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   Re: Success factors for the Web and Semantic Web

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  • From: "Simon St.Laurent" <simonstl@simonstl.com>
  • To: xml-dev <xml-dev@lists.xml.org>
  • Date: Thu, 21 Dec 2000 09:47:29 -0500

[I'm going to answer this in a fairly personal way based on my experience.
It may end up a little strange, but the footnotes are hopefully funkier
than usual.  All opinions here are my opinions, not abstract truths lurking
in the world.]

At 04:12 AM 12/21/00 -0500, Michael Champion wrote:
> I would say that the success of the Web was due mainly to:
>- Its leveraging of the TCP/IP infrastructure already in place
>- The fact that HTTP and HTML were easy and cheap to implement and use
>- The "network effect" that caused the value of the Web to increase
>exponentially as it grew
>- The fact that it met a real, if largely un-recognized, human and business

I moved 'easy and cheap' to number 2 from 4.  I'd have moved it to number 1
except that 1 contributes to 2.  Use of TCP/IP and easy and cheap meant
that wackos like me could build sites [1],[2] at low enough cost to make
them about whatever the hell we felt like, encouraging readers to come
looking for something new, presented in a familiar way, with an easy and
cheap interface.  (Connections weren't cheap, of course.)

For me, having readers of my strange hypertext creations [3] was a big
enough change from HyperCard work [4] to make the change entirely
worthwhile though technically frustrating.

>OK, how do the SW concept and its technologies (I'm referring mainly to Tim
>BL's vision as stated in  http://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Semantic.html  and
>reported at http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2000/12/xml2000/timbl.html) fare if we
>extrapolate these same success factors?
>- It clearly DOES leverage the Web infrastructure.

If using HTTP and markup counts, yes.  If inflicting namespace
controversies on XML developers counts as 'leveraging', I'd have to
question that wisdom.  

>- It presumably WILL have a strong network effect (although the "local vs
>global ontologies" discussion makes me wonder about this)

I don't see any reason to expect a strong network effect, at least in the
way the W3C is currently putting forward the technologies related directly
to the Semantic Web.  Market-making organizations which don't have enough
power to obliterate competition can't always get their will across in the
face of user indifference. [5]

I don't hear a whole lot of excitement about the Semantic Web - on any
forum at all.  That doesn't suggest an avalanche picking up speed, though
perhaps it's very quiet one...

>- Does it really meet a real, unmet human and business need?  As several
>people have mentioned, the search engines, especially Google, are getting
>pretty darned useful lately.  True, this is partly due to the promotion of
>metadata and the synergy between the search engines and the HTML <meta>
>ag  - if you want good placement in a search engine, you put good metadata
>in your HTML.  But it's due largely, as Paul Tchistopolskii points out, to
>algorithms that extract useful information from the HTML itself, especially
>the "page ranking" technique.  The SW might offer real advantages over what
>we have now, but not enough to overcome the "worse is better" bias built
>into our brains, economic system, etc.

I don't believe it meets a real unmet need today, but I suspect the
technologies involved may meet a real unmet need in the relatively near
future as information quantities continue to grow. 

>- Will it be easy and cheap to implement and use?  This is where the SW
>advocates have got, as near as I can tell, an unbridgeable chasm between
>them and the real world. I'll bet that virtually everyone reading this list
>"grokked" the URI/HTTP/HTML web concept very quickly, could hack up HTML
>pages easily, etc.  On the other hand, after MONTHS of discussion here,
>people are still pleading for a coherent explanation of what the SW really
>is, begging to see plausible demonstrations, and basically hearing (from Tim
>BL, no less) that one must be patient and have faith.  He wasn't saying that
>about the WWW 10 years ago, he was demonstrating useful examples that he
>hacked up!   He just cultivated the memes for URI/HTTP/HTML, set them loose,
>and watched them take over the world.  This just ain't happening with the SW
>memes; they've taken hold in some niches with extremely nuturing
>environments, but haven't gotten anywhere in the cold cruel  world at large.

