Who Is the First Smith on the Internet? Contemporary Problems in Systems for Handling Identifiers

TitleWho Is the First Smith on the Internet? Contemporary Problems in Systems for Handling Identifiers
Publication TypeConference Paper
Author(s)Sandvig, C.
Affiliation (1st Author)University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA.
Section or WGCommunication Policy and Technology
DateFri 28 June
Slot CodeCPTF1a
Slot Code (Keyword)CPTF1a
Time of Session9:00-10:30
Session TitleInternet Design and Practice
Submission ID6172

In 2009 the French town of Eu became the subject of international news coverage when it proposed to change its name in order to improve its search engine rankings. While this was a lighthearted story played for comic effect, this study argues that the proliferation of the Internet and the increasing integration of networked computing into many forms of infrastructure are changing the societal processes of coining and using all identifiers (such as town names). This transformation of naming and numbering includes people, places, and indeed extends to anything that can be identified because it is a change in our infrastructures for organizing identifiers. Excellent previous scholarship has considered particular instances of this general trend. For example, the Internet domain name system and its conflation with trademark, the translation of numbers between telephone systems and the Internet, or the issues of scarcity in the economics of numbering. We build on this work to find a more general phenomenon wherein the increasing capacity of and connectedness between systems had led to a change in the value and nature of indexicality itself. This study proceeds via a comparative review of the infrastructures for naming across multiple information and communication technologies (ICTs), including both the technical features of these systems and their governance. Some conclusions are obvious: As ICTs proliferate and interconnect, so do namespace collisions. Channeling all search and directory functions through a single intermediary (like Google) produces a choke point. Yet more nuanced analysis finds ICTs on the cusp of important architectural transitions with the potential to reframe our understandings of the world and redistribute power within it. A great deal of naming and renaming (particularly aliasing) has become arbitrarily easy in a technical sense as older systems were computerized. Many naming infrastructures have also privatized. Because even random identifiers accrue meaning and even the simplest ordering confers slight advantage (consider the first Smith [or Li] to create a user account on the Internet), our infrastructures have become battlegrounds over the commodification of identifiers (commercial examples from social media alone include the failed Facebook unique username program and “verified by Twitter”). In this, the excesses of the Internet’s domain name system (the registration of sex.com sold for US$13m in 2010) have become the model for all ICTs and even, potentially, other kinds of naming and numbering including that done in commerce, government records, national postal systems, and a variety of standardization processes. This topic has important public implications for privacy, identity, culture and the evolution of socio-technical systems of communication. In addition, this study uses evidence from the aforementioned review to attempt a theoretical contribution to the scholarship of infrastructure studies. It concludes by arguing that ontological concepts from computer science (such as the pointer and dereferencing) are leaking into other domains through identification infrastructures. They then have a powerful potential to affect the organizational schemas within future infrastructures of all kinds.

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