Alan Liu on Thu, 27 Dec 2007 15:30:31 +0100 (CET)

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

On Wednesday, December 19 2007, Reto Bachmann-Gm=FCr wrote:

>>>  The Semantic Web promises to overcome folksonomies with one, unified
>>>  and standardized keyword tagging system that can applied to anything.
>> This is the wrong assumption that makes the further critique of the
>> Semantic Web missing the point. The semantic web is not about building
>> one big upper-ontology but about supporting many (usually very small)
>> ontologies.

On Saturday, December 22 2007, Bruce Sterling wrote:

> Bruce Sterling
> who (a) belongs to the emperor, (b) is embalmed, (c) is tame, (d) eats
> sucking pigs at Christmas, (e) hears sirens, (f) is fabulous, (g) is a
> stray dog, (h) is included in the present classification, (i) is
> frenzied, (j) is innumerable, (k) is commonly drawn with a very fine
> camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) has just broken the water pitcher,
> (n) would be willing to fly in for any Nettime slide- projector festival
> from quite some long way off.


I have followed this debate between Florian Cramer and Reto Bachmann-Gm=FCr
with much interest.  Both viewpoints seem understandable at different
levels. Florian assesses formal ontology at a fairly high cultural-critical
level (informed by the imperializing history of "universal" knowledge/language 
projects).  Reto assesses the same ontology from a lower level closer to the 
actual standards and source-code "(where, true to the general zeitgeist of 
today's metadata, "universal" fuzzes out into "extensible" in the way that 
XML is not a universal markup language but an extensible markup language with 
different vocabularies/schemas).

The difference between Enlightenment universality and postindustrial
extensibility will bewilder us all for some time.  But may I suggest that
the impasse in the present debate, which has the effect of "ships passing
in the night," is indeed an effect of "levels"?

My analogy is complexity theory, also known as agent or emergence theory
(often demonstrated through such cellular automata as Conway's Game of
Life).  At a low level, there may well be a universal grammar and 
vocabulary for any knowledge statement.  Implemented in RDF, the Semantic
Web is universal in this way.  RDF imposes a "triple" grammar according to
which any one entity is related (predicated) on another entity in a
particular fashion.  For example (in abstract terms rather than in code):
[Subject: Person] [Predicate: is Author of] [Object: Book].  But there is
no _necessary_ prediction about how lower-level statements will eventuate 
in higher-level discourse, let alone in meta-level "culture."  Things 
happen in lower-level "phrase regimes" (Lyotard's term in _The Differend_),
and then very strange things "emerge" (meta-happen) to those phrase
regimes in combination with other phrase regimes at the higher levels of
discourse and culture.  By analogy: a language may have a particular
vocabulary and grammar.  But the language may be used to say both _The
Elizabethan World Picture_ (E.M. Tillyard's classic book about the faith
of the Renaissance in a universe ordered according to a single "chain of
being" from God at the top to the lowest creature or rock at the bottom)
and _A Thousand Plateaus_.

Actually, my sense is that much of today's academic cultural criticism is
more predictably "universal" in its invocation of Foucault et al. than 
any discourse that has yet emerged from the Semantic Web.  (Thanks to Bruce
Sterling for his surgical allusion to Foucault's appropriation of Borges 
in _The Order of Things_).  The fate of the Semantic Web, and of the
capitalized Web services it is quickly being harnessed to, has yet to be
fully determined.

I suggest that it is more fruitful to think not about universality (it's
dead) but about "extensibility," which has been meditated mainly at the
practical level of code standards.  Avant la network, postmodernism
theorized extensibility as a thousand plateaus.  But as networks today
evolve in increasingly globalist and postindustrial directions, is that
theory still adequate?  An example of a high-level cultural-critical
question in this context: is a migrant or immigrant an "extensible" 
person?  Is extensible what we thought we meant by multiculturalism?  And
is extensibility, considered culturally or metaphysically, a state of peace
or war?

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