Categories:> Digital

The Semantic Web: The Contradiction of Disconnected Connectivity

Eva is sitting at her desk half-listening to a podcast and half-reading an article about freak weather when a call comes in from her boss Michelle. The podcast pauses, the screen dims and as soon as Eva answers the phone, a transcript jumps up on her screen. Michelle needs Eva to hop on a flight to Geneva asap. As they’re talking, Eva’s browser is pulling up the conference schedule, flights, transport, accommodation, and florists who offer delivery and personalised sympathy cards. The conversation concludes; Eva grabs her laptop and phone, throws a change of clothes in a suitcase and walks out her front door, where the car her virtual assistant Rachel (named after her first pet) has booked is parked and waiting to take her to the airport. When she opens her phone, draft emails pop up to some key contacts at the conference. On the plane, a confirmation email wings over to Michelle and as she puts her headphones in, the podcast starts back up.

In May 2001, Sir Tim Berners-Lee detailed in an article for Scientific American his vision for the next – as he saw it, inevitable – stage of the internet’s evolution: the semantic web. If the internet today is a web of documents, according to Berners-Lee the next step is for it to become a web of data – fully legible to computers, with a single standardised data language for the web as a whole to allow processors to read pages, draw inferences and intuitive links, and eventually – especially in combination with the internet of things – shift a massive amount of work currently done by humans onto computers.

The above scenario might seem out of reach today, but a great deal of the groundwork has already been laid. The internet of things, along with interconnectivity between devices and intuitive, personalised options based on user habits, are already here, and are only likely to expand in the coming years. The truly essential part – the raw data – is already available: it’s simply not currently structured in a way that would permit the integrated vision laid out by advocates of the semantic web.

However, moves are underway to change that. Google and Amazon’s algorithms are becoming more refined and intuitive by the day in parsing users’ habits and preferences to generate ever-more effectively targeted recommendations and ads, while Facebook’s use of machine learning for translations establishes a model for commercially-viable software capable of “understanding” the content it processes.

More radically, Berners-Lee’s new venture, Inrupt, aims to provide a platform for individuals to reclaim their data from the third parties who currently “own” it – a total paradigm shift in the commercial functioning of the web away from isolated siloes of data ownership and control, in which major players like Google and Facebook de facto shape the landscape of the web as encountered by most users. Instead, a web in which data belongs to users would be one in which the available commercial incentives were far more aligned with the borderless, holistic web envisioned by Berners-Lee.

Information without borders

The original innovation that spawned the web – the development of HTML – was, according to Berners-Lee, only the first step. However, the end goal of true interoperability has been stifled, according to advocates of the semantic web, by the commercialisation of data – ad revenues have become the fuel for the internet as a whole, incentivising ever-more intrusion and consolidation among the largest tech companies. A backlash against that top-down model is visible across multiple fronts, from the rise of privacy software to the use of cryptography and blockchain. The semantic web looks beyond that, taking user experience and responsibility as a means to the end goal of a truly interoperable web.

The internet started as a singularity, expanding at speed across academic networks, governments, industry and eventually to the consumer. As technology developed to cater for specific markets, unique code languages evolved, development platforms were created and tribes emerged. The consumer landscape went the same way, resulting in a fully disaggregated internet – a free, borderless and neutral ecosystem that actively encouraged innovation.

Value was ultimately located in the user and their data, inevitably raising the question: if it’s free, am I the product?

However, businesses looked for revenue to repay their investment in the development of their products, sites, systems etc., which ultimately located value in the user and their data, inevitably raising the question: if it’s free, am I the product? As the participating interests grew, their commercial interests subordinated the original vision of the internet – after all, someone has to fund the exponential appetite for data transmission and storage, not to mention the ever-increasing cost of the best talent.

At what point, though, will the consumer and the corporation converge in terms of their thinking? At what point will the consumer want to control the equity in their data, and the corporation want to transfer the cost of data-storage to the consumer? The trend in modern business is to be clean and agile, laying the groundwork for moves towards consumers taking back control.

The philosophy of the open source world is a good one, but it didn’t promise to protect the consumer against data miscreants. There are a growing number of P2P networks, legislation like Payments Directive 2 in the UK helping deliver open banking networks and enabling entire industries to be interpretable and transparent, mobility-as-a-service providers deliver inter-modality in a journey though one central digital solution, and more. These are just some examples of a growing trend whereby the disaggregated internet is beginning to reconnect and become more frictionless – an ironic statement, I know, given how we talk about the internet as the definition of connectivity.

The internet started as a singularity, expanding at speed across academic networks, governments, industry and eventually to the consumer. As technology developed to cater for specific markets, unique code languages evolved, development platforms were created and tribes emerged.

An integrated tomorrow

There will always be intellectual property and gateway content on the web which delivers a funder get their ROI, and at a minimum there are two tribes – those that adopt and those that don’t. But increasingly the consumer is choosing to take back ownership. There is a generation of those who are laissez-faire about their data, but there are also three generations who are fearful of fraud, concerned with the roll of fragile, maybe over-valued unicorns and the impact on democracy and market-share. 

Fluctuation, evolution and deeply unpredictable change have been integral parts of the internet since its inception, but the twin moves toward greater integration and individual control and engagement are, if Berners-Lee’s judgement is anything to go by, smart bets for an overall direction of travel. A smart future orientation today might be to partner with individuals interested in owning their data and managing their own digital footprint – as interoperability and semantic processing becomes reality, collaboration with the user on a mutually beneficial basis will increasingly become the most commercially-viable proposition.

By the time Eva reaches the conference, she’s listened to another two podcasts and read profiles on key figures, and responses are flicking in from the contacts she emailed earlier, all of which go through a brief verification and handshaking process as Rachel checks their credentials and vice versa, and then starts sketching out a format for a report on the conference to go live that evening. She sends Michelle a picture of the achingly modern conference centre and puts in an order for a drink at the bar, which is ready by the time she arrives. Just ten years ago she might have been in a cab trying to add his credit card details to Skyscanner, hunting for the next wifi hotspot.