[sc34wg3] Newcomb on "Where WG3 should be going"

Steve Newcomb srn at coolheads.com
Mon Oct 31 17:08:34 EDT 2011

Here is my contribution on the topic of "What should WG3 do now?"
It's in 3 sections: (1) Mission, (2) Vision, and (3) What to do now.
Sorry for the length.  I found that I had a lot to say.  -- Steve


     If we have an opportunity to re-invent WG3, I would like for its
     mission to be to contribute to the likelihood of global public
     prosperity.  WG3's decisions should rest on its thoughtful
     projections of their effects on the public as a whole, and the
     decisions should always be made in the way that best serves the
     public interest.  This is not simple, easy, or obvious, but the
     worthiness of the task would motivate us consistently, provide a
     firm basis for trusting each other, and maximize WG3's long-term
     potential for influence and success.

     Moreover, it might even work; the effects of our work might
     actually contribute to human prosperity.  It's very probable -- if
     perhaps not altogether obvious -- that the key to global
     prosperity is an informed public that has effective defenses
     against deception.

     I personally find red-hot inspiration in the following words from
     *The Constitution of Liberty* by the seminal economist,
     F. A. Hayek:

           "So far as possible, our aim should be to improve human
           institutions so as to increase the chances of correct
           foresight.  Above all, however, we should provide the
           maximum of opportunity for unknown individuals to learn of
           facts that we ourselves are yet unaware of and to make use
           of this knowledge in their actions."

           "It is through the mutually adjusted efforts of many people
           that more knowledge is utilized than any one individual
           possesses or than it is possible to synthesize
           intellectually; and it is through such utilization of
           dispersed knowledge that achievements are made possible
           greater than any single mind can foresee.  It is because
           freedom means the renunciation of direct control of
           individual efforts that a free society can make use of so
           much more knowledge than the mind of the wisest ruler could


     WG3 should not offer yet another language (API, schema, DTD,
     vocabulary, namespace, ...).  In the final analysis, all Esperanto
     fantasies are doomed, perhaps for the same reason that entropy
     only increases.  The invention of a new language cannot bring
     humanity the benefits of having a common language.  It brings only
     the benefits of a new language.  Those benefits might be very
     valuable, but they cannot be compared to the benefits that would
     follow from any radical improvement in global public access to
     relevant information.

     Rather than creating any new languages, WG3 should move in exactly
     the opposite direction, doing what it can to overcome the
     "impedance mismatches" between *existing* languages.  More
     broadly, between existing universes of discourse.

     But that's a very hard problem!  What can WG3 possibly do about
     it?  For millenia, we have been advised to regard language
     diversity as a hopelessly insoluble problem.  Indeed, the familiar
     ancient "Tower of Babel" myth suggests that the diversity of human
     languages is divinely intended to prevent human beings from
     accomplishing too much:

         "And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they
         have all one language; and this [tower whose top may reach
         heaven] they begin to [build]: and now nothing will
         be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

         "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language,
          that they may not understand one another's speech."

     From a post-Darwinian perspective, it appears likely that the
     progress-obstructing effects of language diversity are rooted not
     in a God who jealously keeps His heavenly prerogatives to Himself,
     but rather in the logic of natural selection.  After all, symbolic
     communication has played a key role in the survival of several
     species, including, for example, the bees.

     Humans exploit symbols in a radically more powerful way than other
     animals.  Unlike bees (for example), humans constantly create new
     ways of saying things, and even whole new symbolic systems.
     Humans can exploit new symbols and symbologies immediately.  Every
     day, even a modestly articulate human being is likely to invent a
     way of saying something that needs to be said -- a way that was
     not genetically prescribed, and that quite possibly was never used
     before.  This creative power makes human communities fantastically
     adaptable.  We survive changes that extinguish other animal
     communities.  We may complain a lot, but we survive.  Indeed, we
     survive probably because our complaints are so pointed, and
     because our resulting adaptations are so quick and so subtle.

     Language and community are fundamental to each other, and
     community is fundamental to human survival, now even more than
     ever before.  We must now cheerfully accept the challenges our
     success is bringing us, and we must quickly accomplish several
     unprecedented things.  We must learn not only to see ourselves as
     a planetary community, but also to function as one.  We must not
     only recognize that we have seized control of spaceship earth, and
     that we are doing an unsustainably poor job of running it, but we
     must also develop a global consensus on how to operate it for the
     benefit of ourselves and our descendants.  Not easy.

