Zach Beauvais

Empathic Web

Written by Zach Beauvais

Jun 3, 2008

Originally appeared on Nodalities Blog:

Last week I listened to a talk by Shane Hipps, a Porsche “consumer anthropologist” turned Mennonite minister. The speaker, clearly aware of the contradictory nature of his background, made a very interesting observation about the digital age. He essentially said that we are, as a society, experiencing a shift of great magnitude in history which reflects one of the greatest changes humanity has ever experienced: literacy.

Moving from an oral tradition to a literate society – in which letters allow people to commit their thoughts to memory – fundamentally changed the way society and individuals thought. It freed individuals to think on their own without having to commit their ideas to the collective memory of their tribe. It also changed the ability of the social groups to sense the emotional state of its individuals, because they could now exist in an abstract, individual mindset.

So, agrarian societies relied on the community to remember and structure their ideas. The result of this community conceptual framework was an empathic connection between members of the community. Writing, on the other hand, allows individuals to remove themselves from the older framework and commit their thoughts to paper resulting in a loss or shift in the empathy of the culture or society. In a digital age, however, there is a new shift: one of removal to connection at a distance.

This concept: empathy at a distance or a digitally-connected community, made me consider the connections in the Semantic Web. The in’s and out’s of the SemWeb have been argued, discussed, debated, and explored technologically. Many blogs and sites have huge amounts of content devoted to the definitions of SPARQL and RDF. Abstractions have been published discussing the applications of this new technology. Sir Tim Berners-Lee refers to the Semantic Web as ‘The Web done right.’

But, what is being done right? Is the Semantic Web the Web done technologically right? Is it an upgrade to the existing framework or a patch to fix what was wrong? Maybe. But it makes me wonder about looking at this from a sociological or communicative perspective. The Semantic Web, technologically, is important to humanity only so far as it’s a medium for our connections.

So, when we make new semantic connections, and the software is increasingly able to associate us with concepts, people, items and communities (like academic institutions or or organisations); what is actually happening? People are making connections, and committing them not only to their own memories but to a community.

Publishing, you might argue, has been around since not that long after the first scribblings of meaning. But, publishing is one-way and narrow. A message or idea is only committed to the memories and added to the mental repertories of those who actually read the message. The same is true in a digital age (with multi-channels for ‘reading’ such as podcasts and video also) but the distinct difference is the access to concepts and the ease of utilising or ‘consuming’ the material. Firstly, digital goods are infinitely (in practice if not in absolute purist terms) copyable. There is no limit to the number of times you can copy and distribute an electronic text or a podcast so society does not have to wait for an idea to filter through because your dad hasn’t finished their Times crossword. Secondly, the connections made digitally (and more semantically-enriched) are increasingly collaborative. With software doing the heavy lifting in terms of data mining and content distribution, more ideas get to more people in more accessible ways.

Finally, although the Semantic Web is far from complete in application, the glimmers it allows us to see could have huge sociological implications. It’s the human element of the Semantic Web which makes it so exciting and so potentially disruptive. It’s possible that people, finding and synthesising ideas before feeding back their individual perspectives into the community, are increasingly able to connect with people and concepts in a more empathic way; without losing the abstract and logical abilities of the literate age.

Is this a new age? Undoubtedly. What will it look like? I’d say: like you and me—people.

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