ted byfield on Mon, 19 Oct 1998 09:10:59 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> DNS: A Short History and a Short Future (1/2)

[This essay was first published on Rewired during the
 week of 28 Sept 1998 under the title "A Higher Level
 of Abstraction"; I've slightly amended it for redis-
 tribution on nettime. Thanks to David Hudson for his
 excellent edit.-TB]

In the debates that have erupted over domain-name system (DNS) policy, two
main proposals have come to the fore: a conservative option to add a
handful of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs: ".nom" for names, ".firm"
for firms, etc.) administered by a minimal number of registrars, and a
more radical proposal to level the hierarchical structure of domain names
altogether by permitting openly constructed names ("whatever.i.want")
administered by an open number of registrars. 

The supposed cause for these debates orbit around perceived limitations on
the system--monopolization of registration by NSI (in the US, of course)
and a scarcity of available names; as such, the debates gravitate toward
modernizing the system and preparing it for the future. What little
attention has been paid to the past has focused on the immediate past,
namely, the institutional origins of the present situation. 

Little or no attention has been paid to the prehistory of the basic
problem at hand: how we map the "humanized" names of DNS to "machinic"
numbers of the underlying IP address system. In fact, this isn't the first
time that questions about how telecom infrastructures should handle
text-to-number mappings have arisen. And it won't be the last time,
either; on the contrary, the current debates are just a phase in a pas de
deux between engineers and marketers that has spanned most of this

A bit of history: From the 1920s through the mid 1950s, the US telephone
system relied on local-exchange telephone numbers of between two and five
digits. As these exchanges were interconnected locally, they came to be
differentiated by an "exchange name" based on their location. These names,
two-letter location designations, made use of the lettering on telephone
keypads: thus an 86x- exchange, for example, might be "TOwnsend," "UNion,"
"UNiversity," or "VOlunteer." Phone numbers such as "Union 567" were the
norm; "86567"--the same thing--would have been seemed confusing, in much
the same way that foreign dialing conventions can be. There wasn't a
precedent for a purely numerical public addressing system, and, with
perfectly good name-and-number models like street addresses in use for
centuries, no one saw any reason to invent one. 

However, as exchanges became interconnected across the nation, AT&T/Bell
found a number of problems--among them, that switchboard operators
sometimes had difficulty with accents and peculiar local names. As a
result, the national carriers began to recommend standardized exchange
names, according to a curious combination of specific and generic
criteria: they chose words that resisted regional inflection but were
common enough to peg to "local" landmarks. The numbers 5, 7, and 9 were
reserved because the keys have no vowels, making it (so the theory goes)
more difficult to form words from them; hence artifacts like the fictional
prefix 555-, so common in old movies, later became the national standard
for prefix for fact, in the form of directory assistance. 

By the late 1950s, when direct long-distance dialing became possible, then
popular, variable length of phone numbers became a problem for the
national carriers, which demanded yet more standardization--seven-digit
phone numbers in a "two-letter five-number" (2L5N) format. And while it
wasn't an immediate problem, the prospect of international telephonic
integration--with countries that used different letter-to-number schemes
or even none at all--drove yet another push for standardization, this time
for an "all-number calling" (ANC) system. Amazingly, the transition to ANC
in the U.S. took almost thirty years, up to around 1980 depending on the
region. (Just as certain telecom-underserved areas are now installing pure
digital infrastructures while heavily developed urban areas face complex
digital-analog integration problems, phone-saturated urban areas such as
New York were among the last to complete the conversion to ANC.)

Direct long-distance dialing wasn't merely a way for friends and family to
keep in touch: it allowed businesses to deal in "real time" with distant
markets. And the convention of spelling out numbers, only partially
suppressed, hence fresh in the minds of the many, became an opportunity.
Businesses began to play with physical legacy of lettered keypads and
cultural habits by using number-to-letter conversions as a marketing tool
--by advertising mnemonic phone numbers such as "TOOLBOX." And as long-
distance calls became a more normal for people to communicate, tolls began
to fall, in a vicious--or virtuous, if you prefer--circle, thereby
lowering the cost of transaction for businesses and spurring their
interest in broader markets. 

However, direct long-distance dialing presented a new problem, namely the
cost of long-distance calls, which became the next marketing issue--and
toll-free direct long-distance dialing was introduced. The marketing game
replayed itself, first for the 800- exchange (and again more recently for
the 888- exchange). As these number spaces became saturated with mnemonic
name-numbers, businesses began to promote spelled-out phone numbers that
were *longer* than the functional seven digits (1-800-MATTRESS)--because
the excess digits had no effect. The game has played itself out in other
ways and other levels--for example, when PBX system manufacturers adopted
keypad lettering as an interface for interactive directories which use the
first two or three "letters" of an employee's name. 

Obviously, this capsule history isn't in a literal allegory for the way
DNS has developed--that's not the point at all. There are "parallels," if
you like: questions of localized and systematic naming conventions, of
national/international integration, of arbitrarily reserved "spaces," of
integrating new telecom systems with installed infrastructures, of
technical standards coopted by marketing techniques, and so on. But
implicit in the idea of a "parallel" is the assumption that the periods in
question are separate or distinct; instead, one could--and should, I
think--see them as *continuous* or cumulative phases in an evolving effort
to define viable standards for the interfaces between machinic numerical
addressing systems and human linguistic systems. Either way, though,
DNS--like the previous efforts--won't be the last, regardless of how it is
or isn't modified in the next few years. 

This isn't to dismiss the current DNS policy debates. On the contrary:
they bear on very basic questions that should be addressed *precisely
because their implications aren't clear*--questions about
national/international jurisdiction and cooperation, centralized and
distributed authorities, the (il)legitimacy of de facto monopolies, and so

Ultimately, though, these questions are endemic to distributed-network
communications and are *not* unique to DNS issues. What *is* unique to DNS
isn't any peculiar quality but, rather, its historical position as the
first "universal" addressing system--that is, a naming convention called
upon (by conflicting interests) to integrate not just geographical
references at every scale (from the nation to the apartment building) but
also commercial language of every type (company names, trademarks,
jingles, acronyms, services, commodities), proper names (groups,
individuals), historical references (famous battles, movements, books,
songs), hobbies and interests, categories and standards (concepts,
specifications, proposals)...the list goes on and on. 

The present DNS debates center mostly around the question of whether and
how DNS should be adapted to the ways we handle language in these other
spheres, in particular, "intellectual property." Given the sorry state of
that field--which is dominated by massive industrial pushes to extend
proprietary claims indefinitely, to criminalize infractions against those
claims, and to weaken "consumer" protections by transforming commodities
purchases into revocable and heavily qualified use-licenses--it's fair to
ask whether it's wise to conform such an allegedly important system as DNS
to that morass. 

What's remarkable is how quickly this has evolved, from a system almost
fanatically insistent on shared resources and collaborative ethics to a
speculative, exclusionary free-for-all. A little more history: With the
erratic transformation of the "acceptable use policies" (AUPs) of the
various institutional and backbones supporters of the internet in the
first half of this decade, commercial use of the net expanded from a
strictly limited regime (for example, NSFNET's June 1992 "general
principle" allows "research arms of for-profit firms when engaged in open
scholarly communication and research") to an almost-anything-goes policy
left to private internet providers to articulate and enforce (along with
questions of spam, usenet forgeries, and so on and so forth). The result
was that any entity that couldn't establish educational, governmental, or
military credentials was categorized as "commercial" by default. The
".com" gTLD quickly became the dumping ground for just about everything:
not just business names and acronyms, but product and service names
(tide.com, help.com), people's names (lindatripp.com), ideas and
categories (rationality.com, diarrhea.com), parodies and jokes
(whitehouse.com, tragic.com), and everything else (iloveyou.com,
godhatesfags.com). (This essay omits discussion of the more nebulous
".net" and ".org" gTLDs--which are vaguely defined and became popular only
after the domain-name debates --as well as of state [".ny"] and national
[".uk",".jp"] gTLDs.) Thus, the "commercialization" of the net took place
on two levels: in the legendary rush of business to exploit the net,
obviously, but also in the administrative bias against noninstitutional
use of the net. 

There were practical reasons for that trend, to be sure: individual or
"retail" access was initiated by commercial internet providers, which
doled out many more dialup user accounts than domains, as well as
technical issues ranging from telecom pricing schedules to software for
consumer-level computers that discouraged the casual use of domains. But
the trend also had an ideological aspect: the entities that governed DNS
preferred the status quo to basic reforms--and, in doing so, relegated the
net's fast diversification to a single gTLD that became less coherent even
as it became the predominant force. 

One can't fault the administrators for failing to foresee the explosion of
the net; and their responses are, if not justified, at least
understandable. DNS was built around the structurally conservative
assumptions of a particular social stratum: government agencies, the
military, universities, and their hybrid organizations--in other words,
hierarchical institutions subject to little or no competition. These
assumptions were built into DNS in theory, and they guide domain-name
policy in practice to this day--even though the commercialization of the
net has turned many if not most of these assumptions upside down. Not only
are the newer "commercial" players prolific by nature, but most of their
basic assumptions and methods are very much at odds with the idealized
cooperative norms that supposedly marked governmental and educational
institutions: they come and go like mayflies, they operate under the
assumption that they'll be besieged by competitors at any moment, they
thrive on imitation, and they succeed (or at least try) by abstracting
everything and laying exclusionary claim to everything
abstract--procedures, mechanisms, names, ideas, and so on. The various
systems and fields we call "the market" worked this way before the net
came along; small wonder that they should work this way when presented
with a "new world." 

[end part 1 of 2]

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