March 18, 2006

Tools and the SemWeb / SynWeb debate

Danny responds to my latest SemWeb rant. I really don't like being boring, but this subject interests me a lot (and I quite like all the rhetorical flourishes) so I'll indulge myself with some further responses. But to be clear, I'm not dissing Danny, I have a lot of respect for what he does both technically and as a SemWeb advocate.

But I would suggest that these things are well on their way. ... But the real application is the Semantic Web itself, in the same way that a browser isn't interesting without the web behind it.

I'd suggest that they're not well on their way at all, because he misses my point about what a tool "is".

A tool is not simply a program that manipulates a data-structure. It's something which solves an existing problem. Something which is the "best tool for the job". Or at least the prefered / preferable solution to the problem. I might be able to open a beer-bottle with a pen-knife, but a pen-knife, however well made, is not a tool for opening beer-bottles. The inner-technology has to, in some sense, match or "afford" the outer usage.

The trouble for the SemWeb technologies is that there are almost no problems for which they have any real distinguishing advantages over the SynWeb ones. (This is assuming my distinction between SemWeb, as the place where the meaning of a piece of meta-data is fixed a priori by attaching a URI to it, and the SynWeb as a place where meaning is determined later according to context and convention. As far as I can tell, Danny does still agree with this distinction?

Regarding formats without tools, I think you've got a fallacy in suggesting RSS and OPML are somehow special. Which came first, the RSS aggregator or RSS?

No, I certainly wasn't trying to suggest RSS and OPML are special. They're interesting only in the sense that they are succesful examples of the SynWeb, and what you could call the "Winer" strategy.

Heh, your choice of the word "parasitic" is a bit ironic, because you could say the OPML Editor and RSS apps are parasitic on the web, and the Semantic Web is an extension of the web.

Balderdash! ;-) The web is a wonderful example of doing the right thing. It's a "worse is better", funky little hack which combines an easy to use tool (the browser) with the simplest protocol which could possibly work, and a slightly fuzzy, problematic mark-up language, to solve a real-world problem : how to share documents over the internet. It disregarded mainstream academic Hypertext theory (how do you avoid broken links? answer : we don't) and the complexities of client-server architectures of the time. Consequently, it spread like wild-fire, adding many incremental improvements. It's survived (and thrived) for nearly 20 years with incompatible, buggy browsers and multiple specifications for HTML. (There are now three "official", incompatible versions of HTML from the W3C alone.)

The Semantic Web isn't an extension of this at all. It's basically a naive assumption about how meaning works ("hey! if we all use the same code-numbers for things then we'll know when we're talking about the same stuff") and a crowd of enthusiasts engaged in the Sisyphan task of trying to make anything useful from this assumption; while, all the while, casting covetous glances at the meta-data which is being generated by people who aren't burdened with the responsibility of inventing common code-numbers and ontologies.

Final point on what I meant by "tools trump formats / processes" because both Danny and Scribe have picked up on it. I'm not saying you can do without common formats. Of course a format is absolutely essential. What I'm saying is that the "goodness" of the tools is more important than the "goodness" of the format for the adoption and survival of the combined pair. Because it's the tools which are the interface to the outside world : the users.
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