ted byfield on Mon, 19 Oct 1998 09:10:58 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> DNS: A Short History and a Short Future (2/2)


If no one anticipated the speed with which business would take to this new
medium, even less could anyone have predicted how it would exploit and
overturn the parsimonious principles that dominated the net. Newer domain
users quickly broke with the convention of subdividing a single domain
into descriptively named sub- and sub-sub- domains that mirrored their
institution's structure (e.g., function.dept.school.edu). Instead,
commercial players started to strip-mine name space with the same comical
insistence that led them to label every incremental change to a commodity
"revolutionary." The efficient logic of multiple users within one domain
was replaced with a speculative logic in which a few users became the
masters of as many domains as they could see spending the money to
register. In some cases, these were companies trying to extort attention--
and money--out of "consumers" (business's preferred name for "person"); in
other cases, they were "domain-name prospectors" hoping to extort money
out of business; in many more cases, though, they were simply "early
adopters" experimenting with the fringes of a new field. In effect, the
potentially complex topology of a multilevel name space was
reduced--mostly through myopic greed and distorted rhetoric--to a flatland
as superficial as the printed pages and TV screens through which the
business world surveys its prey. The minds that collectively composed
"mindshare," it was assumed, couldn't possibly grok something as
complicated as a host name. 

So, for example, when Procter and Gamble decided to apply "brand
management" advertising theories to the net, it registered diarrhea.com
rather than simply incorporating diarrhea.pg.com into its network
addressing. And so did the ubiquitous competition, including the
prospectors who set about registering every commercial domain they could
cook up. The follies of this failed logic are everywhere evident on the
net: thousands of default "under-construction" pages for domain names
whose "owners"--renters hoping to become rentiers--wait in vain for
someone to buy their swampland: graveyard.com, casual.com, newsbrief.com,
cathedral.com, lipgloss.com, and so on, and so on. 

Under the circumstances--that is, thousands of registered domain names
waiting to be bought out--claims that existing gTLD policies have resulted
in a scarcity of domain names are doubtful. In fact, within the ".com"
gTLD alone, the number of domain names registered to date is a barely
expressible fraction of possible domain names, such as "6gj-ud8kl.com":
~2.99e+34 possible domain names *within ".com" alone*, or ~4.99e24 domains
for every person on the planet; if these were used efficiently--that is,
elaborated with subdomains and hostnames such as
"6b3-udh.6gj-ud8kl.com"--the number becomes effectively infinite. 

Obviously, then, the "scarcity" of domain name is *not* a function of
domain name architecture *or* administration at all. It stems, rather,
from the commercial desire to match domain names with names used in
everyday life--in particular, names used for marketing purposes. To be
sure, "6gj-ud8kl.com" isn't an especially convenient domain name; but,
then again, was "Union 567" or "+1-212-674-9850" a convenient phone
number, "187 Lafayette St #5B New York NY 10013" a convenient address, or
"280-74-513x" a convenient Social Security number? 

But if DNS is in fact such an important issue, does it really make sense
to articulate its logic according to the "needs" of marketers? After all,
business has managed to survive the tragic hardship of arbitrary telephone
numbers for decades and arbitrary street addresses for centuries. Surely,
if the net really will revolutionize commerce, to the point of
"threatening the nation-state" as some like to claim, the inconvenience of
arbitrary domain name will hardly stop the revolution. 

*Of course* there are territorial squabbles over claims to names and
phrases. And *of course* some people and organizations profit from the
situation. But we don't generally erect a stadium in areas where gang
fights break out; so one really has to ask whether it's a good idea to
restructure gTLD architecture--supposedly the system that will determine
the future of the net, hence a great deal of human communication--to cater
to a kind of business dispute that's in no way limited to DNS. 

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter which proposed gTLD policy reform
prevails, because the gains will be mostly symbolic, not practical--
except, of course, for the would-be registrars, for whom these new
territories could be quite profitable. At minimum, adding new gTLDs such
as ".firm", ".nom", and ".stor" will bring about a few openings--and, more
to the point, a new round of territorial expansions, complete with
redundant registrations, intellectual-property lawsuits, etc. At maximum,
an open domain-name space that allows domains such as "whatever.i.want"
will precipitate a domain-grabbing free-for-all that will make navigating
domains as unpredictable as navigating file structures. 

Moreover--and *much* worse--where commercial litigation is now limited to
registered domain names, an open namespace would invite attacks on the use
of terms *anywhere* in an address. Put simply: where apple.material.net
and sun.material.net are now invulnerable to litigation, in an open
namespace Apple Computers and Sun Microsystems could easily challenge
"you.are.the.apple.of.my.eye" and "who.loves.the.sun". 

