To pave or not to pave the cowpaths

In Eric Meyer’s SXSW talk on Emergent Semantics (slides, notes) he referred disparagingly to the design adage, “Don’t pave the cowpaths.” He compared it to the useful practice of seeing where people walk and building sidewalks to match.

But there’s an important distinction between paving the cowpaths and paving the footpaths: people aren’t cows. The cowpath metaphor comes from the common urban history in which rural cowpaths evolved into city streets. As anyone who has ever driven in a city that developed that way knows, the result is picturesque but unusable. The problem is that cows don’t want to go where people want to go, cows don’t navigate the way people navigate, and furthermore cows don’t have the form factor of the vehicles that people want to drive in cities. Paving paths made by people for the use of people is a very different proposition from paving the paths made by cows for use by cars.

This is mostly a quibble about metaphors, but it does have some implications for Meyer’s subject of implementing microformats in XHTML in order to build a “lower-case semantic web” from the bottom up. Once microformats have caught on, will they get us somewhere we still want to go? And more pointedly, does the microformat concept scale up to a system that is coherent and usable once there are a zillion of them?

(By the way, paving real-world footpaths is an idea to be used with care. There are many places where foot traffic completely obliterates the landscape, and if you paved them all you’d have nothing but a parking lot. The solution is to carefully study the footpaths, pave some of them, and plant hedges to protect the grass. Whether that metaphor can be applied to online technologies is an exercise left to the reader.)

The Semantic Web and the I Love You problem

Since I started out with a nod to Ben Hammersley, I’ll risk biting the hand that inspires me by taking issue with something he just posted to his blog.

It’s a long-lost (and nicely produced) video of an interesting and accessible talk he gave in summer 2003 entitled A Sporting Gentleman’s Guide to the Semantic Web. It seems like a useful intro for someone like me who knows very little about the subject.

However, despite a promise not to oversell the Semantic Web, Hammersley may be doing just that. He claims that it solves what he calls the “I Love You” problem, that the same words can mean different things when said by different people in different contexts. The Semantic Web aims to address this in two ways: (1) by using unique identifiers, or URIs, for each of the terms in a statement; and (2) by defining its verbs via an explicit reference to a standard.

So far so good, but the example he uses to illustrate his point is one that sets off alarms for me, the Dublin Core element dc:creator. It would be hard to name a thornier category of metadata. Any cataloger will tell you that there are a thousand kinds of authorship. The Dublin Core definition he refers to in his talk does not make the concept unambiguous, but rather explicitly ambiguous:

Creator: An entity primarily responsible for making the content of the resource. Examples of a Creator include a person, an organisation,or a service. Typically, the name of a Creator should be used to indicate the entity.

So neither the Semantic Web nor the Dublin Core will tell you whether the dc:creator of the object conceived it, wrote it, directed it, produced it, acted the lead, played trombone in the pit, or did the catering. They say even less about what rights or responsibilities accrue to said creator. Those questions remain as messy with the Semantic Web (at least the Dublin Core-based version) as without it.

Probably I’m overreacting and the problem isn’t with the Semantic Web but with his example. More widespread machine-parseable use of a simple metadata standard like Dublin Core could come in handy despite its limitations, and if I understood it correctly the Semantic Web is extensible to any metadata standard, including much more precise ones. But a claim that the Semantic Web eliminates issues of ambiguity is an overstatement as far-fetched as the claims of magic and mind reading his talk is intended to debunk.