientist at Intel; Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, considered by many to be the "father" of AI; Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer, co-developers of habitat, the first real computer interactive environment; Mark Pesce, co-creator of VRML and the author of the Playful World: How Technology Transforms Our Imagination; and others.
This first e-book edition includes all this, plus:

a preface written especially for this edition by editor James Frenkel.
an article on the difficulty of keeping information secure by Internet security expert Bruce Schneier.
a passionate plea regarding the right to privacy by Richard Stallman, founder of the project to develop the free/libre GNU operating system and one of the most important advocates of free/libre software.

True Names itself is the heart of this important book: an exciting, suspenseful science fiction tale still as fresh and intriguing as when it was first published nearly thirty-five years ago.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466893191
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 494,128
File size: 524 KB

About the Author

Vernor Vinge has won five Hugo Awards, two of them in the Zones of Thought series: A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky. Known for his rigorous hard-science approach to his science fiction, he became an iconic figure among cybernetic scientists with the publication in 1981 of his novella "True Names," which is considered a seminal, visionary work of Internet fiction. His many books also include Marooned in Realtime, Rainbows End and The Peace War.
Vernor Vinge has won five Hugo Awards, including one for each of his last three novels, A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), and Rainbow’s End (2006). Known for his rigorous hard-science approach to his science fiction, he became an iconic figure among cybernetic scientists with the publication in 1981 of his novella "True Names," which is considered a seminal, visionary work of Internet fiction. His many books also include Marooned in Realtime and The Peace War. Born in Waukesha, Wisconsin and raised in Central Michigan, Vinge is the son of geographers. Fascinated by science and particularly computers from an early age, he has a Ph.D. in computer science, and taught mathematics and computer science at San Diego State University for thirty years. He has gained a great deal of attention both here and abroad for his theory of the coming machine intelligence Singularity. Sought widely as a speaker to both business and scientific groups, he lives in San Diego, California.

Read an Excerpt

True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier

By Vernor Vinge, James Frenkel

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2001 Vernor Vinge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9319-1


A Time of Transition/The Human Connection

Danny Hillis

Founder of Thinking Machines and the first Disney Fellow, Danny Hillis has feet both in the world of the past and in the future world that is being built every day by new technological developments. In the following essay he neatly encapsulates some of the issues faced by people today.

Faced by hitherto unheard-of rapidity of change, we have problems today vastly different from those faced by any previous generation of humans. And while many people think humans will change before long into a different kind of intelligent being, Hillis deals with the questions and problems posed by the pace and tenor of change as a human being already born and not likely to change radically. His perceptive, poignant essay is a fitting prelude to the others that follow. This piece was first published in 1997.

You can tell that something unusual is going on these days by the way we draw our graphs. In normal times, we would use a linear scale to plot progress. The height of our graph would be proportional to the measure of progress. But we live at a remarkable moment in history, when progress is so rapid that we plot it on a logarithmic scale.

In the field of computing we have become accustomed to measures that double every few years—processor speeds, communication bandwidths, the number of sites on the Internet—so we plot them on a scale that shows each order of magnitude as an equal step. By plotting on a log-labeled scale (1,10,100,1000) we can imagine progress as a straight line, moving steadily upward with the advance of time. This gives us a comfortable illusion of predictability.

Of course, if we used a linear scale to plot these same curves, they would not look so tame. They would be exponentials, shooting uncontrollably off the page. They would make it look as if everything that has happened so far is an insignificant prelude to what will happen next. On a linear scale, the exponents look unpredictable. The curves approach vertical, converging on a singularity, where the rules break down and something different begins.

The two ways of plotting progress correspond to different attitudes about technological change. I see the merits in both. As an engineer, I am an extrapolator. I am a believer in, and a participant in, the march of progress. As an engineer, I like semi-log scales. But I am also a parent, a citizen, a teacher, and a student. I am an object, not just an agent of change. As an object and as an observer, I can see clearly that there is something extraordinary going on. The explosion of the exponentials reveals a truth: We are alive at a special and important moment. We are becoming something else.

This century, fifty years back and fifty forward, is one of those rare times in history when humanity transforms from one type of human society to another. To use a physical analogy, we are in the midst of a phase transition, when the configuration of the system is switching between two locally stable states. In this transition, technology is the catalyst. It is a self-amplifying agent of change, in the sense that each improvement tends to increase its capacity to improve. Better machines enable us to build even better machines. Faster computers let us design faster computers, faster.

