Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media

Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 4: March 2004

The Good Stuff

Metz, Cade, “Take back the net,” PC Magazine 22:23 (December 30, 2003): 101-18.

I noted this article in the Glossary Special, but it’s worth a little more text. I’m skeptical of the main thrust—that blogs and wikis let real people “take back the net.” Metz claims early users thought the web would be the “tool of the masses, not The Man,” but “Such expectations were summarily quashed by the mid-nineties. The Web didn’t give everyone a voice. It didn’t allow for the widespread exchange of ideas. With a browser, you could easily read Web pages posted by others. But there wasn’t a comparably simple and effective way for you to create, post, and update your own pages.”

Isn’t that amazing? Until blogging and wiki came along, people like you and me didn’t have a way to post and update web pages. That’s why there were only a few hundred non-corporate web sites before Blogger came along. Right? (Remember “the early nineties, when the Web first rose to prominence”? How many readers used a browser before 1995, which I’d call the end of the “early nineties”?)

Well, now the revolution has begun: The new tools “let the ‘everyuser’ regain control of the Internet.” Of course these tools “will soon find their way into the hands of big business,” but Perseus Development says “more than 10 million” people will have built hosted blogs by the end of this year, so the triumph of the little people is assured. That’s the same Perseus that says most blogs are abandoned shortly after they’re built, a factoid that isn’t mentioned here. Metz either doesn’t know about the power law of weblog readership and influence, doesn’t believe it, or doesn’t care. “For every celebrity blog, thousands are maintained by ordinary people.” True. Relevant? Unclear.

But never mind all that. Once you get past the silly assertions about “taking back” the web, the faulty history, and the seeming suggestion that you couldn’t post a web page unless you mastered Dreamweaver or FrontPage, you get some good descriptive reviews of weblog tools (hosted and downloadable software) and wiki tools, along with other newer tools for collaboration and interaction. Editors’ Choice is TypePad as a hosted weblog service. EditMe and Socialtext Workspace both receive Editors’ Choices as wiki tools.

Shirky, Clay, “The semantic web, syllogism, and worldview,” Clay Shirky’s writings about the internet, November 7, 2003.

This thoughtful paper takes on the Semantic Web, a pet project of Tim Berners-Lee and W3C, in ways I hadn’t thought of, starting with a seminal question: “What is the Semantic Web good for?”

The simple answer is this: The Semantic Web is a machine for creating syllogisms. A syllogism is a form of logic, first described by Aristotle, where “…certain things being stated, something other than what is stated follows of necessity from their being so.”

The classic syllogism: Humans are mortal. Greeks are human. Therefore, Greeks are mortal. Shirky gives a narrower example of the kind of syllogism the Semantic Web might allow—if people provided loads of metadata following consistent syntax: Clay Shirky is the creator of The creator of lives in Brooklyn. Therefore, Clay Shirky lives in Brooklyn—a fact that isn’t evident from either statement taken on its own.

The Semantic Web specifies ways of exposing these kinds of assertions on the Web, so that third parties can combine them to discover things that are true but not specified directly. This is the promise of the Semantic Web—it will improve all the areas of your life where you currently use syllogisms.

Which is to say, almost nowhere.

And there’s one major problem with the Semantic Web, as Shirky spells out with charming detail—although it’s not the only problem. He quotes Charles Dodgson (writing as himself, not Lewis Carroll) from his books of syllogisms and symbolic logic. Interestingly, the “sorite” (an expanded syllogism involving multiple assertions) quoted is fallacious:

Remedies for bleeding, which fail to check it, are a mockery

Tincture of Calendula is not to be despised

Remedies, which will check the bleeding when you cut your finger, are useful

All mock remedies for bleeding are despicable

Therefore, Tincture of Calendula will check the bleeding when you cut your finger.

Objection! Nowhere in the syllogism is it stated that Tincture of Calendula is intended to check bleeding. Honda Civics are not to be despised either, but they won’t do much if you have a cut finger.

