Ed Phillips on Thu, 20 Dec 2007 21:46:56 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> Critique of the "Semantic Web"

Thanks to Florian for a clear and straightforward exposition of the
comedy of mismatches and failing efforts that is the "semantic web" in
media res.

Due in no small part to Florian's clear and straightforward style of
discourse, I had the illusion, for a least a little while, that I
understood something of the beast.

Of course as soon as Florian builds a sandcastle, Ted Byfield comes
along and demolishes, in allusive and elusive epigrammatic irony, the
entire web of 2.0 associations.

I usually find myself scratching my head after one of Ted's posts, not
sure of how to parse his always entertaining train of words.

When the ironies get too rich, I wip out my browser and cruise
wikipedia, getting lost down the rabbit holes of inquiry.

I like this line from Florian:

<quote> ...the "Semantic Web" is a term and project that is not only
prone to major confusion, but also emblematic of how the alienation
between engineering and humanities goes both ways: shockingly naive
and simplistic understandings of cultural concepts among the former,
and a complete misunderstanding of the "Semantic Web" among the latter
because its terminology of "semantics" and "ontologies" is plainly
weird or mystifying outside computer science. </quote>

Sandcastles are being built and demolished at such a rate that it is
becoming difficult to talk of the two cultures. The AI/COGSCI idiot
savants are bootstrapping their ways to broad cultural literacy even
as a "literary" culture has been falling away for decades.

One's forebears and one's mentors need not be so great or grand and
one always starts the journey somewhere. Many of the dinosaurs or
raptors of MIT such as Stephen Pinker would fit the label of [linguist
as] idiot savant and cultural illiterate, though ever so mighty their
armies of graduate students. You can see him on authors@google. A tin
ear, a flat affect, but ne'er so poor for all that. He is a prolific
robot or a cultural producer blithely demolishing the history of
philosophy in the name of a linguistics that has shifted ground from
underneath him.

It is not his linguistics anymore, nor is it Noam's. The deep
structures are gone. Isn't it appropriate and timely that ontology
is now about machines interrogating machines? Generative grammars
are best modeled on machines. And economy is now the watchword in
linguistics as much as any endeavor. Parsimony. Economy. Here again we
have one of the reasons that Florian's work is so needed. Minimalism
and pragmatism are the order of the day.

Nonetheless, even as we are dropping baggage at a precipitous rate, in
the name of pragmatism or pragmaticism, we accumulate baggage in other
places. We drag a library of books around to just come out with a
meaningful utterance, and we frontload a jumble of metatags and, yes,
"ontologies" and contexts in order to shovel widgets at each other.

Maths and grammars abound such as would astonish the gloomy
grammarians and philologists of old. Heaps and stores of rubies and
gems of meaning are at our monitors and like uncle scrooge we swim in
them. If you get my semantic drift, meaning is as elusive as a ted
byfield post to nettime, the cafe as solipsistic philter. Will it
always remain so? I think I get what this conversation is about, but
do I really? Were the disciplinary oceans anything other than a series
of tawdry bricolages hammered together and stamped with the imprimatur
of institution?

Another puzzling sense to the word, to any word, is welcome or no.
Wasn't ontology always about interrogation and anxiety. The machines
are anxious for us now. Let them have all the ontology they can handle
and deserve.

How much bang do we get for our buck? Even as we strive for minimalism
and parsimony the ghosts that were not there yesterday are still not
there today. The illusion of a deep structure exists as a kind of
phantom limb, under the name of "innateness" or that HP pocketbook
calculator era phrase, "hard-wiring." The fact that no one ever saw
an innateness or found any hard wired linguistic structures in any
putative brain has not stopped this thinking from being the kind of
grant-writing gold that funds more research.

If it works, if it ain't broke, if you can get more money to play with
ideas, you are some kind of savant, idiot or no.

The integuments of subjectivity, are just that, integuments. If you
can skin this leviathan and sell it back to me, more powersets to you
for it. The whiteness of this whale is a feeling in C.S. Pierce's
very precise sense. Can we say that AI Ahab has killed the whale when
your natural language engine can parse this sentence and approximate
feeling and affect?

If I only could explain to myself what Ted "really" means, I could at
least call it a day if not an industry.

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