Is the semantic web a memex?

December 31, 2009

I agree with mc schrafel that the semantic web needs a better metaphor, or really any metaphor, to help people understand and embrace it. I’m just not sure the memex is the right one. It’s not a concept that’s easily recognizable by most people. And I’m not convinced that it’s an accurate metaphor.

Central to Vannevar Bush’s original description of the memex are paths of association between items, the connection made between point a and point b. While ontologies and semantic web apps let us label the relationship between two things, I’ve yet to see an application that lets you capture the path that led you to make that connection.

So for instance Zotero lets me say Paper 1 is related to Paper 2, but not that I followed a link to a citation in paper 1, which led me to a Wikipedia page, which led me to Paper 2. Paper 2 and Paper 1 may have a generally meaningful relationship that any reader would recognize: a shared author, similar subject matter. Or their relationship may be meaningful only to me: there was some association I made along the path from Paper 1 to Paper 2 that may not matter to anyone else. However, that association — the dynamic path leading to the association, not the static association itself — may be a source of information or inspiration to me. Where is the system that lets me preserve it?

To the best of my knowledge, that system doesn’t exist yet. Really, that’s not too surprising: we’re still working on representing the relationship between two things, much less the evolution and lineage of that relationship. There are thorny semantic and user experience questions related to the larger project, especially working across the boundaries of information systems and the semantic web does (or will). But it’s a worthwhile goal, and we should make sure that we make it there and aren’t satisfied with representing static associations. Why? Because doing so creates rich context, that starts to approximate the kind of implicit context humans generate all the time. It grounds are machine representations in human notions of time. And it facilitates that mysterious capacity humans have of sparking new ideas by juxtaposing two apparently unconnected things.

So my answer to my own question at the top of this post — and to dr. schraefel — is: not yet. But maybe someday.

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