Thursday, March 15, 2007

Tech Review Article on Semantic Web

OK, so really I grasp barely a fraction of how this would all work, but the fraction I barely grasp I like! Check out all of this MIT Technology Review piece by John Borland.

Excerpts: The "3.0" claim is ambitious, casting these new tools as successors to several earlier--but still viable--generations of Net technology. Web 1.0 refers to the first generation of the commercial Internet, dominated by content that was only marginally interactive. Web 2.0, characterized by features such as tagging, social networks, and user-­created taxonomies of content called "folksonomies," added a new layer of interactivity, represented by sites such as Flickr,, and Wikipedia.

Analysts, researchers, and pundits have subsequently argued over what, if anything, would deserve to be called "3.0." Definitions have ranged from widespread mobile broadband access to a Web full of on-demand software services. A much-read article in the New York Times last November clarified the debate, however. In it, John Markoff defined Web 3.0 as a set of technologies that offer efficient new ways to help computers organize and draw conclusions from online data, and that definition has since dominated discussions at conferences, on blogs, and among entrepreneurs.

However, the concept is not without its critics...

Some argue that it's unrealistic to expect busy people and businesses to create enough metadata to make the Semantic Web work. The simple tagging used in Web 2.0 applications lets users spontaneously invent their own descriptions, which may or may not relate to anything else. Semantic Web systems require a more complicated infrastructure, in which developers order terms according to their conceptual relationships to one another and--like Dewey with his books--fit data into the resulting schema. Creating and maintaining these schemas, or even adapting preĆ«xisting ones, is no ­trivial task. Coding a database or website with metadata in the language of a schema can itself be painstaking work. But the solution to this problem may simply be better tools for creating metadata, like the blog and social-networking sites that have made building personal websites easy.

Other critics have questioned whether the ontologies designed to translate between different data descriptions can realistically help computers understand the intricacies of even basic human concepts. Equating "post code" and "zip code" is easy enough, the critics say. But what happens when a computer stumbles on a word like "marriage," with its competing connotations of monogamy, polygamy, same-sex relationships, and civil unions? A system of interlocking computer definitions could not reliably capture the conflicting meanings of many such common words, the argument goes.

"People forget there are humans under the hood and try to treat the Web like a database instead of a social construct," says Clay Shirky, an Internet consultant and adjunct professor of interactive telecommunications at New York University. (Shirky essay skeptical of the Semantic Web here.)

"The world is not like a set of shelves, nor is it like a database," says NYU's Shirky. "We see this over and over with tags, where we have an actual picture of the human brain classifying information."

Borland concludes:

No one knows what organizational technique will ultimately prevail. But what's increasingly clear is that different kinds of order, and a variety of ways to unearth data and reuse it in new applications, are coming to the Web. There will be no Dewey here, no one system that arranges all the world's digital data in a single framework.

I know that's a lot of excerpts, but there's a lot to conceptualize.

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