Shirky says, correctly in my opinion, “Syllogisms don’t work well in the real world, because most of the data we use is not amenable to such effortless recombination.” Dodgson’s example may have worked well in his time because Tincture of Calendula was known to his readers as a remedy to check bleeding. Now, it only works if you assume all four statements are directly related to one another—an assumption not in evidence, and one you can rarely make with the Semantic Web or life in general.

In the real world, we work with less-than-universal truths: As Shirky puts it, “partial, inconclusive or context-sensitive information.” Here’s Shirky’s quick counter-example: The creator of lives in Brooklyn. People who live in Brooklyn speak with a Brooklyn accent. And if you conclude that the creator of pronounces it “,” you’re wrong…because, as with most real-world statements, the presumed “All” prepending the second statement is false.

He provides an example from W3C’s own Semantic Web site that offers a good case against the significance of the Semantic Web—and there’s also the little issue that compatible syntax does not assure compatible semantics. Consider this quote:

Merging databases simply becomes a matter of recording in RDF somewhere that “Person Name” in your database is equivalent to “Name” in my database, and then throwing all of the information together and getting a processor to think about it.

Anyone who’s worked with disparate databases containing name information will shudder at “simply.”

Then, of course, there’s the fact that most people won’t provide detailed metadata and that metadata isn’t trustworthy for various reasons. Beyond that, as Shirky notes, metadata describes a worldview—and worldviews differ for good reasons. I like his description of the fundamental fallacy, since it’s one I’ve seen among ebook advocates and others as well: He calls it the “this will work because it would be good if it did” fallacy. Think about that phrase carefully when you’re presented with one inevitability or another.

Yes, I’ve said way too much about this article but it’s a keeper: Highly recommended.

Felten, Ed, “Predictions for 2004,” Freedom to tinker, January 2, 2004.

Felten’s always worth reading, and I have to mention a few predictions here and there. Besides, how can you resist this introductory paragraph:

Like everybody else’s predictions, some of my predictions are obvious, some will be hilariously wrong, and all of them will be conveniently forgotten later. Also like everyone else, I’ll look back at the end of 2004 and wonder how I left out the year’s biggest story. But here goes anyway.

Some public figure will be severely embarrassed by a moblogged picture, leading to a public debate about privacy and personal surveillance devices. E-voting technologies will continue to lose credibility. A new generation of P2P tools will resist RIAA countermeasures—and RIAA will keep trying new tactics. DRM technology will still be ineffective and inflexible. WiFi will show up more as a free amenity rather than a paid service in hotels, cafes, and at least one airport. Voice over IP will be talked about a lot—particularly pieces doubting the security and reliability of phone calls on the Internet.

Before the ink is dry on the FCC’s broadcast flag order, the studios will declare it insufficient and ask for a further mandate requiring watermark detectors in all analog-to-digital converters. The FCC will balk at the obvious technical and economic flaws in this proposal.

The first half of that is almost certain. I’m not so sure of the second half—but maybe Congress and the courts would finally slap down the FCC at that point. I’ll be optimistic and hope Felten’s right, since any serious attempt to close the “analog hole” has such disastrous consequences.

The comments are also worth reading, including one odd set of counter-predictions from “Cypherpunk.” I’ll try to check in on Felten’s seven predictions in early 2005.

Taylor, Josh, “Web stars,” PC World 22:2 (February 2004): 97-102.

This set of head-to-head comparisons of “Goliaths” and challengers in several categories is mildly interesting—but worth noting largely because of the “best bet” among reference desk sites: “Your library’s web site.” NYPL is used as an example. Of course, there’s a downside to using your library’s web site: “You may need a library card to enjoy full access.” Still, PC World deserves credit for recognizing that public libraries offer first-rate online services for the best possible price: Free at point of service.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 4, Whole Issue 47, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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