Alex Wright

Shirky on the Semantic Web

November 7, 2003

Clay Shirky waxes skeptical about the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web is a machine for creating syllogisms... [and] 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.

Though well-reasoned and chock full of smart-sounding wordplay about syllogisms, logic, and the human condition, Shirky nonetheless bases his argument on a central fallacy: the Semantic Web as monolith, as a single "thing" to be opposed or supported.

The Semantic Web is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is a rubric describing a set of distinct (though related) technologies - RDF, FOAF, OWL, RSS, XML - all of which are designed to improve machine-to-machine communication through the use of more descriptive, context-aware meta-data. And those technologies, like it or not, are already here - a point that Shirky manages to skirt.

Venting most of his spleen on the apparent futility of trying to apply uniform meta-data standards to the Web, Shirky describes why such an undertaking is ultimately doomed to failure (no argument here). But in dismissing the possibility of a grand, all-encompassing Semantic Web, he either neglects or refuses to acknowledge the many smaller victories already taking place, like the real, tangible impact of RDF, RSS, and Web services. Though certainly it's a long way from the Alexandrian fantasies of its more breathless boosters, the foundations of the Semantic Web are already taking shape.

Shirky also puts forward a crucially flawed argument about the Semantic Web being predicated on the development of global, universal ontologies. With OWL and RDF, this is expressly _not_ the point of the Semantic Web. RDF's primary reason for being is to let local communities of interest create their own ontologies - not to enforce some nefarious New World Order of authoritarian classification systems.

For a more balanced perspective, allow me to recommend Which Semantic Web?, referenced here a couple of weeks ago, in which the authors convincincly conclude that:

It may be that - at least in the short term - that there are many semantic webs rather than The Semantic Web; they may - even in the long term - take us where we need to go. Also worth a read, responses from:

File under: Semantic Web

« Where do Legos come from? | Forgotten Forefather »


Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

Mastering Information Through the Ages

New Paperback Edition

“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times     

Buy from