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   Meta-somethingorother (was the semantic web mega-permathread thing)

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On Jun 8, 2004, at 6:37 PM, Joshua Allen wrote:

>> http://www.well.com/~doctorow/metacrap.htm
> The fact that someone wrote a flame piece without the slightest
> understanding of the actual issues does not surprise me.  This happens
> often on the Internet.  However, the fact that otherwise intelligent
> people cite the screed without being able to defend it, and without
> using their own brains to understand the actual issues, *does* surprise
> me.

OK, I'll defend it -- Tell me which of these you disagree with :-)

	◦ 	2.1 People lie
	◦ 	2.2 People are lazy
	◦ 	2.3 People are stupid
	◦ 	2.4 Mission: Impossible -- know thyself
	◦ 	2.5 Schemas aren't neutral
	◦ 	2.6 Metrics influence results
	◦ 	2.7 There's more than one way to describe something

But seriously, Doctorow concludes:

" Metadata can be quite useful, if taken with a sufficiently large 
pinch of salt. The meta-utopia will never come into being, but metadata 
is often a good means of making rough assumptions about the information 
that floats through the Internet.

  Certain kinds of implicit metadata is awfully useful, in fact. Google 
exploits metadata about the structure of the World Wide Web: by 
examining the number of links pointing at a page (and the number of 
links pointing at each linker), Google can derive statistics about the 
number of Web-authors who believe that that page is important enough to 
link to, and hence make extremely reliable guesses about how reputable 
the information on that page is.

  This sort of observational metadata is far more reliable than the 
stuff that human beings create for the purposes of having their 
documents found."

What is there to disagree with here?  I suppose you could say that 
Doctorow underestimated the ability of Google-bombers and search engine 
optimizer consultants to game Google, but that would tend to make one 
more depressed about the prospects for reliable metadata, not less 
depressed. Conversely, I guess in TimBL's version of meta-utopia as 
opposed to the  META tag strawman that Doctorow demolishes, 
human-created metadata is to be considered reliable only if trusted 
sources assert it's reliable.  I personally find this the least 
plausible part of the semantic web vision -- I won't even begin to 
believe it until it has survived the onslaughts of the meta-spammers 
and the semantic-bombers who will go after the semantic web the way 
they've gone after data in meta tags and the links that Google 

Dare said something the other day about having second thoughts about 
Doctorow's argument because RSS feeds are an existence proof that 
useful metadata is practical.  I'm not sure which of the straw men that 
demolishes -- I'd agree that people are less likely to lie or act lazy 
and stupid when they know that people(like the boss, or colleagues, or 
potential employers) are watching.     And anyway, RSS *is* mostly  
observational metadata extracted from an article or post, or at least 
generated from the same inputs used to generate the content it 

My only quarrel with "meta-utopia will never come into being" is a 
variation of this -- in organizations that value metadata and put in 
business processes to record, manage, and exploit it, there will be all 
sorts of pressures to make it clean, consistent, usable, etc. even if 
the people entering it are lying, lazy, stupid, and not self aware when 
they are on their own time :-)  It CAN come into being, but it is hard, 
and even in well-managed organizations the best metadata will probably 
be "observational" metadata from application data dictionaries, 
existing database schema, standard operating procedures, etc.

On the other hand,  Doctorow's "screed" does call into question the 
WinFS vision, or am I missing something here?  To what extent does 
WinFS not presuppose honest, energetic, intelligent, and self-aware 
humans to create the metadata it will manage and query?


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