Saturday, July 21, 2012

A naming overhaul

In my lifetime, I expect us to overhaul the way we refer to people, at least in writing. In a book I am reading, I just read the following sentence and laughed:
Michael Jackson has developed a systematic theory of requirements called "problem frames" that explains how to structure and reason about software development problems that involve interaction between a system and its environment.
Michael Jackson must've developed this theory between his album Dangerous and becoming busy with his child abuse allegations.

Unless it's not the same Michael, son-of-Jack.

But surely there cannot be two of those... Granted, there are many Michaels, but the author of the book disambiguated him for us by clarifying he's Jack's son!

The current naming scheme doesn't appear to be sustainable. Or rather it is, but for only shallow and trivial tasks.
  • "Michael, want to go to the movies?" as asked by a friend — sustainable.
  • "Michael Jackson, are you present in the classroom?" — sustainable.
  • "Michael Jackson needs to start receiving social security benefits." — not sustainable. Google search results are eclipsed by the artist, not the researcher.
Heck, there are two Philip Whites at my company. Both of us have one L in our first name. Our middle initials are different, thankfully, but we still get each other's mail, email, and instant messages.

And with inevitable globalization, the number of people we know of and who might share someone else's name continues to rise.

The Social Security Administration (and every other organization that conducts business) have known about this problem for a long time. That's why we have a slew of identification numbers: a Social Security number, a driver license number, a passport number, a university / school ID number, an employee ID number, etc. Is that our future? Is a book from 2033 going to read, "Michael Jackson, SSN# 142234221, has developed..."?

I believe the most likely outcome to be short URLs. A URL can point at a social media page like my Facebook or Google+ profile, or at a personal homepage (like mine). My homepage disambiguates me from other Philip Whites, links to my profiles on social media sites, and lets the reader contact me. It's an extended version of a business card.

The ideal solution might be a service similar to tinyurl, specializing in mapping IDs to a URL of the user's choice, and allowing the owner to change the URL at any time. (The equivalent of a CNAME in DNS.) If a responsible, long-term company starts this, we could include those IDs alongside a name. Its owner would choose whether to send visitors to the owner's homepage, or to a Facebook profile, or wherever else.