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Re: Comment on "Meaning and the Semantic Web"

From: Dan Brickley <danbri@w3.org>
Date: Wed, 05 May 2004 09:10:01 +0100
Message-ID: <4098A159.4030204@w3.org>
To: John Black <JohnBlack@deltek.com>
Cc: public-sw-meaning@w3.org

Hash: SHA1

John Black wrote:

|Bijan, Peter,
|In your poster paper, "Meaning and the Semantic Web",
| http://www-db.research.bell-labs.com/user/pfps/publications/meaning.pdf,
| you make the following statement:
|"One might think that our account of meaning thus results in complete
|anarchy in the Semantic Web. Even if so, we believe we have
|embraced only those portions of anarchy that are necessary to prevent
|totalitarianism, for any proposal for Semantic Web meaning
|that cuts off easy access to disagreements will inevitably end up
|stultifying the Semantic Web."
|I am finding this reference to totalitarianism hard to accept.
|In the first place, if you mean it literally, and a typical definition
|of totalitarianism reads like this, "Of, relating to, being, or imposing
|a form of government in which the political authority exercises absolute
|and centralized control over all aspects of life, the individual is
|subordinated to the state, and opposing political and cultural
|expression is suppressed: "A totalitarian regime crushes all autonomous
|institutions in its drive to seize the human soul" (Arthur M.
|Schlesinger, Jr.)."
|Please explain how any of the proposals that have been discussed
|could lead to this?
|In the second place, hoping that you mean this loosely and
|metaphorically, even given one of the many proposals for fixing
|the meaning of URIs, assuming they could work, what would prevent
|you from creating an entirely new set of URIs with which to use to
|make whatever contrary statements you desired?  Why is it *necessary*
|for you to use anyone else's URIs at all?  If you are free to
|create any URIs you may possibly need, with whatever meaning you may
|wish to associate with them, in order to state whatever it is you want
|to state, how can you then say that another set of URIs forms a
|totalitarianism?  For I have never seen any proposal that requires
|that there be only one URI for any referent, but only proposals that
|any URI have only one referent.  So there can be many URIs for any
|referent.  So if you want to dissent, you can always create a new URI.
|The model theory seems to allow for this:
|"There are several aspects of meaning in RDF which are ignored by this
|semantics; in particular, it treats URI references as simple names,
|ignoring aspects of meaning encoded in particular URI forms [RFC
|http://www.w3.org/TR/rdf-mt/  Thus you can create any *possible web* you
|want, in order to say anything you want, and this would be true even if
|all *actual web* URIs were somehow given fixed meanings, wouldn't it?
|This hardly seems a prescription for totalitarianism.

I took it as an allusion to the discussion of language/thought
manipulation in Orwell's 1984. It is true that with SW tech anyone can
create and promote their own RFD/OWL vocabulary. However we should
always be wary of the influence we put into the hands of namespace
authors when certain vocabularies become widely used.

For example, I can, it is commonly supposed, change the OWL/RDFS/HTML
at http://xmlns.com/foaf/0.1/ and alter the (ahem) meaning of
thousands (millions, actually) of RDF/XML documents. By editing a few
files and typing 'make site', I can make docs that weren't currently
true of the world, true of the world; and vice-versa.

Since I'm a reasonably responsible person, this is probably not a big
deal. I promise to be good. But try explaining that to someone
building an ecommerce system that depends upon  externally-managed RDF

IMHO it is reasonable to expect that the actual usage of RDF terms be
taken into account when accounting for their meaning in any broad
social / real-world sense...


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Received on Wednesday, 5 May 2004 04:11:26 UTC

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