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Definition of "Resource"

From: Grant Robertson <grantsr@gmail.com>
Date: Sat, 26 May 2012 12:35:59 -0700
To: <public-rdf-comments@w3.org>
Message-ID: <DFF91DB37F7E41C8A453CED737CA7642@grantdesk>
There seems to be a big brouhaha in the WG mailing list about the definition
of the word "resource" for use within the context of RDF and other internet
technologies. I have to say this really seems to be a tempest in a teapot.
In regular usage, the definition of the word "resource" is actually quite
vague. It essentially means "anything that can be of benefit or use in any
possible way." When the context within which one is speaking narrows, so
does the definition of the word "resource." When speaking about providing
energy to heat our homes or power our cars or factories, then "resource" is
defined as a means of providing energy for such purposes. No one insists
that we always say "energy resource" when speaking of this more narrow type
of resource unless it is necessary to differentiate it from other types of
resources being discussed at the same time. Sometimes, when an even more
specific definition is intended one may add an adjective such as "renewable"
or "alternative" before "resource" to make clear a more specific
classification of these "energy resources" based upon where they come from
or how they are produced. 
 
Similarly, within the context of web technologies - as Richard Cyganiak
reminded us[1] - the word "resource" is already defined as the universe of
everything. I do have to disagree with Richard, in that I believe this is,
in fact, a "precise" definition. Remember, "precise" does not mean
"infinitessimally narrow" or "exclusive." It merely means "completely
unambiguous." And the definitions offered by Richard from various sources
seem to rather unambiguously indicate that the definition of "resource" -
within the context of web technologies - does, indeed, mean EVERYTHING.
 
Now, just as the adjectives "renewable" and "alternative" - when used within
the context of "energy resources" - indicate special classes of energy,
based not upon the specific type of energy but upon where it comes from or
how it is created: Whether a thing meets the definition of a "resource"
within the context of web technologies is based not upon what that thing is
(for instance whether it can be dereferenced or not) but upon how that thing
is referred to. Specifically, a thing is a resource if it can be referred to
using an IRI or a text literal. That still includes the universe of
everything that can be referred to but, oddly, it also still narrows the
universe of everything based upon how one refers to that thing. So, if I say
the word "Cesar" out loud then that is not a resource within the context of
web technologies. It is not an IRI nor is it a text literal. Even if I write
the word "Cesar" down on a piece of paper, it does not become a "resource"
within the context of web technologies. A text literal has a very specific
definition as well and it does not include words written on paper. A text
literal is a sequence of bytes within a computer's memory or on a storage
device that also has additional metadata associated with it indicating that
it is, in fact, a text literal. So, putting "Cesar" between two tags in an
XML file makes it a text literal. Speaking it or writing it down does not
count. (Note: Neither does a random sequence of bytes that just happen to
spell "Cesar" or that aren't associated with some form of metadata
indicating that they are to be considered a text literal.)
 
It can be difficult and confusing for some people to imagine a universe of
everything that can be subdivided in some way and still have each of those
subdivisions be a universe of everything. Think of it this way. You can have
a universe of everything. Now you can look at all that everything with your
eyeballs. Or you can listen to it with your ears. Or you can write down
names for all those things on pieces of paper. Or you can create (or cause
to be created) sequences of bytes within the memory of a computer or on a
storage device, said sequences conforming to one of two specifications and
associated with some form of metadata indicating in some way that these
sequences do in fact meet said specifications and are intended to be used to
refer to things in the universe of everything. It is still the same universe
of everything, you are just using a different means to access or refer to
it. 
 
It is also common in human language for people to write something down on a
piece of paper and then refer to that sequence of characters on that piece
of paper as the actual thing to which they refer. For instance one may write
"Cesar" down on the piece of paper. Neither that sequence of characters, nor
the paper they are written on are the emperor Cesar. Nor are either of them
his name. The sequence of characters REFER to his name. It is a subtle
distinction, but unless one understands that distinction, one can become
embroiled in endless debates as to semantics. So, when one causes a sequence
of characters which happen to look like an IRI to be printed in a book, one
has not printed an actual IRI. One has printed a representation of an IRI.
If I type a sequence of characters that look like an IRI here in this
message it is not an IRI unless some software (on my end or yours)
automatically recognizes that pattern of characters and adds additional
metadata to indicate that that sequence of bytes is intended to be used as
an IRI. This is impossible for me to illustrate because I cannot control
whether your software will add said metadata. That said, it is NOT common
for people to continuously refer to or indicate the above subtle distinction
in their writing or speech. That would just be too cumbersome. So we
normally let it slide when someone prints "Cesar" in a book and says that is
the name of an emperor, just as we let it slide when someone prints a
sequence of characters in a book and says it is an IRI. I am not saying this
is a bad thing. I am just saying that one should remember this subtle
distinction when one becomes embroiled in debates about terminology.
 
Some have proposed using the phrase "RDF source." However, I think this is a
misnomer and a mistake. The word "source" is commonly defined as "where
something comes from." So in the context of web technologies, "RDF source"
would mean "where said RDF data came from" and would definitely NOT be
commonly interpreted to mean the same thing as what the word "resource" is
already defined to mean within the context of web technologies. To start
using a different phrase which actually is less accurate would be
counterproductive.
 
So, this entire debate as to whether to use the word "resource" to refer to
a sequence of bytes which matches the specifications to be either an IRI or
a text literal, is rather moot. The word is clearly and precisely defined
within the context of web technologies. When speaking or writing about RDF
or RDF technologies, one is definitely well within the context of web
technologies. And, within the more narrow context of RDF or RDF
technologies, the word "resource" does NOT have an even more narrow
definition. So, why would one feel any need to create yet another new word
or phrase to mean something which we already have a perfectly good word for?
A word that is commonly accepted by all to have a flexible definition based
upon the context in which it is used? The only reason I can think of is
exclusivity. Not within your terms, but within your social group. A common
malady in academic circles is to create new words or phrases (or to
completely redefine existing words or phrases outside of the pattern which
other people would expect) for what some claim to be more clarity but which
only serves to introduce less clarity and a further separation between said
group and the rest of the human population. Jargon becomes a form of
jingoism. It prevents others from joining your group. It makes members of
the group feel they have some measure of status because they are familiar
with the twisted jargon while others are frustrated with the jargon and thus
left out of the group. 
 
I have a very important question for the RDF working group: Is this what you
want?
 
 
 
[1] http://lists.w3.org/Archives/Public/public-rdf-wg/2012May/0578.html
Received on Saturday, 26 May 2012 19:36:17 GMT

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