I don't think the SW memes are very convincing.  I'm already a known
skeptic, but I haven't seen a lot of people catching fire with Semantic Web
evangelism. I think a lot of people find it reassuring that there's an
idealist at the head of the W3C (I was, for a long time), but I don't see
anyone rushing to the store for the 116-page book on how to build a
Semantic Web site when you only know how to turn on your computer.  (I used
to recommend Larry Aronson's tiny HTML book to people, and it seemed to
work quite well.)

> I guess  I'm envisioning a URI/HTTP/XML Web in 10 years or so that looks a
>lot like the WWW today, with search engines rather than logic engines still
>being the primary way of finding new information.  

I'd like to think that we'll have found better ways for search engines to
categorize and maybe even partition data into more field-specific areas,
but that's about the extent of my hopes.

>I do expect them to use
>more sophisticated RDF metadata embedded in XML as well the HTML <meta>
>tags, to use some topic maps or link bases to aid the search in certain
>(probably limited) domains.

Embedded RDF as the next tool for luring search engines to porn sites?

I think topic maps have a future here, though it's more like librarians
filling in card catalog cards than documents magically categorizing
themselves.  I've always been grateful to librarians and other folks who
categorize information, and I suspect others will be as well.

> But I can't forsee a "semantic web"  of
>universal ontologies guiding the development of logic bases that are
>exploited by millions of autonomous agents running around deriving
>interesting knowledge. I would be astonished if this proves to be
>economically, or intellectually or technologically  feasible in the next 25
>or even 50 years.  Like Len Bullard, I remember all too well how certain
>many were 25 years ago that this kind of "AI" would be a reality by the end
>of the 20th century. This whole discussion is gives me a rather stark sense
>of deja vu ... and while computers are several orders of magnitude more
>powerful than they were in 1975, the rest of the intellectual infrastructure
>needed to make the semantic web a reality has not progressed anywhere near
>as much.

Fortunately, I'm too young to remember most of this AI vision, except from
science fiction.  I do remember a Byte magazine about touchscreens, and it
seemed like the future to me.  Maybe someday...

>So, I'm staying open minded about improved metadata and link bases/topic
>maps, and especially about how to build better searching tools that use all
>this data, metadata, and metametadata in a coherent way.   

That's a great approach, I think.  I have enormous respect for the people
working on infrastructure that supports those tasks, while...

>But I am deeply
>skeptical about the possibility of coming up with useful, universal
>ontologies that would underly all the RDF assertions that the semantic web
>would depend on, and deeply skeptical that there will be a sufficient
>economic rationale for users to produce and maintain the complex metadata
>that would support it. 

I also remain utterly skeptical that logic engines and universal ontologies
are practical, worthwhile, or even (at minimum) NOT counterproductive.  It
seems to me like a horrible distraction from the business of marking up and
distributing information.

Partly, it's just that I doubt that a centrally designed model is
appropriate to these kinds of problems [6], but I also have serious doubts
that these problems are solvable in automated ways which scale anyway.  

>Would anyone care to try to convince me that: a) Tim
>B-L's "semantic web" of universal ontologies/RDF logic bases/interoperable
>logic processors would solve PRACTICAL problems of knowledge mangement
>dramatically better than what we can do with our brains, the WWW, and
>databases/search engines?   and b) The logic bases and metadata to support
>Tim BL's vision could be developed, maintained and used by ordinary humans
>who are just trying to get their jobs done?

I'll be curious to see if anyone tries...

[1] Building Small TCP/IP Networks - http://simonstl.com/projects/tcpip/
[2] Underbed Railroading - http://members.aol.com/simonstl/trains/
[3] Implosion - http://simonstl.com/projects/implosion/
[4] Hypertype - http://simonstl.com/projects/ht22/
[5] John P. Caskey and Simon St. Laurent "The Susan B. Anthony Dollar and
the Theory of Coin/Note Substitution" Journal of Money, Credit, and Banking
Part 1 Volume 26, No. 3, pp. 495-510. (Avail to JSTOR subscribers at
[6] Moving from the 'Community of Experts' to the Community -

Simon St.Laurent
XML Elements of Style / XML: A Primer, 2nd Ed.
XHTML: Migrating Toward XML
http://www.simonstl.com - XML essays and books


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