Towards a Semantic Web Ethos [Book Excerpt]

Beneath every website, application, email, even under the tiniest tweet flow tons of data.  Once linked, not unlike the documents we connect through hyperlinks, these data can create a whole new layer, woven in the Web’s fabrics. This layer is called the Semantic Web.

Many paths enter the understanding of the Semantic Web concept. Most of them start with walking into the fields of machine-interpretable meaning, knowledge representation,  browsable data where we find ourselves thinking through the Web  as useful data platform where smart agents browse the cyber realm for us and execute various tasks on our behalf – from booking an appointment to the doctor  or filling a tax declaration to answering the question “What proteins are involved in signal transduction and are related to pyramidal neurons?”. The latter, as the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee writes, having been answered when put into the linked databases world.  Some less travelled routes to conceiving the Semantic Web, are those walking us into the realms of digital heritage, humanities and the big question of augmenting our capabilities to work with information, manage resources, convey and store knowledge, ultimately to the matters of collaboration and cooperation in the digital age.

From either perspectives, the premise of the Semantic Web is simple: provide a grid for data, information and knowledge to travel freely across networks of people, devices and systems.

With a little bit of additional data embedded in the content we put on the web, or added via other means,  once a boring place for computers, the Web can incrementally become this grid – a global information space where data from all kinds of sources are linked together.

To set the wheels in motion for the emergence of such an infrastructure, certain agreed upon and tested specifications and recommendations for encoding information in data have been put together by the Word Wide Web Consortium – the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web, led by Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and CEO Jeffrey Jaffe, on a  mission to lead the Web to its full potential. Constantly maturing , these foundational technologies behind the vision of a Web of Data (another name for the Semantic Web) are recommended best practices for working with data and for publishing these data on the Web. As dynamic and changing  the design features and the the talk about the Semantic Web walk is they both seek to answer one question: How can we use data in a manner that allows us to convey as much  information with these data and exchange it the easiest possible way across systems?


When thinking through the Web and the Web of Data it very much helps to forget for a moment about technology, records, systems and bits and start thinking about connections, creations and collaborations.

Your thinking and your code should be about things: people, events, relationships.

Cit. Tim Berners-Lee, on Solid chat

In this paradigm, the data standards talk transforms into an ethics walk.

The technological challenge turns into a challenge touching the moving parts of processes and constructs such as shared understanding,  inclusiveness and human relationships. Inevitably, the Semantic Web talk acquires a highly ethical dimension. Ethical in the sense of “relating to the ways we live together” and, in the digital context, the way we co-exist and collaborate in public and provate cyberspaces.


On the Web, interconnectedness is virtue. And virtues come to being when on the stage enters the Other. This is where ethics begins.

Online, Otherness-ness everywhere, in all its forms and variety. To be able to coexist and cocreate and most importantly to interconnect within this diversity, we need proper structures. Structures which allow for shared languages and understandings to emerge and  spaces, informational ones included, where we can cooperate freely, unobstructed by technological inconsistencies.

In that spirit, we switch codes from the Web as a pure technological invention, to the Web as an enabler of human connection.

The Semantic Web is about connections. We are defined by our relationships on different levels – with things, with people, with topics.  The beauty of this expanding interconnectedness is that we are its creators. We are the poets of networks, communities, hubs of shared values and interests. We constantly enter and exit static and dynamic relationships, creating open systems of new or existing contexts, connections and meanings. It is in this poiesis of relationships that new threads emerge, forming new shapes, and enriching the environment with newly connected dots.

The challenge is finding ways to build the technological body of such interconnected spirit.

This was an excerpt  from the essay “Towards a Semantic Web Ethos”, part of my book The Brave New Text.

p.s. Useful references:

  1. For a very approachable and exhaustive explanation of the concept of the Semantic Web, see Explorer’s Guide to the Semantic Web, Thomas B. Passin.
  2. Long Live the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, Scientific American, December 2010, p. 85
  3. “To a computer, then, the web is a flat, boring world devoid of meaning.” from Plenary at WWW Geneva 94 –
  4. See Semantic Web or Web of Data? A diachronic study (1999 to 2017) of the publications of Tim Berners-Lee
  6. ref. Five Moral Pieces Front Cover Umberto Eco. When the Other Appears on the Scene
  7. more on this in this write-up of Tim Berner’s Lee thoughts at the a MIT symposium, dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think”: Links, Fractals and Information Plumbing

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Towards a Semantic Web Ethos [Book Excerpt]

by Teodora Petkova time to read: 4 min