     With all that in mind, here's my vision for WG3.  WG3 can set
     standards for information access that create a basis for the
     development of global consensus(es).  The key will *not* be the
     development of some set of symbols or symbol systems.  Instead,
     the key will be doctrines and practices that increase the
     efficiency with which communities with diverse perspectives can
     understand each other.  The doctrines and practices will evolve
     indefinitely, but they will always be aimed at enabling diverse
     communities to metaphorically travel like tourists across the
     boundaries between universes of discourse, guided by *maps*.

     I used to call these maps "Topic Maps", but in view of the fact
     that an existing ISO standard *language* already has that moniker,
     I'll call them "Subject Maps" here.  (WG3 should apply whatever
     name(s) it thinks will maximize global public benefit.
     Personally, I feel cautious about using the term "Topic Maps", but
     I have to admit that there are reasons to use that term.  Anyway,
     that whole question is a detail that we should resolve with a
     minimum of distraction.)

     The idea of subject mapping is not wedded to any particular
     language or purpose.  It's more like a professional ethic for
     those who create symbols, like dots on a road map, each of which
     is claimed (by the cartographer) to reify exactly one subject.

     I would argue that "One Subject Per Proxy" (or some equivalent
     phrase) should be the mantra of every subject mapping
     professional, just as "Do No Harm" offers equally vague and
     non-auditable guidance to the behavior of medical professionals.
     The broad medical questions of "What would be helpful and what
     would be harmful?"  probably involve no more complex judgment
     calls and implications than than the questions that must be
     answered by subject mapping professionals: "In what universes of
     discourse shall I reify subjects, what subjects shall I reify in
     them, and how shall I identify them?"  Fortunately for the sanity
     of both kinds of professionals, the set of available answers is
     constrained by the situations in which they happen to be

     The cartographers of subject maps will make a profession of
     understanding multiple universes of discourse (UoDs), and who
     derive their income, directly or indirectly, from publishing
     multi-universe maps, tour guides, and the like, in the context of
     business models that may or may not be among today's conventional
     ones for publishing.  WG3 may need to project some business models
     in order to have some basis for decision making, but I think
     workable business models are more likely to emerge from actual
     practice than from any amount of theorizing.

     I predict that with or without WG3, subject-oriented information
     interchange will eventually be so commonplace that it will no
     longer even be described as such.  The grounding problem will
     become a hotbed of Information Science activity, rather than an
     obscure feature of its hinterlands.  Many livelihoods will be
     concerned with maintaining illusions (subject maps) so cleverly
     and subtly constructed that persons living in one set of universes
     of discourse -- each of which is itself evolving -- can usefully
     see how those who live in other evolving universes are seeing
     things of common interest.

     Subject cartography work is utterly human; artificial intelligence
     can help with it, but only a human being can take responsibility
     for "truthfulness" and/or utility, demonstrate personal and
     professional integrity, and develop a following and a market.
     Subject cartography will be very *meaningful* employment (so to
     speak ;^).  I think that anyone who makes an exploitable claim that
     "addresses" in two or more different universes are all the address
     of the same subject should really believe it's true, at least for
     the purposes of the contexts within which they say so.  The need
     to maintain a reputation for integrity (or sincerety, if you like)
     about such statements -- such subject proxies -- is what leads me
     to think that professionalism will be important for subject
     cartographers, not unlike journalists.  Webs of trust among such
     professionals will be essential, because they'll need to be able to
     rely on each other's claims of subject identity.  I hope that 
     and standards for facilitating the maintenance of such webs of trust
     will eventually become a focus of WG3.


     I think Patrick's suggestion to create Semantic APIs is the best
     way forward, but not because I believe any given set of Semantic
     APIs should be the essence of WG3's contribution.  It's the best
     way forward because praxis is the only way to make any real
     progress.  If our underlying goal is the one I'm suggesting,
     namely the development and promulgation of doctrines and practices
     for the subject cartography profession, then there's no better way
     forward than simply to do that kind of work in a very public,
     highly collaborative fashion.  We'll have to do a lot of groping,
     especially at first.  Pioneering is not easy.

     The first order of business is to do something real.  I would
     prefer that it not be in music, or in any other artform, or in the
     humanities.  I would urge that it be something that's essential
     for operating the planet, or for conducting human affairs.
     Something consequential, anyway.  Something that is made
     inefficient by the signal losses due to the semantic impedance
     mismatches between human communities that live in different
     universes of discourse.

     We have many choices in the hard and not-so-hard sciences, in
     engineering, in business and finance, in sociology, in education,
     in government, etc.  Here's something I learned from Pierre Lévy
     more than a decade ago: many people don't know what might be the
     most efficient path from their current employability status to a
     more favorable employability status.  Part of the problem is that
     they have no familiarity with the universes of discourse within
     which they could conceivably become employable.  I think that's
     worth thinking about, anyway.

Steve Newcomb
Canandaigua, New York
October 31, 2011

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