Shirky, Syllogism and the Semantic Web

Revisiting Clay Shirky’s piece on the Semantic Web

A friend recently sent me the link to Clay Shirky’s piece on the Semantic Web with “I assume you’ve seen this, what do you think?”

I had seen it, but I hadn’t looked at it for years. So I went back for another look.

As usual, Shirky’s writing is intelligent, insightful and even funny. Recommended reading. I had hoped the ensuing years would prove “us” (Semantic Technologists) right, and that the argument would look amusing in retrospect.

Alas we still have a long way to go to staunch the critics. More on that in a future article.

For today, I have to point out the real irony of the article that I managed to miss the first time I read it.

At the risk of oversimplifying his article to the same degree he oversimplified the Semantic Web, the essence of the article went like this:

• The Semantic Web relies on syllogisms “The semantic web is a machine for creating syllogisms”

• Nobody uses syllogisms “it will improve all the areas of your life where you currently use syllogisms, Which is to say, almost nowhere”

• Therefore nobody will use the Semantic Web “it requires too much coordination and too much energy to effect in the real world”

The first two quotes from the opening the last from the closing.

The irony being of course, that this entire article is a syllogism. To make one of the major premises of an argument that something will fail because nobody uses that style of argument, reminds me of the admonition Yogi Berra gave to some teammates who had suggested a restaurant for the evenings dinner “Nah, nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

The article points out some areas we need to pay more attention to, including controlling the hype machine. Reading between the lines, it appears that one of his major points is: the web is complex and only humans can really understand the nuances that our complex utterances mean.

But traffic is complex, and we know that traffic lights will never be as good as police in managing an intersection, but we’ve decided that an automated solution that gets us consistently pretty good results is good enough.

Back to the article, he relies on Lewis Carroll’s syllogisms as a critique of the medium, and by extension, the Semantic Web. The knock out punch was meant to be a five line syllogism about soap-bubble poems. But even here there were two implications: one that humans could follow this logic, and two that formalized ontologies could not. I of course rose to the bait and tried to formalize this syllogism.

I was not successful. Not because of the poverty of expression in the Semantic Web, nor even my own understanding, but attempting to get formal about this doggerel shone a light on the fact that it doesn’t make any sense at all. Indeed if he makes a point at all it is that humans can often get fooled by things that sound like they make sense, but actually don’t. Seems to me, defending that level of confusion and ambiguity isn’t an argument against the Semantic Web.

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