Twenty years after inventing the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee stands on a stage during a TED talk and leads his audience in a chant of “Raw Data Now!” (TED, 2009). He is outlining the importance of linked data and cheerleading the movement towards establishing the Semantic Web – a web of linked data that can be processed directly by machines with the ultimate aim of providing easier and more efficient information to end users.
More than ten years later, and we appear not much closer to that dream. Part of the problem is technical. There is already a huge amount of data “on” the web, if not precisely easily accessible. It is a time-consuming and labour-intensive operation to “link” all this data together, although this is slowly being accomplished, as can be seen with the DBPedia project. The same goes for siloed databases like library catalogues and government directories.
Interestingly, this process does raise the question of documentation. What data must we preserve at all costs, and what data is it acceptable to simply let die? A library catalogue, of course, must be tagged and uploaded in its entirety. But what about someone’s football blog from the 90s? Or a MySpace music playlist? If we eventually do move towards the Semantic web, will all these artefacts of the early web be lost?
More importantly, much new data is published from the beginning on the basis of Semantic web standards, namely the Resource Description Framework (RDF). If enough people use this, then sooner or later, the Semantic Web is a fait accompli.
But the Semantic Web could be far more than just a more efficient web. Illustrating his idea for what the Semantic Web could eventually become, Berners-Lee posited the idea of a stereo system automatically muting itself when it sensed a telephone call being answered in its vicinity. And of a Siri or Google Assistant equivalent quickly organising a trip to the doctors, based on insurance coverage, appointment time, geographic location and customer reviews. (Berners-Lee et al, 2001).
But is the future truly open source?
I feel, unfortunately, that the answer is a big fat no. What if the call comes in on an android phone but the user is listening to a YouTube playlist on his MacBook? Even if we could now tear down the barriers between different consumer ecosystems, that still wouldn’t solve the bigger problem. Who would trust a Siri or Google Assistant to rate customer reviews today, especially when so many customer reviews are potentially false or purposefully malign?
Near the end of his Ted talk, Berners-Lee brings up a map showing the audience their current location, the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California. “I just did that,” he proclaims (TED, 2009). He had literally just uploaded that information into the open-source map a few moments ago, confirming that this particular building on the Long Beach waterfront was indeed the Terrace Theater. Everybody should now go out and “do their bit” Berners-Lee instructs with a utopian wave.
Watching that video, I immediately thought: “Man, has the world really changed so quickly?” Eleven years later, we live in divisive times. It is the age of troll-in-chief Trump, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, recent election defeat or not. Could we really trust the mob to even truthfully name a building on a map, let alone recommend a doctor? And even if we could, we certainly couldn’t trust a Siri or Google Assistant to give us unbiased results, without taking advertising or other opaque algorithmic concerns into account.
Berners Lee T, Hendler J and Lassila O. “The Semantic Web.” Scientific American, May 2001, <https://www-sop.inria.fr/acacia/cours/essi2006/Scientific%20American_%20Feature%20Article_%20The%20Semantic%20Web_%20May%202001.pdf>
Hallo M, Lujan-Mora S, Trujillo J. (2014). Transforming Library Catalogs into Linked Data in Proceedings of the 7thInternational Conference of Education, Research and Innovation. Seville: ICERI. Pp 1845-1853.
TED (2009). Tim Berners-Lee: The next Web of open, linked data. [Video]. Available at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM6XIICm_qo&t=1s> [Accessed 8 Nov. 2020].
Two-Bit History (2018), Whatever happened to the Semantic Web, Two-Bit History, viewed 8 November 2020, <https://twobithistory.org/2018/05/27/semantic-web.html>