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November 16, 2009

The future has arrived


About 99% of the way thru Bill Thompson's closing keynote to the CETIS 2009 Conference last week I tweeted:

great technology panorama painted by @billt in closing talk at #cetis09

And it was a great panorama - broad, interesting and entertainingly delivered. It was a good performance and I am hugely in awe of people who can give this kind of presentation. However, what the talk didn't do was move from the "this is where technology has come from, this is where it is now and this is where it is going" kind of stuff to the "and this is what it means for education in the future". Which was a shame because in questioning after his talk Thompson did make some suggestions about the future of print news media (not surprising for someone now at the BBC) and I wanted to hear similar views about the future of teaching, learning and research.

As Oleg Liber pointed out in his question after the talk, universities, and the whole education system around them, are lumbering beasts that will be very slow to change in the face of anything. On that basis, whilst it is interesting to note that (for example) we can now just about store a bit on an atom (meaning that we can potentially store a digital version of all human output on something the weight of a human body), that we can pretty much wire things directly into the human retina, and that Africa will one-day overtake 'digital' Britain in the broadband stakes are interesting individual propositions in their own right, there comes a "so what?" moment where one is left wondering what it actually all means.

As an aside, and on a more personal note, I suggest that my daughter's experience of university (she started at Sheffield Hallam in September) is not actually going to be very different to my own, 30-odd years ago. Lectures don't seem to have changed much. Project work doesn't seem to have changed much. Going out drinking doesn't seem to have changed much. She did meet all her 'hall' flat-mates via Facebook before she arrived in Sheffield I suppose :-) - something I never had the opportunity to do (actually, I never even got a place in hall). There is a big difference in how it is all paid for of course but the interesting question is how different university will be for her children. If the truth is, "not much", then I'm not sure why we are all bothering.

At one point, just after the bit about storing a digital version of all human output I think, Thompson did throw out the question, "...and what does that mean for copyright law?". He didn't give us an answer. Well, I don't know either to be honest... though it doesn't change the fact that creative people need to be rewarded in some way for their endeavours I guess. But the real point here is that the panorama of technological change that Thompson painted for us, interesting as it was, begs some serious thinking about what the future holds.  Maybe Thompson was right to lay out the panorama and leave the serious thinking to us?

He was surprisingly positive about Linked Data, suggesting that the time is now right for this to have a significant impact.  I won't disagree because I've been making the same point myself in various fora, though I tend not to shout it too loudly because I know that the Semantic Web has a history of not quite making it.  Indeed, the two parallel sessions that I attended during the conference, University API and the Giant Global Graph both focused quite heavily on the kinds of resources that universities are sitting on (courses, people/expertise, research data, publications, physical facilities, events and so on) that might usefully be exposed to others in some kind of 'open' fashion.  And much of the debate, particularly in the second session (about which there are now some notes), was around whether Linked Data (i.e. RDF) is the best way to do this - a debate that we've also seen played out recently on the uk-government-data-developers Google Group.

The three primary issues seemed to be:

  • Why should we (universities) invest time and money exposing our data in the hope that people will do something useful/interesting/of value with it when we have many other competing demands on our limited resources?
  • Why should we take the trouble to expose RDF when it's arguably easier for both the owner and the consumer of the data to expose something simpler like a CSV file?
  • Why can't the same ends be achieved by offering one or more services (i.e. a set of one or more APIs) rather than the raw data itself?

In the ensuing debate about the why and the how, there was a strong undercurrent of, "two years ago SOA was all the rage, now Linked Data is all the rage... this is just a fashion thing and in two years time there'll be something else".  I'm not sure that we (or at least I) have a well honed argument against this view but, for me at least, it lies somewhere in the fit with resource-orientation, with the way the Web works, with REST, and with the Web Architecture.

On the issue of the length of time it is taking for the Semantic Web to have any kind of mainstream impact, Ian Davis has an interesting post, Make or Break for the Semantic Web?, arguing that this is not unusual for standards track work:

Technology, especially standards track work, takes years to cross the chasm from early adopters (the technology enthusiasts and visionaries) to the early majority (the pragmatists). And when I say years, I mean years. Take CSS for example. I’d characterise CSS as having crossed the chasm and it’s being used by the early majority and making inroads into the late majority. I don’t think anyone would seriously argue that CSS is not here to stay.

According to this semi-official history of CSS the first proposal was in 1994, about 13 years ago. The first version that was recognisably the CSS we use today was CSS1, issued by the W3C in December 1996. This was followed by CSS2 in 1998, the year that also saw the founding of the Web Standards Project. CSS 2.1 is still under development, along with portions of CSS3.

Paul Walk has also written an interesting post, Linked, Open, Semantic?, in which he argues that our discussions around the Semantic Web and Linked Data tend to mix up three memes (open data, linked data and semantics) in rather unhelpful ways. I tend to agree, though I worry that Paul's proposed distinction between Linked Data and the Semantic Web is actually rather fuzzier than we may like.

On balance, I feel a little uncomfortable that I am not able to offer a better argument against the kinds of anti-Linked Data views expressed above. I think I understand the issues (or at least some of them) pretty well but I don't have them to hand in a kind of this is why Linked Data is the right way forward 'elevator pitch'.

Something to work on I guess!

[Image: a slide from Bill Thompson's closing keynote to the CETIS 2009 Conference]


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You raise the issue of copyright. This was the subject of a presentation by Lawrence Lessig at Educause earlier this month which can be seriously recommended viewing. Fast forward to c.26mins into this videocast - http://educause.mediasite.com/mediasite/SilverlightPlayer/Default.aspx?peid=b84be1d5613841aaae441aac8272e2e7

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