I was reading this post by Nova Spivack when I finally understood that there are two semantic webs. Nova calls them The Intelligent Web and The Data Web. (I think this is in some way related to the longstanding debate about Semantic Web vs. semantic web, which never really made any sense to me before). To put a slightly different spin on it, I like to think of these as the Orderly Semantic Web and the Chaotic Semantic Web.

The Intelligent Web is what one might imagine when reading the scenario at the beginning of the famous Scientific American article. I believe that part of the story is meant to get the imagination flowing, more than anything else. People who take it too literally have had trouble buying into that idea of the Semantic Web, not because the technology is so far-fetched, but because it seems to require a sort of Utopian information society where all information is free and everyone has agreed on a common descriptive language to communicate that information. If people see that as a prerequisite for the success of the semantic web, it’s easy to see why they’d dismiss it as “never gonna happen”.

Read a little more deeply and you’ll discover a more realistic vision: The Data Web is a semantic web that’s more like the familiar World Wide Web, in that it can be distributed and you don’t need consensus. People can create whatever content and information they want and meaning can emerge later, when there’s enough data for new processes to dig into that data in significant ways. Google is the game-changing Web 2.0 tool that arrived to make sense of the wild west that was Web 1.0, at the time. Similarly, it may turn out that the tools that will truly make sense of Web 3.0 (in other words, The Data Web) won’t emerge until some future phase – let’s call it Web 4.0, just for fun.

So why did I rename these two models? It makes it a little easier for me to state this: the Orderly Semantic Web (roughly analogous to what Spivack calls The Intelligent Web) is never going to happen. Universally agreed upon upper ontologies? Not likely. All data open and free, and never misused? No chance. The totality of human intelligence expressed using nothing more than syllogisms and first order logic? Set your mind at ease, Clay Shirky, this won’t be necessary.

The Chaotic Semantic Web is the one I’m interested in. All we need to make it happen is for people to start generating and exposing more data and metadata. We don’t need agreement, and we don’t need to understand how it will all be used. Some time in the future all this data will be useful in ways we can’t currently anticipate, and I’m OK with that.

Sure, this is a less predictive approach, and more faith-based. I’m not saying that we don’t have to seriously consider all the challenges and issues, I’m saying we shouldn’t let the fact that we don’t have answers stop us from proceeding. Personally, I love the messiness at the fringes of things, and I’m pretty sure that that’s where the value in all this is going to come from.

[Note: I made a few small changes in the second and third paragraphs to clarify my reference to the Scientific American article. 11/27/07]

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