Semantic webness, record collections and tags.

Semantic is one of those  words that clever people use and the rest of us are too embarrassed to ask what it really means.  The longer the conversation goes on, the less likely one is to ask. 

Last week I attended the Society for Computers and Law conference.  All the talks were excellent, I learnt lots about  the changing models in the music business and  legal implications of Second Life, youTube and Facebook (there are several). I’ll probably blog more on these at a later date.  

One talk that I’ll pick up here is “What is the Semantic Web?” by  Nick Gibbins  He isn’t a lawyer or a legal academic, but a computer scientist.  He works at Southampton Uni, where the famous TBL lurks. His talk was crystal clear, straight-forward;  yet he refrained from doing that patronising thing that übergeeks do when they talk to a mixed or non-geek audience.  I understood the talk, and later I could explain what I’d understood. Coolness.  Thanks Nick.

I studied a bit of philosophy at university, so the word ontology struck  like  a blast from the past, but much of what the semantic web is about smashes head on into some fundamental philosophical questions about knowledge and ideas.  I’m guessing that the OWL language acronym is a neat doff of the cap to the Owl of Minerva  There is more than a smattering of artifical intelligence to this, but with a deep tinge of realism. .  Much of this stuff is not new, but it is now starting to get very real.

After Nick’s talk I took some time to head over to the w3C site and read up a bit more about the semantic web.  I’d suggest you do the same.  I also read over on Brad Feld’s blog about some start ups in this area. This semantic business is important beyond just start ups and computer science theory. It will fundamentally impact how business systems talk to each other. There is a fair bit going on in SAP research on this.

This brings me to the challenge that Sig commented on recently at Thingamy.  Getting classification right is damn hard.   And as Jeff Jonas often notes, context is key. It seems to me that Sig, Nick and Jeff ought to be chatting.

When I think of the challenges of classification, I’m reminded of that classic scene in Nick Hornby’s brilliant brilliant book, High Fidelity, where Rob reorders his record collection. (from the movie screenplay)

Dick: I guess it looks as if you’re reorganizing your records. What is this though? Chronological?
Rob: No…
Dick: Not alphabetical…
Rob: Nope…
Dick: What?
Rob: Autobiographical.
Dick: No fucking way.

 (the movie wasn’t as good as the book, but it was still bloody good)

(This clip could be the start of a long digression into selling software techniques, but I’ll resist the temptation, and gosh, never mind the music industry business model stuff. More on Gary Rinkerman’s  rivetting and witty talk in another post)

When I read the biography of Schumpeter a  few weeks ago, I was struck by the importance that he placed on industry standards. He was talking about railroads, but the argument applies equally to the the future of the web. The future of the web is dependent on building common meanings. Standards will continue to play a huge role.

Nick’s talk made me realise a few significant things.

1. Studying political philosophy has many unexpected benefits (beyond shocking people with Marx quotes)

2. I need to learn alot more about the semantic web and its implications. I’m thinking it has serious implications for the future of how businesses collaborate.

3. Pure research is vital for long term innovation. Governments and Industry need to fund pure research, be patient and let serendipity and unexpected consequences do the rest.  I’d like a whole lot more of my tax money going into this sort of research. (sorry cows)

4. Emergence and folksononies have their place, and will play a key role in defining the future of how people and systems work, but on their own they are not enough.  Rock on Mevil Dewey.

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