Change was not always like this. For most of human history, parents could expect their grandchildren to grow up in a world much like their own. For most of human history, parents knew what they needed to know to teach their children. Planning for the future was easier then. Architects designed cathedrals that would take centuries to complete. Farmers planted acorns to shade their descendants with oaks. Today, starting a project that would not be completed for century or two would seem odd. Today, any plan more than a year is "long-term."

Why have we become so shortsighted? We have no less good will than our ancestors. Our problem is that, literally, we cannot imagine the future. The pace of technological change is so great that we cannot know what type of world we are leaving for our children. If we plant acorns, we cannot reasonably expect that our children will sit under the oak trees. Or that they will even want to. The world is changing too fast for that. People move. Needs change. Much of our generation is employed at jobs our parents never imagined. Entire industries, indeed entire nations, can wither in the blink of an eye.

All of this confusion becomes understandable, even expected, if we accept the premise that we are in a time of transition from one type of society to another. We should expect to understand the occupations of our grandchildren no more than a hunter-gatherer would understand the life of a farmer, or than a preindustrial farmer would understand the life of a factory worker. All we can really expect to understand is the good in what we leave behind.

So what are we humans becoming? Whatever it is is more connected, more interdependent. Few individuals today could survive outside the fabric of society. No city could stand alone without being continuously fed from the outside by networks of power, water, food, and information. Few nations could maintain their lifestyles without trade. The web of our technology weaves us together, simultaneously enabling us and forcing us to depend more on one another.

As we are becoming more deeply connected to each other, we are simultaneously becoming more connected with our creations. Each time I watch a worker on an assembly line, a violinist with a violin, or a child with a computer, I am struck by how intimate we have become with our technology. Already, our contact lenses and our pacemakers are as much a part of us as our hair and teeth. With recombinant biotechnology we will blur the final boundary between artifacts and ourselves.

In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote, "Is it a fact—or have I dreamed it—that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence!" Now, more than a century later, we can see the signs of his vision. The collective intelligence of the world's minds, biological and electronic, already make many of our economic decisions. The prices of commodities and the rates of global growth are determined by this network of people and machines in ways that surpass the understanding of any single human mind. The phone system and the Internet have short-circuited distance, literally "vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time."

There are other, subtler signs that we are becoming a part of a symbiotic whole. It is obvious that we have become more narrowly specialized in our professions, but we are also becoming more specialized in the activities of our daily lives.

Increasingly we fragment our activities into pure components. We either work or play, exercise or relax, teach or learn. We divide our art, our science, our politics, and our religion into carefully separated spheres. There was an older kind of human that kept these things together, a kind a person who worked and played and taught and learned all at the same time. That kind of person is becoming obsolete. Integration demands standardization. Just as a single cell in our body is adapted to a specific function and a specific time, we too must focus our roles. An earlier kind of cell could sense, move, digest, and reproduce continuously, but such a self-sufficient unit cannot function as a part of a complex whole.

I cannot help but feel ambivalent at the prospect of this brave new world, in which I will be a small part of a symbiotic organism that I can barely comprehend. But then, I am a product of another kind of society, one that celebrates the individual. My sense of identity, my very sense of survival, is based on a resistance to becoming something else. Just as one of my hunting-gathering ancestors would surely reject my modern city life, so do I feel myself rebelling at this metamorphosis. This is natural. I imagine that caterpillars are skeptical of butterflies.

As frightened as I am by the prospect of this change, I am also thrilled by it. I love what we are, yet I cannot help but hope that we are capable of turning into something better. We humans can be selfish, foolish, shortsighted, even cruel. Just as I can imagine these weaknesses as vestiges of our (almost) discarded animal past, I can imagine our best traits—our kindness, our creativity, our capacity to love—as hints of our future. This is the basis for my hope.

I know I am a relic. I am a presymbiotic kind of person, born during the time of our transition. Yet, I feel lucky to have been given a glimpse of our promise. I am overwhelmed when I think of it ... by the sweet sad love of what we were, and by the frightening beauty of what we might become.


True Nyms and Crypto Anarchy

Timothy C. May

One of the biggest issues in cyberspace these days, one that will continue to be an issue as long as there is such a venue as the Internet, is the safety of communication from prying eyes. In the detailed and persuasive essay that follows, Tim May, formerly a physicist at Intel and one of the founding members of the Cypherpunks, discusses the big issues involved—invasion of privacy, the specter of government interference in personal affairs, the use of electronically forwarded information by a variety of people, entities, and organizations for purposes other than those intended by the forwarder ... these are all issues of tremendous importance to anyone who uses the Internet—and that means just about everyone, in one way or another.

