t byfield on Thu, 27 Dec 2007 18:58:36 +0100 (CET)

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

scot.mcphee@gmail.com (Thu 12/27/07 at 07:20 PM +1000):

> What I don't understand why they don't just use the word "taxonomy".  
> Isn't that what it is? Indexing and classifying. Sounds like a bunch  
> of butterflies and insects pinned into a glass cabinet to me. Or does  
> the word somehow conjure unwanted notions of enlightenment gentlemen  
> doing exactly that - and it's an unwanted comparison that Florian  
> makes, much to their discomfort.

But your question seems to assume that a word should mean the same thing(s)
across disciplines: since philosophy laid claim to "ontology" long before
computer science was a twinkle in anyone's eye, CS should "just use the
word 'taxonomy'," right? That approach, writ large, would plant you
squarely on one side of the semantic web debate -- and, I'll bet, not among
allies you'd be completely comfortable with. Alternatively, that approach
writ small leads us down the garden path toward very pragmatic but
philosophically (and computer scientifically) problematic "folksonomies"
and the like -- "stuff" "that" "just" "works."

Normally, I shy away from sweeping, reductive, and categorical dismissals
of entire subjects, but in this case I have to make an exception: irony
requires it. The debate about the "semantic web" is less a matter of
insects meticulously paced, pinned, and labeled in glass cabinets; and more
like a lifeless wasp's nest moldering in some damp basement somewhere or
other. Florian explained why, sort of:

     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.

The "same" word doesn't mean the "same" thing, and no amount of cottage
industrialization on the subject will change that fact in this particular
context -- or, more to the point, make any word mean the same thing across
time, space, and (more to the point) historical context. And, really, why
should it? Apparently in any nondisciplinary context we somehow manage to
scrape by under the terrible burden of linguistic plenitude wherein a
single word can bear many shades of meaning; why, then, does the appearance
of a "discipline" suddenly cause everyone to run away shrieking in

There are, as Ed Phillips points out, genuinely interesting aspects of this
debate; or at least this debate can lead (away, please) to some interesting
issues. But endless scholastic scoldings about what the sematic web
"really" is -- hey, presto! two meanings in one sentence! -- are "really"
dull. Unless you're given over to a vaguely psychotherapeutic understanding
of the "real," in which case these debates can "really" be seen as
something very different than what they claim to be. An endless treadmill
of one discipline claiming primacy over another. 

Here's the semantic web, circa 1945:

     "A language is a dialect with an army and navy." -- Max Weinreich 

Let's not forget that discipinary idioms are, first and foremost, dialects.
So, given a mishmash of academic professional organizations, on the one
hand, and Google et al., on the other, who's got the army and navy? 

That's why they don't just use the word "taxonomy."


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