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whose Semantic Web is it anyway? January 2, 2006

Posted by dfhuynh in research, semantic web.

It is easy to talk about grand visions when you mention the Semantic Web. It is the ultimate information space, the utopia in which data transcends human lives. Software agents will take care of your daily schedules; they will book appointments for you knowing your habits, preferences, dietary constraints, phobias, etc. Everyone and every machine will be connected; a monk in Tibet striking the wrong key on his laptop will cause repercussions in North America.

(…and the other half of the time one spends explaining to friends that the Semantic Web is not the Matrix, and to family that no terminator will show up at their door.)

With such grand visions, when we started out building the Semantic Web, we began by addressing problems and issues that will arise in such a new world. We labored on inferencing, entity resolution, privacy, trust, etc. Gradually getting obsessed with building powerful hammers, we looked for nails. Big nails. Nails so big to be worthy of the golden hammers we have promised. We looked at the bioinformatics industry, the medical community, the digital archivists, the rich businessmen, the lawmakers, the physicists and chemists who want to share data and collaborate, etc. They have big nails and we promise big hammers.

And so we say, The Scientists Will Build The Semantic Web!

(Replace [Scientists] with any other elite community. Replace [Will Build] with [Will Pay Us Lots of Money To Build].)

Some of us might truly believe that this is the only way to achieve our grand visions. Others need funding. Some want to play big. Which is understandable after a decade of trying to convince the world how good the Semantic Web would be.

I took an introductory course to Architecture. Physical building architecture, that is. Professor Bill Hubbard defined architecture as orchestrating tectonics to create a sense of space. Every space is designed from the outset to serve some purpose, to serve some client. A kitchen won’t serve well as a bedroom. A chemist’s lab won’t do for a cartographer.

I am concerned that if the Semantic Web – this utopian information space – is built for a particular client – the scientists, the librarians, the surgeons, the lawyers, etc. – then it might not be suitable for us, mere mortals. We will get humvees when we just want sport sedans and family minivans. We will get auditoriums when we want country cottages.

It reminds me of that time in 1996 when I tried to install Linux. I could only get a resolution of 320 x 240 because there was no driver for my graphics card. But I did get about 20 different text editors and ftp programs to start with. Now I cannot remember the last time that my mom opened a text editor.

So, I am asking this question: how will casual Web users like us experience the Semantic Web? Surely, we have no need to discover relationships between clinical trial records and drug research experiment data, or to automate the resolution of legal cases based on semantically annotated laws? Will the Semantic Web be built for us, for them, or for all?



1. Johan Sundström - August 15, 2006

My belief is that, once hackable, a first geek wave will hit the semantic web, to address geek problems, all the while research institutes stay on their own course. Once geeks have paved the way, commercial interests will follow suit, and before long make the technology accessable enough to let average people address their own everyday problems, making life hacks, and so on. We saw it happen to the visual web, and I see little reason why the richer, meaningful, web should not develop similarly.

I strongly believe that no erection should be built for, but rather by, the people that want to use, live and work with them. Self interest will keep the train going in meaningful directions and follow unexpected, unforeseeable paths of development as we go along. Live evolution in the hands of a world of ingenuity, creativity, problems and problem solvers, solutions and new questions to ask and pursue.

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