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    Highlights of the ICANNWatch Archive
    (June 1999 - March 2001)

    The Big Picture ICANN and the Academie Francaise
    posted by DavidP on Friday April 27 2001, @03:59AM

    A few weeks ago, on one of the ICANN-related lists, Roeland Meyer made an interesting point worth contemplating further. Names, he pointed out, are simply arbitrary labels that take their meaning from context and shared understandings. I may label a spherical rubber object a "ball" and you may label it a "goidosphere," reserving the label "ball" for square steel cubes. If we do that, of course, we won't understand each other. I can call the server this little essay is posted on 'icannwatch.org,' you can call it something else; again, whether our labels match will determine whether or not we will understand each other.

    So what does this have to do with ICANN?

    The DNS is just another means for organizing a universe of entities such that we can distinguish one from another, consisting of reusable tags. Its a kind of language -- it gives names to things. We can change the object that we place particular labels on, and we can place particular labels on different objects at the same time.

    ICANN exists to provide a source of authoritative, global, standardized labels. Sounds like a good idea. Coordination is very valuable in any language - the potential for confusion is enormous, and it would be great if you and I had the same label for that round spherical object, and, conversely, if we use the labels "ball" and "goidosphere" to refer to the same objects. All other things being equal, global standardization is surely a good thing.

    Somehow, though, we seem to get by *without* any authoritative standardized labels for ordinary words. The Department of Commerce has no role to play in determining whether I call that round object a 'ball' or a 'goidosphere.' And yet, we muddle through.

    More interesting still: throughout history, many smart and sensible people thought that it was inconceivable that our 'natural languages' - English, French, and so on -- could function without such an authoritative standard-setter, just as many smart and sensible people today seem to think it is inconceivable that the net could function without a central authority promulgating a global naming standard. There were incredibly interesting and intense battles in the 18th century over the role of the State in setting enforceable language policy. I've written a little essay about that that I've posted elsewhere. The Academie Francaise was only the most obvious and well-developed manifestation of this view: the King would set the rules for the French language, and would punish those who deviated from those rules. John Adams actually proposed a similar institution for the United States, though the Continental Congress refused to go along.

    It sounds pretty ridiculous in retrospect; one side of that argument lost, decisively. However intense the debate about this was 200 years ago, most people today are perfectly comfortable with the notion that we will, in fact, muddle through quite well without someone "in charge" of what we can and cannot say. Somehow we manage to agree to call it a 'ball', or not, quite effectively, without any single institution telling us we have to do that.

    Somehow, though, those same people are not at all comfortable with the (equivalent) notion that we will do just fine without ICANN (or its equivalent) in charge of the labels we can or cannot use on the net. I don't get it.

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    ICANN and the Academie Francaise | Log in/Create an Account | Top | 1 comments | Search Discussion
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    Re: ICANN and the Academie Francaise
    by alexander on Friday April 27 2001, @09:10AM (#570)
    User #22 Info | http://www.icannchannel.de
    This game of analogy can obviously be carried on further. There are also collisions in the 'language space'. Whether the label "BELL" refers to a physical object, a company name, a personal name -- or whether it refers to the English language at all -- indeed depends on the context. Without any context, the label becomes meaningless. Language normally is extremely redundant to reduce the potential of confusion resulting from misunderstandings. This redundancy is usually sufficient for ordinary language -- it often isn't for more specific terminology.

    "A sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two stripes of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together" which shall weigh "not less than five nor more than 5 1/4 ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 9 1/4 inches in circumference" -- that's the definition for 'ball' according to the Major League Baseball code of rules. It's a subset of the ordinary language definition, and the professional baseball teams have to stick to it. Pharmaceutical substances, maritime communication, legal documents are some examples for language use where collisions in the language space pose grave dangers. The physician and the pharmacy, the captain and the pilot, the legislator and the lawyer have to use the same labels when they are using certain words. (The linguistic laxity is assumably indirectly proportional to the dangers of linguistic ambiguity/collision.)

    Is there a global authority determining the labels in all these cases? No, there are various ways to prevent ambiguity within a certain sphere. A legislator may define a specific term using hopefully unambigous ordinary words, and the definition covers only the sphere of that law. In the case of maritime communication, the International Maritime Organization is developing such a system. For pharmaceutical substances, there are e.g. (non-trademarkable) labels called INNs which are registered by the World Health Organization in Geneva.

    What does all of that mean in the ICANN context? We can call the server this little response is posted on 'icannwatch.org', and someone else can set up a different domain name space where his server is called 'icannwatch.org'. While that third person is in charge of his (fictitious) domain name space, ICANN (via DoC) is in charge of the almost exclusively used standard domain name space. There is no Académie Française at the root-zone level deciding which 'icannwatch.org' is correct and which isn't. This is the problem of alt.root operators who have coined their own labels, haven't managed to make them part of the everyday vocabulary and now have to fear that these labels share the fate of rarely used expressions in the language space: falling into oblivion, being displaced by mainstream terms.

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