090916 What’s Coming?

On September 16, 2009, in Futures, John Sumser, JohnSumser.com, by John Sumser

What’s Coming

There’s a new idea emerging in the noisy din of forecasts about the web’s future. Almost all of the usual suspects point to the “Semantic Web” as the next logical increment of evolution. Jumping on Tim Berners-Lee‘s original vision, they promise richer access to exactly the thing that you want when you want it.

The Semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users. Such an agent coming to the clinic’s Web page will know not just that the page has keywords such as “treatment, medicine, physical, therapy” (as might be encoded today) but also that Dr. Hartman works at this clinic on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and that the script takes a date range in yyyy-mm-dd format and returns appointment times. And it will “know” all this without needing artificial intelligence on the scale of 2001’s Hal or Star Wars’s C-3PO. Instead these semantics were encoded into the Web page when the clinic’s office manager (who never took Comp Sci 101) massaged it into shape using off-the-shelf software for writing Semantic Web pages along with resources listed on the Physical Therapy Association’s site. (Scientific American)

In this great future, the web will know what you mean and what you want. It’s an impressive technical objective. Most people are unclear about meaning and desire. Yet, tagging schemes and language standardization are going to make that clearer. At no additional cost, the internet will become omnipotent. All of a sudden, human beings, who are generally not so good a procedures and expense reports, are going to tag and structure their data.

Most forecasts of the future fail because they extend today’s operating metaphors into tomorrow’s ambiguity. There are several innovations in strategic planning that try to avoid the trap. (Scenario planning is one way of trying to avoid building the future as an extension of the present.)

Black Swan theory suggests that the future is always disambiguated (not the same as the present). Nassim Nicholas Taleb (here’s the Charlie Rose interview, and the Long Now Lecture) argues that our world is shaped by events and ideas that are seen as outliers. Black Swans are events and ideas that shift world views and define the differences between generations and epochs.

The predominant view of the Semantic web is just an extension of the way things are. Built as a library of documents, the current web is indexed and managed as if all knowledge were intended to be stored as documents. That metaphor is at the breaking point.

Social media services, like Twitter, Digg, Facebook and a billion others shift the conversation. In social media, information is contained in conversation,  interaction and small increments of status information, not in documents. The most important pieces of information (social context and influence patterns) are contained in the interactions between people. Turning the world into a massive library was an interesting start. mining that library for important insight is necessary work.

The future is not about documents, it’s about people. There is sure to be a huge short term experiment in finding people as if they were documents. Over the long haul, the big money is not there. It’s in a web that focuses on and services people.

The term social media perpetuates the notion that documents (and other forms of communications storage) are at the foundation of things. It’s a metaphor, a way of talking about something that isn’t quite social and isn’t quite media. Current notions of the semantic web take the media metaphor as a literal thing. In other words, it’s just more of the same.

The truth is that it is not like anything we’ve seen before.

The Web at a New Crossroads is an informative article that wrestles with the metaphor as architecture problem. It’s an indicator of a better direction. The authors are still trying to break out of the hard constraints imposed by the document metaphor.

In the beginning, the web was a place. You ‘went’ to a website. You were a visitor.

Then the web became a series of annotations on those page. Publishing became personal and began to actively incorporate the ideas of others. The reality was annotation, the metaphor shifted to conversation.

Today, the metaphor is breaking, Google isn’t reporting facebook status or tweets. The vast majority of web interaction is slipping below the waterline while we try to find a new metaphor. It won’t be an extension of documents, translation or meaning.

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