Neither proposed reform *necessarily* serves anything resembling a common
good. But both proposed reforms will provide businesses with more grist
for their intellectual property mills and provide users with the benefits
of, basically, vanity license plates. The net result will be one more step
in the gradual conversion of language--a common resource by definition--
into a condominium colonized by businesses driven by dreams of renting,
leasing, and licensing it to "users." 

It doesn't, however, follow that the status quo makes sense--it doesn't.
It's rife with conceptual flaws and plagued by practical issues affecting
almost every aspect of DNS governance--in particular, who is qualified to
do it, how their operations can be distributed, and how democratized
jurisdictions can be integrated without drifting being absorbed by the
swelling ranks of global bureaucracies. The present administration's
caution in approaching gTLD policy is an instinctive argument made by
people happy to exploit, however informally, the *superabundance* of
domain-name registrations. 

Without doubt, the main instabilities any moderate gTLD policy reform
introduced would be felt in the administrative institutions' funding
patterns and revenues. More radical reforms involving more registrars
would presumably have more radical consequences--among them, a need to
certify registrars and DNS records, from which organizations with strong
links to security and intelligence agencies (Network Associates, VeriSign,
and SAIC) will surely benefit. The current administration insists that an
open name space would introduce dangerous instabilities into the
operations of the net. But whether those effect would be more extreme than
the cumulative impact of everyday problems--wayward backhoes, network
instabilities, lazy "netiquette" enforcement, and human error--is

There is one point on which the status quo *and* its critics agree: the
assumption that DNS will remain a fundamental navigational interface of
the net. But it need not and will not: already, with organizations
(ml.org, pobox.com), proprietary protocols (Hotline), client and
proxy-server networks (distributed.net), and search-engine portal advances
(RealNames, bounce.to), we're beginning to see the first signs of
name-based navigational systems that complement or circumvent domain

And they're doing it in ways that address not the bogeys that appear in
the nightmares of rapacious businessmen but the real problems and
possibilities that many, many more users are beginning to face:
maintaining stable email addresses in unstable access markets, maintaining
recognizable zine-like servers in the changing conditions of dynamic IP
subnets, cooperating under unpredictable load conditions, and, of course,
*finding* relevant info--not *offering* it, from a business perspective,
but *finding* it from a user's perspective. 

DNS, as noted, was built around the assumptions of a specific social
stratum. Prior to the commercialization of the net, most users were if not
computer professionals then at least technically proficient; and the
materials they produced were by and large stored in logical places which
were systematically organized and maintained. In short, the net was a
small and elite town, of sorts, whose denizens--"netizens"--were at least
passingly familiar with the principles and practices of functional design.
In that context, just as multiple users on a single host was a sensible
norm, so were notions of standardized file structures, naming conventions,
procedures and formats, and so on. But just as the model of multiple users
on a single host has become less certain, so has the rest. 

The net has become a nonsystematic distributed repository used by more and
more technically incompetent users for whom wider bandwidth is the
solution to dysfunctional design and proliferating competitive formats and
standards. Finding salient "information" (the very idea of which has
changed as dramatically as anything else) has become a completely
different process than it once was. 

This turn of events should come as no surprise. As commercial domains
multiplied, and as users multiplied on these domains, the quantities of
material their efforts and interactions produced grew ferociously--but
with none of the clarity typical the "old" institutional net. In the past,
the information generated around or available through a domain (or to the
subdomains and hostnames assigned to a department in a university or
military contractor) was often "coherent" or interrelated. But that can't
be said of the material proliferating in the net's fastest-growing
segments: commercial internet access providers, institutions that
automatically assign internet access to everyone, diversified companies,
and any other domain-holding entities that permit discretionary traffic. 

Instead, what one finds within these domains is mostly random both in
orientation and in scale: family snapshots side by side with meticulously
maintained databases, amateur erotic writings next to source-code
repositories, hypertext archives from chatty mailing lists beside
methodical treatises, and so on. In such an environment, a domain name
functions more and more as an arbitrary marker, less and less as a
meaningful or descriptive rubric. 

This isn't to say that domain names will somehow "go away"; on the
contrary, it's hard to imagine how the net could continue to function
without this essential service. But the fact that it will persist doesn't
mean that it will serve as a primary interface for navigating networked
resources; after all, other aspects of network addressing have become all
but invisible to most users (IP addresses and port numbers to name the
most obvious). 

The benefit that DNS offers is its "higher level of abstraction"--a stable
addressing layer that permits more reliable communications across networks
where changing IP numbers change and heterogeneous hardware/software
configurations are the norm. But "higher" is a relative term: as the
substance of the net changes--as what's communicated is transformed both
in kind and in degree, and as the technical proficiency of its users drops
while their number explodes--DNS's level of abstraction is sinking
relative to its surroundings. 

     [end part 2 of 2]

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