2010-03-31

societas hominum et societas rerum

Danny Ayers has recently posted a "call to arms" to try and speed up the process of adoption of semantic web technologies. And of course he has triggered the usual bunch of complaints about it. Tools are too technical, stuff is presented by geeks for geeks, data are boring, we need betteer user interfaces etc. Among many smart but technical proposals, basically adding to the general complexity issue they are supposed to solve, I will pick up this very simple one by Karl Dubost.
ACTION : Tell a story to people
I've thought about it, and here comes the best story I've come to imagine, although I'm neither a good story teller, nor good at building user interfaces. I'm just good at metaphors.
The Web is a social technology. What have been the killer Web applications so far? e-mail, blogs, Facebook, Twitter... all social stuff, whichever version of Web you call it. People understand what social entities and social links are about. So, let's tell them the story of the societas rerum (society of things) interconnected the same way as, and interconnected with, the societas hominum (society of people). Individuals connected by (meaningful) links. Yes, data are boring. Instead of the technical linked data cloud, let's show a living Web of people and things. What's in there, what it's all about : people and organisations (FOAF), places (Geonames), books (DBLP), products and services (GoodRelations), events etc. In a nutshell, the story of the Semantic Web is the story of the Social Web extended to things. And it's already there, in many ways, even if not (yet) implemented in the RDF technologies stack. Look at every web resource you get at, and ask : is this resource intended to represent and describe one definite thing? Has it a focus (see previous post)? Is it socially linked to other similar resources? If the answer is yes, then this resource participates in the societas rerum. If moreover it's linked to resources representing people, it's also participating in the societas hominum.

About the title, some will ask : why latin? Simple answer : I've been through seven years of latin classes in high school, so I have to use it somehow and show this off a little. More complex answer : Open a latin dictionary, and figure out the original scope of "societas" and "res", and if it's properly translated by "society of things". In fact I found out after forging this title that those concepts (in latin) seem to have been introduced by Antonio Gramsci. Orthodox marxists will forgive me to use them out of the original context, a bit of which is copied below. More to be found here.
One must conceive of man as a series of active relationships (a process) in which individuality, though perhaps the most important, is not, however, the only element to be taken into account. . . . The humanity which is reflected in each individuality is composed of various elements: 1. the individual; 2. other men; 3. the natural world. . . . Each one of us changes himself . . . to the extent that he changes . . . the complex relations of which he is the hub. . . . If one's own individuality is the ensemble of these relations, to create one's own personality means to acquire consciousness of them, and to modify one's own personality means to modify the ensemble of these relations. But these relations, as we have said, are not simple. Some are necessary, others are voluntary. . . . It will be said that what each individual can change is very little, considering his strength. This is true up to a point. But when the individual can associate himself with all the other individuals who want the same changes, and if the changes wanted are rational, the individual can be multiplied an impressive number of times, and can obtain a change which is far more radical than at first sight seemed possible. . . . Up to now the significance attributed to these supra-individual organisms [that the individual is related to] (both the societas hominum and the societas rerum) has been mechanistic and determinist; hence the reaction against it. It is necessary to elaborate a doctrine in which these relations are seen as active and in movement, establishing quite clearly that the source of this activity is the consciousness of the individual man who knows, wishes, admires, creates . . . and conceives of himself not as isolated but rich in the possibilities offered to him by other men and by the society of things of which he cannot help having a certain knowledge.