Shirky: The Semantic Web, Syllogism and Worldview

Saturday 8 November 2003

Clay Shirky has another long and intelligent essay. This time, it’s about the misguided efforts to build the semantic web: The Semantic Web, Syllogism and Worldview. In it, he argues that (ironically) the semantic web effort is focusing on syntax, which is easy, and ignoring semantics, which is impossible.

This example sets the pattern for descriptions of the Semantic Web. First, take some well-known problem. Next, misconstrue it so that the hard part is made to seem trivial and the trivial part hard. Finally, congratulate yourself for solving the trivial part.

He lampoons the focus on logical deduction (syllogisms) as a foundation for understanding the real world. Unfortunately, he does so by presenting poorly constructed syllogisms, where top-notch ones would have failed equally well. I’m sure his essay will be criticized for not understanding the logical foundations properly. This will be missing the point.

The point is that the true semantics of the world are too shifting and slippery to easily accommodate in strict terms. The “semantic web” projects that have worked have had tiny domains of knowledge to work in, where the semantics are easy to describe. For example, RSS describes weblog postings, and FOAF describes loose connections among people. Even in these areas, there has been disagreement over semantics, schisms over syntax, and uncertainty about compliance. How are we to address anything truly interesting?

The most ludicrous example of people not understanding this is HumanMarkup, an attempt to design an XML dialect that can encode those things that make us human: emotions, intentions, and so on. I’m astonished anyone believed in this quixotic effort long enough to register a domain name, much less create all the empty puffery that fills the site. Tellingly, all of the links to hard information like schemas point to nowhere.

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