Saving the “Semantic” Web (part 4)

Democracy vs. Aristocracy

Part of a recent comment on this series reads:

What should we have been doing instead of the semantic web? ISO Topic Maps? There is some great work in there, but has it been a better success?

That is an important question and I wanted to capture it outside of comments on a prior post.

Earlier in this series of posts I pointed out the success of HTML, especially when contrasted with Semantic Web proposals.

Let me hasten to add the same observation is true for ISO Topic Maps (HyTime or later versions).

The critical difference between HTML (the early and quite serviceable versions) and Semantic Web/Topic Maps is that the former democratizes communication and the latter fosters a technical aristocracy.

Every user who can type and some who hunt-n-peck, can author HTML and publish their content for others around the world to read, discuss, etc.

That is a very powerful and democratizing notion about content creation.

The previous guardians, gate keepers, insiders, and their familiars, who didn’t add anything of value to prior publications processes, are still reeling from the blow.

Even as old aristocracies crumble, new ones evolve.

Technical aristocracies for example. A phrase relevant to both the Semantic Web and ISO Topic Maps.

Having tasted freedom, the crowds aren’t as accepting of the lash/leash as they once were. Nor of the aristocracies who would wield them. Nor should they be.

Which make me wonder: Why the emphasis on creating dumbed down semantics for computers?

We already have billions of people who are far more competent semantically than computers.

Where are our efforts to enable them to transverse the different semantics of other users?

Such as the semantics of the aristocrats who have self-anointed themselves to labor on their behalf?

If you have guessed that I have little patience with aristocracies, you are right in one.

I came by that aversion honestly.

I practiced law in a civilian jurisdiction for a decade. A specialist language, law, can be more precise, but it also excludes others from participation. The same experience was true when I studied theology and ANE languages. A bit later, in markup technologies (then SGML/HyTime), the same lesson was repeated. What I do with ODF and topic maps are two more specialized languages.

Yet a reasonably intelligent person can discuss issues in any of those fields, if they can get past the language barriers aristocrats take so much comfort in maintaining.

My answer to what we should be doing is:

Looking for ways to enable people to traverse and enjoy the semantic diversity that accounts for the richness of the human experience.

PS: Computers have a role to play in that quest, but a subordinate one.

2 Responses to “Saving the “Semantic” Web (part 4)”

  1. clemp says:

    Isn’t your answer to what we should be doing just what we have always done? People can already, more or less, traverse the semantic diversity of unstructured information through the slow, serial process of reading. The key question, which you eloquently led up to but never answered is: How can we best enlist computers to help us make the connections which we might otherwise have missed due to lack of time or lack of brain power?

    Before the success of the web and HTML, the limiting factor was access to the information that might be connected. Now that we have more information than we can handle, the problem has shifted to one of limited access to the meaning (or meanings) of the available information.

    Both the Semantic Web and Topic Maps have tried, with limited success, to expose more meaning in electronic information. It is hard to see how either one will succeed if they rely on the authors to explicitly tie in various concepts to their published works. It is also difficult to see how computers will ever get that task right on their own either.

    Will there be a part 5 in your series to address the real question?

  2. Patrick Durusau says:

    Carl, done and done, see:

    It’s not a complete solution but then I don’t think there are any viable complete solutions to semantic integration.

    We have to decide how important it is to us, what we are willing to pay for it and for how long.

    Hope part 5 is a partial solution that may prove useful for some cases.

    Thanks for the comment.