2015-04-11

From names to sentences, the Web language story.

Conversation about text and names and how they are interwoven within the Web architexture is going on here and there. The more it goes, the more I feel we need more non technical narratives and metaphors to have people get what the (Semantic) Web is all about. We have drowned them under technical talks and schemas of layers of architecture and protocols and data structures and ontologies and applications ... and the neat result is that too many of them, and smart people, think only experts, engineers and geeks can grok it. So let me try one of such - hopefully simple - narratives. 

The story of the Web is just the story of language, continued by other means. Forging names to call things, and weaving those names in sentences and texts. On the Web, things have those weird names called URIs, but names all the same. As we have seen in a previous post, a name is to begin with a way to shout and identify people and things in the night. On the Web to call a thing by its URI-name you will use some interface, a browser, a service, an application, and at this call something will come through the interface. Well, the thing you have called does not actually come itself to you through the network, but you get something which is hopefully a good enough representation of the thing. The deep ontological question of the relationship between the name and what is named has been discussed for ages and will continue forever. The Web does not change that issue, does not solve it, just provides new use cases and occasions to wonder about it. But this is not my point today.

On the first ages of the Web, calling things was all you could do with those URI-names. You had the language ability of a two years old kid. You could say "orange" or "milk" when you were thirsty, and "dog" and "cat" and "car" and "sea" and "plane" when you saw or wanted one, and cry for everything else you could not express or the dumb Web would not understand. With no more sophisticated language constructs, you could nevertheless discover the wealth of the Web, through iterative serendipitous calls. Because courtesy of the Web is such that when you call for a thing the answer comes often back with a bunch of other names you can further call (an hyperlink just does that, enabling you to call another name just by a click). You would bring back home things you had not the faintest idea of the very existence a minute before. Remember this jubilation, the magic of your first Web navigation, twenty years ago? Like a kid laughing aloud when discovering the tremendous power of names to call things.
Today in many (most) of our interactions with the Web we are no more aware of using names. We make actions with our fingertips, barely guessing that under the hood, this is transformed in a client calling a server or something on this server by some name, and many calls are made on the network to bring back what your fingers asked. Only geeks and engineers know that. The youngest generations who have not known the first ages of the Web, and interact only through such interfaces, are plainly ignoring all that names affair. Did you say URL Dad? What's that? It sounds so 90's ...

Now when you grow older than two, you go beyond using names just for shouting them in the face of the world, you begin to understand and build yourself sentences. That's a complete new experience, a new dimension of language unfolding. You link names together, you discover the texture, the power to understand and invent stories and to ask and answer questions. You still use the same names, you are still interested in oranges, cats, dogs and cars, and all the thousands of things which are the children of naming. But you are now able to weave them together using verbs (predicates), qualifiers and quantifiers and logical coordination. You have become a language weaver.

And that's exactly and simply what the Semantic Web is about, and how it extends the previous Web. Just growing and learning to weave sentences, telling stories, asking questions. But using the same URI-names as before. Any URI-name of the good old Web can become a part of the Semantic Web. Just write a sentence, publish a triple using it as subject or object, and here you are.