In the discourse around the development of network technologies there seems to be a constant barrage of “next big things”. Tired of all this talk of Web 2.0? Well Web 3.0 is on its way! Do I hear 4.0? 5.0? Sold!
It can be difficult to pull meaning from the seemingly endless stream of terms and concepts presenting the possibility of technological breakthroughs that will radically reframe our use and understanding of networked information and communication technologies. One such idea that is often discussed as the NEXT BIG THING is the Semantic Web. In my initial understanding of the term I had taken it to be an abstract conception of internet based technologies and practices that would be somehow more embedded in the material world and would provide for a greater degree of data integration and interchange than is currently the case. As a result of participating in discussions at THATCamp, and event held at the University of Canberra this past weekend, I now have a much more concrete idea of the contours of what is meant by The Semantic Web, and some key reservations about the possibilities for it to truly represent a new ICT paradigm.
THATCamp (THAT=The Humanities And Technology) Canberra was the latest of a series of events around the world in which archivists, academics, technologists, and others with a connection to the use of technologies in the humanities, come together to discuss and work through emerging ideas in a spirit of collegiality and mutual support. By far the most intellectually challenging session I attended was a discussion on the development of semantic web tools and practices in Australian cultural, academic, and governmental institutions.
What I took away from the discussion was a sense that some incredibly intelligent people are working on a number of fronts to take the way in which data on the web is presented and accessed to a new level of utility by developing protocols around the encoding of information on the world wide web. In short facilitating the ability for humans and machines to pull meaning (ie semantics) from the massive volumes of data online. Essential to this project are technologies and protocols that facilitate the interchange of machine-readable information classification systems, forms of metadata that enrich data by describing it in an agreed upon schema. For example, the Resource Description Framework (RDF) is a framework built around a structure of linguistic triples, that is, a coded set of values around any statement to correspond to a subject-predicate-object. For example, the statement “Dan is wearing shoes” could be represented in RDF through the triplet Dan (subject) – is wearing (predicate) – shoes (object). By making these values present at the level of markup language (such as XML) in a webpage, this level of richness in the data would become made machine-readable, thereby supporting a more efficient process of interchange, and by extension, knowledge production.
In listening to the archivists and academics from some of this country’s core cultural institutions (eg the National Archives, the State Libraries, major museums, galleries, and universities), I was struck that the biggest hurdle that this project faces is not in the development of technologies, practices, and standards that would ensure the interchange of such data, although that in itself is a mind-boggling task, but in the development of shared or overlapping ontologies, that is, schema for the classification of EVERYTHING.
Given cultural and linguistic specificity and difference in meanings, how can can machine readable interchange be facilitated? Who will have the authority to develop ontological schema? What happens to those aspects of meaning that are not readily machine readable in relation to those that are readily interchanged?
This is difficult technical and philosophical ground to say the least, and working through the possibilities and pitfalls of the next stages of the development of humanity’s relationship to ICT will require long and broad collaborations. My description above is a gross simplification of the structure and functioning of the Semantic Web and is not intended to encompass its entire scope, rather to serve as an introduction from the perspective of someone who is themselves grappling with the importance of bridging the worlds of the informational-technological and the philosophical-political.
A few resources to begin engaging with the Semantic Web:
Lewis, J., Semantic Building: Starting a Revolution – Blog – Semantic Focus – The Semantic Web, Semantic Web technology and computational semantics. Available at: http://www.semanticfocus.com/blog/entry/title/semantic-building-starting-a-revolution/ [Accessed September 1, 2010].
Tim Berners-Lee on the next Web | Video on TED.com. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/tim_berners_lee_on_the_next_web.html [Accessed September 1, 2010].
A resource that is much more advanced, but recent:
Aroyo, L., 2009. The Semantic Web: Research and Applications 6th European Semantic Web Conference, ESWC 2009 Heraklion, Crete, Greece, May 31́¿¿ June 4, 2009 Proceedings, New York: Springer.