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Clay Shirky on Complex Software Systems

Software: Shirky on the Semantic Web. Great snippet:

it turns out that people can share data without having to share a worldview, so we got the meta-data without needing the ontology. Exhibit A in this regard is the weblog world. In a recent paper discussing the Semantic Web and weblogs, Matt Rothenberg details the invention and rapid spread of ‘RSS autodiscovery’, where an existing HTML tag was pressed into service as a way of automatically pointing to a weblog’s syndication feed.

About this process, which went from suggestion to implementation in mere days, Rothenberg says:

Granted, RSS autodiscovery was a relatively simplistic technical standard compared to the types of standards required for the environment of pervasive meta-data stipulated by the semantic web, but its adoption demonstrates an environment in which new technical standards for publishing can go from prototype to widespread utility extremely quickly. …

This, of course, is the standard Hail Mary play for anyone whose

technology is caught on the wrong side of complexity. People pushing such technologies often make the ‘gateway drug’ claim that rapid adoption of simple technologies is a precursor to later adoption of much more complex ones. Lotus claimed that simple internet email would eventually leave people clamoring for the more sophisticated features of CC:Mail (RIP), PointCast (also RIP) tried to label email a ‘push’ technology so they would look like a next-generation tool rather than a dead-end, and so on.
Here Rothenberg follows the script to a tee, labeling RSS autodiscovery
‘simplistic’ without entertaining the idea that simplicity may be a requirement of rapid and broad diffusion. The real lesson of RSS autodiscovery is that developers can create valuable meta-data without needing any of the trappings of the Semantic Web. Were the whole effort to be shelved tomorrow, successes like RSS autodiscovery would not be affected in the slightest.

Another good line: ‘There is a list of technologies that are actually political philosophy masquerading as code, a list that includes Xanadu, Freenet, and now the Semantic Web.’

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