[sc34wg3] Newcomb on "Where WG3 should be going"
srn at coolheads.com
Mon Oct 31 17:08:34 EDT 2011
Here is my contribution on the topic of "What should WG3 do now?"
It's in 3 sections: (1) Mission, (2) Vision, and (3) What to do now.
Sorry for the length. I found that I had a lot to say. -- Steve
If we have an opportunity to re-invent WG3, I would like for its
mission to be to contribute to the likelihood of global public
prosperity. WG3's decisions should rest on its thoughtful
projections of their effects on the public as a whole, and the
decisions should always be made in the way that best serves the
public interest. This is not simple, easy, or obvious, but the
worthiness of the task would motivate us consistently, provide a
firm basis for trusting each other, and maximize WG3's long-term
potential for influence and success.
Moreover, it might even work; the effects of our work might
actually contribute to human prosperity. It's very probable -- if
perhaps not altogether obvious -- that the key to global
prosperity is an informed public that has effective defenses
I personally find red-hot inspiration in the following words from
*The Constitution of Liberty* by the seminal economist,
F. A. Hayek:
"So far as possible, our aim should be to improve human
institutions so as to increase the chances of correct
foresight. Above all, however, we should provide the
maximum of opportunity for unknown individuals to learn of
facts that we ourselves are yet unaware of and to make use
of this knowledge in their actions."
"It is through the mutually adjusted efforts of many people
that more knowledge is utilized than any one individual
possesses or than it is possible to synthesize
intellectually; and it is through such utilization of
dispersed knowledge that achievements are made possible
greater than any single mind can foresee. It is because
freedom means the renunciation of direct control of
individual efforts that a free society can make use of so
much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could
WG3 should not offer yet another language (API, schema, DTD,
vocabulary, namespace, ...). In the final analysis, all Esperanto
fantasies are doomed, perhaps for the same reason that entropy
only increases. The invention of a new language cannot bring
humanity the benefits of having a common language. It brings only
the benefits of a new language. Those benefits might be very
valuable, but they cannot be compared to the benefits that would
follow from any radical improvement in global public access to
Rather than creating any new languages, WG3 should move in exactly
the opposite direction, doing what it can to overcome the
"impedance mismatches" between *existing* languages. More
broadly, between existing universes of discourse.
But that's a very hard problem! What can WG3 possibly do about
it? For millenia, we have been advised to regard language
diversity as a hopelessly insoluble problem. Indeed, the familiar
ancient "Tower of Babel" myth suggests that the diversity of human
languages is divinely intended to prevent human beings from
accomplishing too much:
"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they
have all one language; and this [tower whose top may reach
heaven] they begin to [build]: and now nothing will
be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.
"Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language,
that they may not understand one another's speech."
From a post-Darwinian perspective, it appears likely that the
progress-obstructing effects of language diversity are rooted not
in a God who jealously keeps His heavenly prerogatives to Himself,
but rather in the logic of natural selection. After all, symbolic
communication has played a key role in the survival of several
species, including, for example, the bees.
Humans exploit symbols in a radically more powerful way than other
animals. Unlike bees (for example), humans constantly create new
ways of saying things, and even whole new symbolic systems.
Humans can exploit new symbols and symbologies immediately. Every
day, even a modestly articulate human being is likely to invent a
way of saying something that needs to be said -- a way that was
not genetically prescribed, and that quite possibly was never used
before. This creative power makes human communities fantastically
adaptable. We survive changes that extinguish other animal
communities. We may complain a lot, but we survive. Indeed, we
survive probably because our complaints are so pointed, and
because our resulting adaptations are so quick and so subtle.
Language and community are fundamental to each other, and
community is fundamental to human survival, now even more than
ever before. We must now cheerfully accept the challenges our
success is bringing us, and we must quickly accomplish several
unprecedented things. We must learn not only to see ourselves as
a planetary community, but also to function as one. We must not
only recognize that we have seized control of spaceship earth, and
that we are doing an unsustainably poor job of running it, but we
must also develop a global consensus on how to operate it for the
benefit of ourselves and our descendants. Not easy.
With all that in mind, here's my vision for WG3. WG3 can set
standards for information access that create a basis for the
development of global consensus(es). The key will *not* be the
development of some set of symbols or symbol systems. Instead,
the key will be doctrines and practices that increase the
efficiency with which communities with diverse perspectives can
understand each other. The doctrines and practices will evolve
indefinitely, but they will always be aimed at enabling diverse
communities to metaphorically travel like tourists across the
boundaries between universes of discourse, guided by *maps*.
