the divide on the future of the semantic web?

Skimming the Pew Internet Report on the future of the semanic web, I noticed a divide in the backgrounds of the people who thought that it would be attainable by 2020 (if at all).

On the “Nay” team, we have:

  • Susan Crawford, Internet law professor at the University of Michigan, former special assistant in the Obama administration for Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, founder of OneWebDay
  • Jeff Jarvis, author of “What would Google Do?”, associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School
  • Matthew Allen, director of the department of Internet Studies at the School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts, Curtin University of Technology, and critic of social uses and cultural meanings of the Internet
  • Michel J. Menou, Ph.D, information science, independent consultant in ICT policy, visiting professor and associate researcher, School of Library, Archives and Information Services, University College London
  • Peng Hwa Ang , dean of the School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and active leader in the global Internet governance processes of WSIS and IGF
  • Roarke Lynch, Director, NetSmartz Workshop for the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children David Sifry, founder of Technorati and CEO of Offbeat Guides

On the “Yea” team, we have:

  • Bryan Trogdon, president of First Semantic
  • Esther Dyson, founder and CEO of EDventure, investor and serial board member, journalist and commentator on emerging digital technology
  • Robert Cannon, senior counsel for Internet law at the US Federal Communications Commission
  • JP Rangaswami, chief scientist, British Telecommunications
  • Ron Rice, Ph.D, co‐director of the Carsey‐Wolf Center for Film, Television and New Media, University of California‐Santa Barbara, divisional officer, International Communication Association and Academy of management
  • Joshua Freeman, director of interactive services, Columbia University Information Technology
  • Chris Marriott, Acxiom Corporation and digital marketing advisor for the Association of National Advertisers

Looking at these lists of people, I wonder two things:

  1. Those who are naysayers – are they more conservative in their nature? Since more of them are academics, is there something at the core of their understanding of information and communication that makes them skeptical of a program’s ability to sort out nonsense that we all spew? I’d bet that their experience ith the messiness of language and thought colors their view of the semantic web. Basically, since we can barely discern what we’re saying, somethign we have to “teach” to figure this out will be just as messed up. To cynical? Over-analytical?
  2. Those who are yeasayers: like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, are they too invested in what’s going on? Since a lot of these folks are gaming careers on the intenet continuing to get much better (and not just flatlining) are they overconfident in their ability to solve the problems of language and communication that have dogged us for centuries?

I tend to be in the first camp (also by my nature). Then again, I certainly don’t know everything, and getting wordpress to work is a major technological achievement in my life. Being of small brain, I give Matthew Allen some room to speak:

“Alas, the semantic web is an idea that owes more to the desires of computing scientists and information theorists for a world of perfected knowledge and processed reason than to reality. The semantic web is like the Encyclopaedia of the Modern project: an ideal whose existence enables us to make progress but that can never be achieve because it fails to account for the cultural malleability of knowledge, the political economy of information, and – ultimately – the agency of humans, with their machines, in subverting the ideals of pure reason to the partial ends of personal gain.”

But that really is too cynical for my taste. It reeks of that fear that smart people have that normal people will always meddle in the affairs of people trying to do everyone more good. Some of the other “Nays” echo this sentiment in one way or another. The one that stood out amongst them was Jeff Jarvis, who summed it up this way: “Life’s Messy. So’s the internet.

So yes, the semantic web will have an uphill battle against the mess. Perhaps, like libraries before them, they will come to the realization that we can only do our best to curate (yes, writing programs to organize things by relationship is still a form of curation) the mess, and perhaps best its’ forerunners by embracing all that is goofy and idiosyncratic about us all.


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