A blog about belief

Posts Tagged ‘power’

The Ontic Web

In Computer Science, Culture on August 7, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Recently I’ve been reading about RDF, which is an attempt by the World Wide Web Consortium to create a standard way of representing information about “resources,” which is the word that they use for things.  I’m no fan of XML—a relative of RDF that provides a way to store every type of information in the same horrible HTML-like syntax—and RDF certainly shares its tendency to complicate people’s jobs.  But although the broadness of RDF’s goals all but guarantees its unwieldiness, I’m beginning to think that there is a need for a computer-processable way of writing “ontologies” beyond the interoperability concerns that motivated the RDF project.

It’s almost too easy to do the postmodernist critique of totalizing schemes with systems like RDF.  The example used in the primer for the OWL 2 Web Ontology Language, a commonly-used extension to RDF, is a system for describing family relationships.  Using OWL’s vocabulary for talking about the types of relationships that can hold between things, they define what it is to be a parent, a sibling, and so forth, in statements like this:

EquivalentClasses( :Person :Human )

The authors claim that they do not

intend this example to be representative of the sorts of domains OWL should be used for, or as a canonical example of good modeling with OWL, or a correct representation of the rather complex, shifting, and culturally dependent domain of families. Instead, we intend it to be a rather simple exhibition of various features of OWL.

Sure enough, we get to the zinger a few sections in.

Frequently, the information that two individuals are interconnected by a certain property allows to draw further conclusions about the individuals themselves. In particular, one might infer class memberships.  For instance, the statement that B is the wife of A obviously implies that B is a woman while A is a man.

Even when they’re only used as examples, categorization schemes tend to turn into power plays.  Think how a person who just married her girlfriend would feel reading that.

But information modeling isn’t all retrograde.  There’s an admirable example in Sam Hughes’s very funny essay about how database engineers will have to adapt to gay marriage.  And there is more to RDF than what I would Heideggerianly call ontics—the description of categories and subcategories of things.

One type of program that people have developed for RDF is the inference engine, which attempts to mimic human reasoning by drawing conclusions from the knowledge represented in files.  Whether or not they will lead to a serious AI, people have put these tools to use straightaway for a quite different purpose, that of checking the consistency of their work while putting ontologies together.  This is a different application of the technology from that of defining standard vocabularies to enable different software systems to work together, which is where RDF has found the most application (and which is admittedly very important).  It has less to do with the finished product (the ontology file) than with what we learn in the process of writing it, and with the input that the computer is able to give to the writer as revision proceeds.


“Compassionate libertarianism”?

In Philosophy on June 24, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Brian Leiter points out an interview with Robert Nozick from 2001.  Some of Nozick’s comments in this very late interview suggest that he didn’t turn away from the libertarianism of 1974’s Anarchy, State and Utopia as sharply as the recent Slate writeup claims.  However, it does illustrate a difference between Nozick, a respectable philosopher with whom I disagree, and Ayn Rand, who has intellectual rabies:

JS: You outline a series of different “levels of ethics,” as you call them, the most basic being characterized by, as you said, “voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit,” and the higher levels involving more responsiveness and caring for others and positive aid. Yet you say, and this is what seems particularly libertarian, that no society should go further than enforcing that most basic requirement of peaceful cooperation.

RN: Yes, and libertarianism never really claimed that all of ethics was exhausted by what could be enforced, by what one could legitimately be coerced to do or not do. That’s the political, interpersonal realm that libertarian principles were about, not what might be the highest ethical aspiration.

You mean the highest ethical aspiration might not be to make as much money as possible?