The origin of the words authentic5 and genuine6 point to the idea that authentication
had to do with oppressive violence. It was the authenticator who had supreme power
to tell what is true or not. The truth: whether something was trustworthy and
genuine, was to be found outside the authenticated and was to be imposed upon the
informed. However, even in this very traditional and strict interpretation the
Informed still played a role: authenticity only exists when the informed is convinced.
Since the eighteenth century the true source of authenticity has increasingly been
inside the authenticated. There was a true and pure inner self that was to be sought
and found. This western romantic idealism tended to become more important when
the power of (authoritarian) religion diminished and when traditional authorities
became more and more controversial. The truth could not to be imposed upon by
some authority. The authenticator used to be exoteric and became more and more
esoteric (Sloterdijk, 2016, p. 106-107). Authenticity was to be found within yourself
and only by yourself.
In this last sense authenticity is something that should be attained, never to be
completely reached. It withdraws itself when it becomes too obvious, as described
above. The authenticator becomes more and more identical with the authenticated,
and with the informed. Moral philosophers like Charles Taylor (2007) have built
their case on this: there is no external, divine authority anymore, we should look for
authentication within ourselves. We are our own authenticators. And we are all in
Strong and weak authenticity
The best-known use of the word authenticity in relation to records is: there is an
object, for example a medieval manuscript, and an authority will determine whether
it is genuine. In this case authenticity is an essential qualification for the
trustworthiness of the object. It identifies its nature. Following the definition in the
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy cited at the beginning of this essay, the term
strong authenticity will be used for this type.
Authentication might also be of referential nature. In this case the authentication
process is directed towards the question if an object or person is a true, trustworthy
representation of something, or someone, else. Does a collection of records give a
trustworthy and representative picture of what happened in a city, a country, in the
life of a person or family? In this essay the term weak authenticity is used to describe
Weak authenticity is closely connected to questions of identity: the informed might
be very satisfied when referential authenticity confirms his or her own opinions and
worldviews. Weak authenticity where the informed and the authenticator are one
and the same, is the billion-dollar business Gilmore and Pine (2007) have described.
The search is a powerful catalyst of consumer economics: we want to surround
ourselves with things that reflect and confirm our identity. "This is so not us as a
rather funny TV car-commercial puts it.7
When we combine the types of authenticity described above, we are provided with
four possibilities for authentication:
1. External judgement of strong authenticity;
2. External judgement of weak authenticity;
3. Internal judgement of weak authenticity;
4. Internal judgement of strong authenticity.
These possibilities will be briefly explored below.
External judgement of strong authenticity
The first possibility is the best known to archivists. It is the root of archival science:
diplomatics. Authentication is the validation of records with the aim to determine if
they can be trusted: "When a record is what it purports to be, the record is genuine"
(Park, 2001, p. 272). Whenever the validation is positive the record is a reliable
source. If so, the record can be used for evidential purposes (Duranti, 1995, p. 6).
Strong authenticity of a record must be proved by a test of specific conditions. The
test should always give the same results under the same conditions.
The study of language in written sources at least goes back to Antiquity and to the
Islamic Golden Age. In Europe philology became prominent during the Renaissance
by scholars like Lorenzo Valla and Erasmus. Jean Mabillon established diplomatics
as a research method in the sixteenth century. Diplomatics became a positivist
science in the nineteenth century. The scientific method attempted to uncover
general principles under an empirical reality through scientific experiments. As
MacNeil (2016) wrote: "The diplomatic analysis of the elements of a record is a
process of abstraction and systemization, the aim of which is to identify the essential
attributes of a record and make them transportable to different historical and
documentary contexts" (p. 734).
The way in which authentication takes place has varied a lot, depending on who was
the authenticator. It might be a priestess in Delphi, it might be the Pope, a notary, a
judge or an archivist. Nowadays the authenticator might be a machine, or a huge
network of machines. Authentication using blockchain technology is the reality
now. Authentication of records in the Internet of Things and peer-to-peer
technologies will become reality without a doubt. Authentication by Design will
become a necessary part of designing information systems. The necessary
precondition will be that enough (meta-)data are added to the record during
creation and during preservation. This includes data about the kind of algorithms
being used, about rules for preservation, about parameters for authentication and
about restrictions on access.
Based on the results of the InterPares-project, MacNeil (2016) has claimed that
diplomatics in a strict positivist sense can no longer hold the positivist claim that it
proves strong authenticity of records. Reality has become too complicated, especially
archives in liquid times
frans smit records, hyperobjects and authenticity
5 See http://labyrinth.rienkjonker.nl/content/herkomst-authenticiteit, accessed 03-06-2017, citing Beknopt
Grieks-Nederlands woordenboek, (1969) bewerkt door dr. W. den Boer, Wolters Noordhoff NV, Groningen,
6 See http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=genuinus&la=la&can=genuinus0#lexicon, accessed
7 See https://youtu.be/CBPguh2JfBw, accessed 29-9-2017