I used to call these maps "Topic Maps", but in view of the fact
that an existing ISO standard *language* already has that moniker,
I'll call them "Subject Maps" here. (WG3 should apply whatever
name(s) it thinks will maximize global public benefit.
Personally, I feel cautious about using the term "Topic Maps", but
I have to admit that there are reasons to use that term. Anyway,
that whole question is a detail that we should resolve with a
minimum of distraction.)
The idea of subject mapping is not wedded to any particular
language or purpose. It's more like a professional ethic for
those who create symbols, like dots on a road map, each of which
is claimed (by the cartographer) to reify exactly one subject.
I would argue that "One Subject Per Proxy" (or some equivalent
phrase) should be the mantra of every subject mapping
professional, just as "Do No Harm" offers equally vague and
non-auditable guidance to the behavior of medical professionals.
The broad medical questions of "What would be helpful and what
would be harmful?" probably involve no more complex judgment
calls and implications than than the questions that must be
answered by subject mapping professionals: "In what universes of
discourse shall I reify subjects, what subjects shall I reify in
them, and how shall I identify them?" Fortunately for the sanity
of both kinds of professionals, the set of available answers is
constrained by the situations in which they happen to be
The cartographers of subject maps will make a profession of
understanding multiple universes of discourse (UoDs), and who
derive their income, directly or indirectly, from publishing
multi-universe maps, tour guides, and the like, in the context of
business models that may or may not be among today's conventional
ones for publishing. WG3 may need to project some business models
in order to have some basis for decision making, but I think
workable business models are more likely to emerge from actual
practice than from any amount of theorizing.
I predict that with or without WG3, subject-oriented information
interchange will eventually be so commonplace that it will no
longer even be described as such. The grounding problem will
become a hotbed of Information Science activity, rather than an
obscure feature of its hinterlands. Many livelihoods will be
concerned with maintaining illusions (subject maps) so cleverly
and subtly constructed that persons living in one set of universes
of discourse -- each of which is itself evolving -- can usefully
see how those who live in other evolving universes are seeing
things of common interest.
Subject cartography work is utterly human; artificial intelligence
can help with it, but only a human being can take responsibility
for "truthfulness" and/or utility, demonstrate personal and
professional integrity, and develop a following and a market.
Subject cartography will be very *meaningful* employment (so to
speak ;^). I think that anyone who makes an exploitable claim that
"addresses" in two or more different universes are all the address
of the same subject should really believe it's true, at least for
the purposes of the contexts within which they say so. The need
to maintain a reputation for integrity (or sincerety, if you like)
about such statements -- such subject proxies -- is what leads me
to think that professionalism will be important for subject
cartographers, not unlike journalists. Webs of trust among such
professionals will be essential, because they'll need to be able to
rely on each other's claims of subject identity. I hope that
and standards for facilitating the maintenance of such webs of trust
will eventually become a focus of WG3.
WHAT TO DO NOW
I think Patrick's suggestion to create Semantic APIs is the best
way forward, but not because I believe any given set of Semantic
APIs should be the essence of WG3's contribution. It's the best
way forward because praxis is the only way to make any real
progress. If our underlying goal is the one I'm suggesting,
namely the development and promulgation of doctrines and practices
for the subject cartography profession, then there's no better way
forward than simply to do that kind of work in a very public,
highly collaborative fashion. We'll have to do a lot of groping,
especially at first. Pioneering is not easy.
The first order of business is to do something real. I would
prefer that it not be in music, or in any other artform, or in the
humanities. I would urge that it be something that's essential
for operating the planet, or for conducting human affairs.
Something consequential, anyway. Something that is made
inefficient by the signal losses due to the semantic impedance
mismatches between human communities that live in different
universes of discourse.
We have many choices in the hard and not-so-hard sciences, in
engineering, in business and finance, in sociology, in education,
in government, etc. Here's something I learned from Pierre Lévy
more than a decade ago: many people don't know what might be the
most efficient path from their current employability status to a
more favorable employability status. Part of the problem is that
they have no familiarity with the universes of discourse within
which they could conceivably become employable. I think that's
worth thinking about, anyway.
Canandaigua, New York
October 31, 2011
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