Section 6.1. Us and Them


6.1. Us and Them

This opportunity to connect and collaborate is particularly evident in the snarky crossfire between the Semantic Web and social software communities. On one side, we have the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C ) led by Tim Berners-Lee and an international corps of software developers involved with or sympathetic to Semantic Web activity. In opposition, we have loosely joined swarms of bloggers and social software advocates, led symbolically if not spiritually by evangelists such as Clay Shirky and David Weinberger.

Though the roots of this argument run deep, this specific branch of debate began in 2001 with a Scientific American article called "The Semantic Web," which was authored by Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila.[*] In this landmark article, the authors articulated an ambitious and engaging vision for the future of the World Wide Web. And make no mistake, this article made an impact. After all, TBL isn't just some academic geek with a dream. This guy invented the World Wide Web. He's been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He's Sir Tim to the likes of us. And Scientific American isn't just any publication. Established in 1845, it's the oldest continuously published magazine in the United States. Former writers include Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk, and Linus Pauling. The print edition boasts over 650,000 subscribers worldwide. Newsstand sales are more than Fortune and Business Week combined. And the online version receives over eight million page views a month. Let's just say this vision carried clout.

[*] "The Semantic Web" by Tim Berners-Lee, James Hendler, and Ora Lassila. Scientific American, May 17, 2001. Available at http://sciam.com.

The article begins with a compelling scenario of human and computer cooperation:

The entertainment system was belting out the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" when the phone rang. When Pete answered, his phone turned the sound down by sending a message to all the other local devices that had a volume control. His sister, Lucy, was on the line from the doctor's office: "Mom needs to see a specialist and then has to have a series of physical therapy sessions. Biweekly or something. I'm going to have my agent set up the appointments." Pete immediately agreed to share the chauffeuring.

A medley of Semantic Web agents proceed to work with Pete, Lucy, and one another to select a physical therapist and schedule a series of appointments for Mom:

The agent promptly retrieved information about Mom's prescribed treatment from the doctor's agent, looked up several lists of providers, and checked for the ones in-plan for Mom's insurance within a 20-mile radius of her home and with a rating of excellent or very good on trusted rating services. It then began trying to find a match between available appointment times (supplied by the agents of individual providers through their Web sites) and Pete's and Lucy's busy schedules.

Eventually, the humans and their agents work out a plan, and the authors go on to explain how the Semantic Web will "bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users." To support automated reasoning, sets of inference rules must be combined with ontologies and structured knowledge representation, an artificial intelligence approach that "has not yet changed the world." They note that "to realize its full potential it must be linked into a single global system." Finally, the authors put the subject into context, explaining that "properly designed, the Semantic Web can assist the evolution of human knowledge as a whole." This was a serious big picture dream, and many in the software development world rallied behind its call to action.

Upon reading the article in 2001, I recall feeling a strange mix of exhilaration and skepticism. On one hand, rising from the dotcom ashes, there was this glorious vision for the future of the Web. On the other hand, as an information architect educated in library science, I harbored more than a few reservations about its ontological underpinnings. As an IA, I knew all about the false promises of AI. The Semantic Web meme was implanted in my brain, but it itched uncomfortably. And I wasn't the only troubled host.

It took a while, but in 2002, David Weinberger decided to scratch his itch with a rebuttal entitled "The Semantic Argument Web: What Really Scares Me."[*] In his brief article, David explained that TBL had been "drawn into one of the stickiest of AI morasses: knowledge representation" and offered up the following prophecy:

[*] "The Semantic Argument Web" by David Weinberger. Available at http://64.28.79.69/read/swiftkick/column.html?ArticleID=421.

I fear that the Semantic Web will go the way of SGML and for basically the same reason: normalization of metadata works real well in confined applications where the payoff is high, control is centralized, and discipline can be enforced. In other words: not the Web.

To his credit, with typical humor and humility, David noted:

Much of the discussion of the Semantic Web is over my head and is being conducted by certified geniuses who are much more likely to be right than I am.

Semantic Web Disease

It starts with a scratchy throat, and (if not treated promptly) progresses to a full-blown belief that content creators everywhere will work together in harmony, and speak with one (meta-)voice. In its origins (in particular, the belief that if we understand what a name/symbol/tag means, then programs will too), it may be related to certain disorders of the AI family. The afflicted are often unaware of its progress, since when applied to small, cohesive communities of technically informed, well-meaning individuals...the beliefs actually make some sense....So do yourself a favor, and ask your doctor about the free (Semantic Web Disease) screen when you get your next mental checkup.

Excerpt from a blog posting by Tim Converse at http://timconverse.com/.


The sparks really began to fly in 2003 when social software guru Clay Shirky launched a much less diplomatic attack in "The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview" in which he asked "what is the Semantic Web good for?" and promptly replied, "The Semantic Web is a machine for creating syllogisms."[] He explained that a syllogism is a form of logic, first described by Aristotle, whereby new conclusions can be deduced by recombining previous assertions. For example, the canonical syllogism is:

[] "The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview by Clay Shirky. From http://www.shirky.com/writings/semantic_syllogism.html.

Humans are mortal
Greeks are human
Therefore, Greeks are mortal

Clay then eviscerated Aristotelian logic and deductive reasoning, illustrating the many ways they can lead down the path of syllogistic silliness, and concluded:

This is the promise of the Semantic Webit will improve all the areas of your life where you currently use syllogisms. Which is to say, almost nowhere.

As if that wasn't bad enough, he described the Semantic Web as a shared worldview embedded in metadata and "political philosophy masquerading as code." Needless to say, this article did not endear Clay to members of the Semantic Web community. A brief but ugly period of Shirky slapping ensued, and things promised to spiral out of control, forging an even greater divide between communities.

But they didn't. Instead, some thoughtful individuals stepped into the fray and seized the opportunity to use the Semantic Web as a boundary object to build shared understanding. In particular, Paul Ford's wonderfully lucid response to Clay's article helped many (including myself) better understand the real value and potential of technologies and activities within the W3C's Semantic Web umbrella.[*] And Peter Van Dijck's diligent synthesis cleverly illustrated key themes and metaphors in the Semantic Web discussion.[]

[] "Themes and Metaphors in the Semantic Web Discussion by Peter Van Dijck. Available at http://www.poorbuthappy.com/ease/semantic/.

By moving beyond the two-value orientation of good and bad, right and wrong, us and them, these boundary spanners constructively advanced the dialog between communities. They showed that while some of the most lofty goals espoused in the Scientific American article are unrealistic, much of the work on triple storage, trust metrics, semantic disambiguation, and ontology exchange may prove worthwhile. And of course, many of the associated standards such as XML, XHTML, RDF, FOAF, OWL, RSS, CSS, and URIs are already in widespread use and together are shaping a more well-formed Web.

As interface stands on the shoulders of infrastructure, tomorrow's user experience will rest on the foundation of today's Semantic Web technologies. The ability to separate descriptive, structural, and administrative metadata from content, presentation, and behavior is a tremendous boon to information architects. We have yet to fully leverage the semantic value of structural metadata in our search and navigation systems. XML has this findability potential baked right in. Which brings us to the hallowed ground of metadata that divides and unites communities. Metadata lies at the heart of the Semantic Web's ability to serve as boundary object, for it is the colorful swirl of ontologies, taxonomies, and folksonomies that brings us, cursing and cussing, to the same table.