Shirky: Semantic Web Solves the Wrong Problem

Clay Shirky: The Semantic Web, Syllogism, and Worldview. Once again, Clay demonstrates why he’s my favorite technology critic.

The people working on the Semantic Web greatly overestimate the value of deductive reasoning (a persistent theme in Artificial Intelligence projects generally.) The great popularizer of this error was Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories have done more damage to people’s understanding of human intelligence than anyone other than Rene Descartes. Doyle has convinced generations of readers that what seriously smart people do when they think is to arrive at inevitable conclusions by linking antecedent facts. As Holmes famously put it “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

This sentiment is attractive precisely because it describes a world simpler than our own. In the real world, we are usually operating with partial, inconclusive or context-sensitive information. When we have to make a decision based on this information, we guess, extrapolate, intuit, we do what we did last time, we do what we think our friends would do or what Jesus or Joan Jett would have done, we do all of those things and more, but we almost never use actual deductive logic.


Consider the following, from the W3C’s own site:

Q: How do you buy a book over the Semantic Web?

A: You browse/query until you find a suitable offer to sell the book you want. You add information to the Semantic Web saying that you accept the offer and giving details (your name, shipping address, credit card information, etc). Of course you add it (1) with access control so only you and seller can see it, and (2) you store it in a place where the seller can easily get it, perhaps the seller’s own server, (3) you notify the seller about it. You wait or query for confirmation that the seller has received your acceptance, and perhaps (later) for shipping information, etc. [] One doubts Jeff Bezos is losing sleep.

This example sets the pattern for descriptions of the Semantic Web. First, take some well-known problem. Next, misconstrue it so that the hard part is made to seem trivial and the trivial part hard. Finally, congratulate yourself for solving the trivial part.


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