In a previous age, these issues were not of such great importance, for there was never the possibility that anyone could find and gather enough information to do harm to others in the ways that are now possible with the Internet. Today, however ... Read Tim May's essay and you'll never feel quite as safe as you did a moment before you read these pages. This article was written in 1996.

The Impact of True Names

"True Names" came to my attention in 1986, when a friend of mine gave me a dog-eared Xerox copy and said "You need to read this." But before I even started reading this samizdat edition, the Bluejay Books trade paperback edition appeared and that's what I read, saving my eyesight and giving Vernor Vinge his proper cut of the action. True Names certainly riveted me, and it fit with other developments swirling around in computer circles at the time. Namely, digital money, anonymous e-mail, and all of the other issues connected with "strong cryptography" and "public key cryptography."

Some friends were setting up a company to develop "information markets" for the Net, though this was half a dozen years before the World Wide Web and wide public access to the Internet. It was clear to me that the ideas of anonymous interaction, reputation-based systems, digital pseudonyms, digital signatures, data havens, and public-key encryption in general would all be important for these markets in cyberspace. The work of Holland-based David Chaum, an American cryptographer who developed most of the early ideas about digital money and untraceable e-mail, looked to be of special relevance. Chaum's work on untraceable electronic cash, reported in a 1985 "Communications of the ACM" cover story (November 1985), sparked the realization that a digital economy could be constructed, with anonymity, untraceability, and ancillary anarcho-capitalist features, such as escrow agents to hold money for completion of services, reputation rating services and tools, and "persistence" for various kinds of constructs. In other words, a cryptographically based version of Vinge's True Names, and even of Ayn Rand's "Galt's Gulch" in Atlas Shrugged.

The full-blown, immersive virtual reality of True Names may still be far off, but the technologies of cryptography, digital signatures, remailers, message pools, and data havens make many of the most important aspects of True Names realizable today, now, on the Net. Arguably, Mr. Slippery is already here and, as Vernor predicted, the Feds are already trying to track him down. In 1988 these ideas motivated me to write and distribute on the Net "The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto," a section of which is quoted here:

"A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.

"Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re-routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering. Reputations will be of central importance, far more important in dealings than even the credit ratings of today. These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation."

These ideas have evolved over the years since this was written, but the basic ideas remain unchanged. The Cypherpunks group has been instrumental in implementing many of the concepts.

In this article I'll be exploring some of the implications of strong cryptography and crypto anarchy and the connections with True Names. Because this article will be in a book, with presumably a shelf life of many years, I'm avoiding giving specific article citations and URLs to Web sites, as they tend to change quickly. Searching on the names of authors should be a more reliable way of finding current locations and information.


The time was right in 1992 to deploy some of these new ideas swirling around in the cryptography and computer communities and reify some of these abstractions. Eric Hughes and I gathered together some of the brightest folks we knew from the annual Hackers Conference and from the Bay Area computer community to discuss the implications of these ideas, and to look into translating some of the academic work on cryptography into real-world programs. The initial meeting led to larger, monthly meetings, and to an active mailing list. Jude Milhon suggested the pun "Cypherpunks," a play on "cyberpunk" and on the British spelling "cypher." The name stuck, and the Cypherpunks mailing list has been active ever since. It was on this list that several of the most important security breaches in Netscape and other Internet programs were revealed, and the Cypherpunks list has played an important role in the ongoing cryptography debate, including fruitful discussions of the Clipper chip, key escrow, export laws, private access to strong cryptography, the implications of digital money, and other issues. We were also fortunate that Phil Zimmermann's Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, appeared in a usable form just as we were getting started. PGP is the leading user-friendly encryption program, available on nearly all platforms, and it was used as a building block for many of the cryptographic tools we and others developed.

