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small is beautiful February 26, 2007

Posted by dfhuynh in research, semantic web.

(The title of this post has been stolen from E.F. Schumacher’s infamous book, “small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered.”)

MIT has a huge Department of Architecture and I’ve been flirting with it, trying to do a minor in that field. I was able to take one course called 4.101 – Experience Architecture Studio in Fall 2004 and I absolutely loved it. In that course, I learned to think about designing at the human scale.

Most of adult human beings scale from, say, 4′ 6″ to 6′ 6″ and all of the artifacts we have ever made have dimensions somehow related to that scale. Our houses are not 3′ tall nor 10′ tall. Windows rarely start at 1′ above the floor or 6′ above. Hallways are not 2′ wide. Necklaces do not weigh 10 lbs. Eyeglasses frames don’t measure 1′ across. Etc. etc. Imagine living in the land of giants where whenever you want to sit down on a chair you have to climb on it. Or imagine that furniture pieces are designed primarily to fit into shipment containers or delivery trucks rather than to fit our needs.

Of course, there are ceilings way higher than 10′ above the floor, like in cathedrals. These supersize artifacts are intended to awe their viewers. Their dimensions were intentionally designed to contrast with the human scale. And in that, their dimensions are in fact related to the human scale.

It’s easy for architects to be mindful of the human scale (although not all of them are). It is harder for computer scientists to be mindful of the human scale, which is often the extent to which human beings can deal with information–perceiving it, understanding it, and making more information.

Talking about the human scale in the context of the Web and the Semantic Web is interesting to me. I find certain cornerstones of the Semantic Web incongruent with the human scale. Take URIs (uniform resource identifiers) as an example. Each URI is a string that identifies a single something: a concrete object like the book called “Beautiful Evidence” by Edward Tufte that I bought in May 2006; a less concrete object like the iced mocha that I drank this morning; an aggregation of many somethings like this newly wed couple or the army of Sparta; a concept like love or immortality; etc. etc.

URIs is a brilliant concept. And URLs, too. There is on the rise the URL-speaking society in which two people can communicate just by sending each other URLs, each of which resolves to the same web page (mostly).

But there is a big difference between URLs and URIs. Whereas URLs are mostly read-only (and copied and pasted around), URIs demand writing, at least at this stage of the Semantic Web. People are required to make up URIs to talk about things. Making up URIs is like making up file names: both are pretty cognitively demanding. Quick, make up a URI for that iced mocha I drank this morning… Hmm, maybe


Right. Yes, I surely want to do that for every single thing I want to talk about. Wrong, you say–you don’t have to do that much work–just generate a number:


OK, but is that something most people would want to do? Have you ever seen anyone naming their files using that method just to save time and efforts? Let the machine generate that random number, you say. Then, show me a Semantic Web application that can generate a URI for the iced mocha I drank this morning. Not just generate–mind you, it has to let me interact with that URI from now on, hiding that URI behind friendly UI.

This little difference between URLs and URIs–the former are read-mainly while the latter are write-mainly–can be hard to understand. URLs are bound to the physical world. Almost every URL is bound to some physical hard disk sectors and to “write” a URL, you write onto those sectors through some rather physical actions. URIs, on the other hand, are created in the abstract. I believe it is this complete detachment from the physical world that stretches URIs beyond the human scale.

What do I mean by beyond the human scale? Well, making up a URI is pretty demanding because you have to make sure that the URI is unique all over the world, and across time. You have to see globally, perhaps universally, and well into the unforeseeable future. A person who is tasked with making up a URI simply wants to say something, and putting this burden of universality on her at that moment would stop her from saying anything at all. Another outcome is that she completely ignores the universality requirement and just makes some clearly-nonunique URI. It’s a little bit telling newly wed couples about global overpopulation. Good long-term concern but wrong time to bring it up. 🙂

So yes, after all this ranting, the point is that while the vision of the Semantic Web is good and all, we need to think about it in term of the human scale–re-thinking, in fact, every cornerstone that it depends on to see how it fits into our mortal minds.

We need to think small to achieve big. Think local to achieve global.

This doesn’t mean that we should abandon URIs altogether. It just means that we ought to start working from the user’s end, not from our fantasy’s end, for any hope of our vision to become true.

Semantic Web researchers have started to “come over to the dark side” after my talk at ISWC 2005, buying into this idea of designing for users rather than for technologies’ sake. And while they have talked a lot about that, they haven’t done much. Look at most things called “Semantic Web browsers” out there–you still see URIs all over their interfaces. It’s sickening. Yes, think of furniture pieces designed primarily to fit into shipping containers and delivery trucks rather than to fit our physical bodies, because those interfaces are primarily designed for machines, not for humans.



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