Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Why the Semantic Web Will Fail

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 20, 2007

Don't get too excited by the title. But I do want to share a few thoughts...

It was running through my head just now, the work that we were doing here in Moncton to work on an e-learning cluster. Because I saw that 'cluster building' is still one of the major pillars of NRC's strategy, and I was wondering whether our work would ever be a part of that again.

And I was thinking about some of the things that didn't go so well in our first few years. Some companies went under - a couple, before we even talked to them, another, after we were in a project with them. And then there was the company that we sat down with, oh in 2002 or 2003, and laid it all out - RSS, content syndication, social networks. The whole Web 2.0 thing.

And they weren't interested. And in less than a year, they were gone.

And I thought about where we're right today and where we might be wrong, and why. Because despite having a pretty good track record (check for yourself, it's all on the public record - this year's predictions (bucking everyone else) include OpenID and the runaway success of Wii).

And I'm saying the semantic web won't work. Can't work.

But how do you explain that intuition?

And I was thinking about the edgy things of Web 2.0, and where they're working, and more importantly, where they're beginning to show some cracks.

A few of key things today:

- Yahoo is forcing people to give up their Flickr identities and to join the mother ship, and

- MySpace is blocking all the widgets that aren't supported by some sort of business deal with MySpace

- the rumour that Google is turning off the search API

And that's when I realized:

The Semantic Web will never work because it depends on businesses working together, on them cooperating.

We are talking about the most conservative bunch of people in the world, people who believe in greed and cut-throat business ethics. People who would steal one another's property if it weren't nailed down. People like, well, Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch.

And they're all going to play nice and create one seamless Semantic Web that will work between companies - competing entities choreographing their responses so they can work together to grant you a seamless experience?

Not a chance.

Now - there are many technical reasons why I think the Semantic Web is a loser, along with some cultural and philosophical reasons. Namely: the people who designed the Semantic Web never read their epistemology texts.

But the big problem is they believed everyone would work together:
- would agree on web standards (hah!)
- would adopt a common vocabulary (you don't say)
- would reliably expose their APIs so anyone could use them (as if)

Shall I go on?


Maybe we won't be building clusters in Moncton, maybe we will. I don't know - I'd like to keep trying. Maybe people will listen to us or maybe (more likely) they won't.

The future is not in the Semantic Web (or in Java, or in enterprise computing - all for the same reason). Careers based on that premise will founder. Because the people saying all the semantic-webbish things - speak the same language, standardize your work, orchestrate the services - are the people who will shut down the pipes, change the standards, and look out for their own interests (at the expense of yours).

I don't trust any of them. Not even as far as I could throw them. Because I know they'd sell me down the river in a minute, if it meant one iota of business advantage. You know this too.

Yeah - we'll play games on Yahoo, create a not-too-serious blog with Google, post some tunes on MySpace (under an alias of course), and mess around with some photos on Flickr.

And we'll even go along with some unimportant things, like the university account and email, so we can access the course notes on Blackboard. The personal email address, that we got from our ISP, we will tell only to our closest friends - and we'll use the gmail account for logons and the Yahoo identity for spam.

We'll post to these Web 2.0 sites, but if the content means anything, we'll keep a copy on our computer as well (until Windows crashes and eats all your data, that is).

But trust them? Not a chance.

The future of the web will be based on personal computing.

Not because everybody in the world is some sort of Ayn-Rand-clone backstabbing money-grubbing leech.

But because there's just enough of them - and they're the ones who tend to rise in business. And when they say "give me your data" (or "let me manage your money" or "base your career on my advice") it's merely a prelude to their attempting to take you to the cleaners.

If my online world depends on them - and in the Semantic Web, it would - then my online world will fail. Will be a house of cards that will eventually collapse.

Yeah - I know. It's not a technical argument. And it probably reveals some of my own biases. But I can't shake the intuition that I'm right here.

(Update - Mar 21 - fixed a couple of typos and added the link)

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 12:13 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.