The Cypherpunks group is also a good example of a "virtual community." Scattered around the world, communicating electronically in matters of minutes, and seemingly oblivious of local laws, the Cypherpunks group is indeed a community; a virtual one, with its own rules and its own norms for behavior. Some members use pseudonyms, and use anonymous remailers to communicate with the list, using PGP to digitally sign posts. These digital pseudonyms are in some sense their true names, their "true nyms." On the Cypherpunks list, a number of well-respected nyms have appeared and are thought of no less highly than are their "real" colleagues. The whole subject of digitally authenticated reputations, and the reputation capital that accumulates or is affected by the opinions of others, is one that combines economics, game theory, psychology, and expectations. Reputations play a critical role in how anonymity and pseudonyms work in cyberspace; many of the predicted problems with nyms vanish when reputations are taken into account.

There were several books we frequently recommended to new members: True Names led the list, along with John Brunner's Shockwave Rider, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Hakim Bey's TAZ, and, of course, various cryptography and computer references, notably Bruce Schneier's Applied Cryptography. At our first meeting, in fact, we simulated some of the notions out of "True Names," using cryptographic protocols. Most of the issues about pseudonyms, digital personas, and anonymity have since been explored directly using "Cypherpunks remailers" and related technologies.

Anonymous Remailers

Anonymous remailers, also called digital mixes, provide an excellent example of the possibilities inherent in cryptographic technology. David Chaum originally developed most of the important ideas in a 1981 paper on "Untraceable E-Mail," years before e-mail achieved the wide prominence it now has. And he later refined the ideas in a paper on so-called "DC-Nets," an interesting topic a bit beyond the scope of this article.


Excerpted from True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier by Vernor Vinge, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2001 Vernor Vinge. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface by James Frenkel

Introduction by Vernor Vinge

"A Time of Transition/The Human Connection," by Danny Hills

"True Nyms and Crypto Anarchy," by Timothy C. May

"Eventful History: Version 1.x," by John M. Ford

"How Is the NII Like a Prison?," by Alan Wexelblat

"Intelligent Software," by Pattie Maes

"The Right to Read," by Richard M. Stallman

"Cryptography and the Politics of One's True Name," by Leonard N. Foner

"Habitat: Reports from an Online Community," by Chip Morningstar and F. Randall Farmer

"True Magic," by Mark Pesce

'True Names," by Vernor Vinge

Afterword by Marvin Minsky

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True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
chellerystick on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is, in a sense, two different things.One is the 1981 story by Vernor Vinge. It is a little fantabulous, taking place partly in "cyberspace"--but a cyberspace that, despite its level of detail, acknowledges its dependence on the imagination of a community of users. The story revolves around one individual, a successful writer who is also a successful protester within cyberspace, who must deal with the myriad threats to the safety of this cyberspace, including both the government and "rogue" threats.The rest--the bulk--of the volume is a number of essays written throughout the 1990's that respond to, critique, or extend the story from a socio-technological viewpoint. Reading this for the first time in 2008, I was amazed at the prescience of these essays and their importance for our time. Danny Hillis takes a quick stab at a coming technological symbiosis, something that is coming true as certain white-collar groups are now always on, all the time, via cell phones, blackberries, Twitter linkages, etc. Timothy May describes several different applications of strong cryptography, and rants a bit. John M. Ford muses on what the computers of the future will think of us. Alan Wexelblat compares the datamining techniques of government and industry to a panopticon prison, where we do not own our own identity profiles. Pattie Maes mentions software agents. The next few pieces are, to my mind, essential. RMS writes a beautiful parable on "the right to read," i.e. a right to be able to own anything that contains intellectual property--a right that has been limited in a post DMCA age where people no longer have physical books and the like but can only license individual access for a short time. Leonard Foner describes the history of cryptography policy and its pitfalls. Morningstar & Farmer give an account of the late-80's Habitat community, sharing the technological (separate content and presentation!) and social lessons (don't break the conventions) they learned.Mark Pesce wraps up the essay section with a meditation on symbol, mearnings, and animism. Then the Vinge story is reprinted (with only typographical corrections made), followed by the 1983 afterword by Marvin Minsky, which tackles consciousness, language, and the human mind as computer. This is a whole topic of its own, but his piece was not a bad entrée into this area.A couple of different essays point out that during and after crises, citizens usually lose rights, being watched more closely for tinier infringements (such as wrong-thinking) by more powerful governments. They further suggest that there are two attractor basins: one towards a free, possibly slightly anarchist, society where people have speech and privacy rights supported by high technology, the other towards a totalitarian society run by individuals who are terrified by high technology and strictly regulate its use. Optimists believed that we were heading towards the former; in the wake of the September 11, 2001 killings, it is not so clear. How can we preserve the rights of man in a post-human world?Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago