Predicting the Future

I spend a lot of time teaching and talking about what computers, the Internet, and the combination of the two (computer networking) can do.  In my classes, I like to paint a vision of the future, in brush strokes of bits and bytes.  I like to talk about how computer networking creates a digital environment, new in human history.  The possibilities seem infinite.

I like to imagine what the future would be like.  It is only a matter of time before drones and other robotic military units will be standard for rich, technologically advanced countries.  Moreover,experts believe that fresh water, oil, and and other resources will become scarce.  Technologically advanced countries will have the means and motive to make vassal states out of less technologically advanced, but resource rich countries.  Imagine one country using computer networked drones as a cudgel to beat weaker governments still using 20th century weapons into submission.  It’d be just like how the English were able to use the maxim gun to pacify African and Asian countries attacking them with spears.  A new age of imperialism may be in our future.

More optimistically, I can envision the type of world we can live in when 3-D printers become ubiquitous.  I can envisage a multitude of makers, working away in their garages, all using their 3-D printers to make goods to sell on the market.  We can become a nation that is less unequal economically, as profits migrate from a few large corporations to a swath of households and small businesses.  We could become more democratic as money corrupts the system less. It would make it easier for people not born into wealth to reach middle class status.  It may even inaugurate a new era of tinkering and making that would rival the industrial revolution from the 17th and 18th century.  I like this idea.

We can let our imaginations run free and think about the world of the future.  No one can know what things will be like in a few years, much less decades from now.  There are so many possibilities.

But there is one certainty when it comes to computer networking and humanity.  There is one thing that technology can never accomplish.  Curiously, this came to me when listening to an interview given by Fadi Chehadé, the president and CEO of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), on C-SPAN’s series The Communicators.

 

ICANN and New Top Level Domains

First, a little background.  ICANN was created in 1998  to manage the “identifiers” of the Internet – the system of domain names and Internet protocol (IP) addresses that allow computer devices to recognize and communicate with each other.  It is ICANN that oversees the allocation of website names and the organization of those names.  A registrar like GoDaddy is given a license by ICANN to register web addresses for customers.  A small percentage of your fees to GoDaddy are given to ICANN and this pays for the organization (I think that’s how it works).

ICANN has been in the news during the past year as it has been introducing new generic top level domains (gTLD) to the Internet.  Generic top level domains are the ending identifiers to web addresses.  Examples are .com and .gov.  Over the past several years ICANN has been accepting applications for new top level domains.  For a tidy sum of $185,000 dollars, businesses, government bodies, and organizations could apply for a gTLD.   For example, a nonprofit may apply for the gTLD  “.buddhist”.  If this gTLD becomes a part of the digital environment, then people who wish to be associated with Buddhism may want a web address on this domain.  Buddhist Red Sox Fans may then register a website address of http://www.SawxForever.Buddhist.

ICANN reviews the applications, making sure that the petitioner of the gTLD has the resources to manage the domain name (that petitioner would become a registrar like GoDaddy) and that the name itself is available and not offensive to any groups.   Here are few of the gTLDs that have been approved:

شبكة
онлайн
삼성
组织机构
KITCHEN
VODKA
SHOES
MOSCOW
GMO
YOKOHAMA

If interested, a list of gTLDs can be found at the website 101domain. ICANN also keeps a list of applications in various stages of review (applications approved and available are termed delegated strings).

The interview I saw, which originally aired on January 28th 2014, was primarily about the rollout of these new gTLDs.  In one segment Chehadé, commenting on the roll out of what he says may turn into thousands of new domains, said:  “I want to emphasize this because I belong to a minority community where I came from [his family is a Coptic Christian minority in Islamic Egypt]…finding each other in cyberspace is also important…so new top level domains will given an opportunity for communities to express their identity on the web.

chehade Fadi Chehadé, the president and CEO of ICANN

Unintended Consequences

My initial reaction was, OK, great.  The web is Anglocentric to be sure.  Why not have domain names that identify particular groups and particular languages?  Moreover, Chehadé is right when he says that it can be hard for minority communities to find each other in cyberspace.

But after some reflection, I began to have misgivings.  Right now there is very little meaning attached to gTLDs.  The extensions “.com”, “.gov”, “.edu” have meaning only in that they orient a person to the purpose or function of the site – “.gov” for government, “.edu” for schools, “.xxx” for adult sites, and so on.

While we can’t predict the future, we can be absolutely sure that technology can’t change our fundamental human behavior.  Technology enables and constrains behavior – but cannot change behaviors that have evolved over millions of years.  One of those behaviors is placing people into categories and then acting on those categorizations. We do this in the physical environment all the time.  We walk on an elevator with people we don’t know.  We look, categorize, and judge.  All in a matter of milliseconds, without uttering a word.  In one instance we are clutching our belongings and staring icily ahead at the elevator door.  The next, with a different person, we are smiling warmly and wondering if we should invite them to our housewarming party.  This is human.  This is us.

This behavior will extend to new domain names.  There will be a number of applications for gTLDs attached to socially meaningful human categories.  Once those new domains are available, people’s behavior online will change accordingly.  For some domains, we will clutch our belongings, for others, we will invite to our housewarming party.

And so, there will be some (unintended) consequences to the introduction of new gTLDs:

  1. People will ignore many names like “.KITCHEN” and “.VODKA”.  Brand names like “.YOKOHAMA” will only be used by the brands and their subsidiaries.  Domains that express a function, like “.SOCIAL” will only be used by the few companies that are performing that function.   These types of domains will be specialized or little used.
  2. People will gravitate towards domains that reflect the categories they believe they belong to (their social identity).  Someone who strongly identifies with the Catholic faith, will look for websites with the gTLD “.Catholic”.  This gTLD is already available.
  3. Moreover, content providers, especially small ones, will search for those domains that reflect not their particular business, but the particular category of people they wish to connect with.  A news organization wishing to garner the Internet traffic of Catholics will not only use “.com” or “.net”, but will also use “.Catholic”.
  4. Because the strongest identities in societies tend to be racial, ethnic, and religious, people will gravitate to those most strongly.  There is already a “.latino” gTLD.  Many more will come.
  5. Domain cultures will arise.  Norms will vary by domain.  Languages as well.  Certain personalities, ideas, and narratives will come to dominate certain gTLDs.  People will begin to stereotype gTLDs as for “us” and for “them”.
  6. The digital environment will come to resemble the physical environments of many urban metropolises – a veneer of diversity covering deep pockets of sameness.  Picture New York City subways crowded with people of many hues getting off at predictable stops – Flushing, Queens for Asians, South Bronx for Hispanics, Park Slope for whites.

What I am saying here may seem like an overreaction.  OK, let’s do a thought experiment:

Let’s imagine that gTLDs “.Jewish” and “.Islam” are available.  Let’s also imagine they were written not in English but in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively.  Those domain names, we would expect, would conjure historical religious, linguistic, regional, and historical connotations.  New websites using this gTLD  understand these connotations and their contents will reflect that.  In other words, this is a Jewish website, and my content needs to speak to the Jewish community.  Because the gTLD is written in Hebrew and Arabic, we can expect that the content of the websites using this domain will also be written in these languages.  We can also expect that almost all of the traffic to those sites will be from web users who identify as Jewish or Muslim.  And there you have it.  The same misunderstandings, suspicions, xenophobia, and divergent interpretations of the same phenomena produced in an analogous situation in the physical environment will be reproduced online.   By the way, there is already a “.Islam”, but in English.

We Are Human After All

In predicting the future, we should always start with who we are as a species.  Because the one thing technology can’t do is make us less human.  Computers are made by us, for us, and are merely extensions and expressions of our humanity.  ICANN could have created an application process so that domain names connected to human categories would have been unacceptable.  That would have still left an infinite number of potential domains based on brand, idea, event, and so on.  But doing this would seem odd, because that would go against our human nature.

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