Knowledge Organisation


Kim H. Veltman

“The Semantic Web: Past and Future”

World Digital Libraries, Delhi, 2 (1), pp. 33-49.


Work on semantic networks predates the introduction of the Internet in 1968. The idea of making a semantic web the basis of the World Wide Web was broached by Tim Berners Lee at WWW7 (Brisbane, 1998) and further described in a roadmap (September 1998). Since then it has become a mainstream vision with progress on many fronts. A key element of the semantic web vision that makes assertions on the Web machine-readable is a Resource Description Framework (RDF). This has transformed the Internet into a Web for sharing knowledge and prepares the way for a transaction web, fundamental for business dimensions of the web by providing validation of nodes and links in the system.

In all this, the term “semantic” is used in a very specific way: to make the meaning of (programming) instructions understandable to computers without human intervention. This marks an enormous contribution. Even so, the focus on “semantic” instructions for machines, does not yet address the needs of those in the Social Sciences, the Humanities, and indeed all Sciences, which have temporal-spatial dimensions. The present approach ignores the traditional meaning of semantics, whereby it was linked with etymology: the history of meanings given to words by humans, which change with time and space. It also uses a very limited form of hypertext that links one hyperlinked word in one document with another hyperlinked word in another document.

This paper reviews briefly the history of these efforts and outlines the potentials of a semantic web with multiple levels of hyperlinks. It suggests that current efforts focus on a Web that privileges born digital materials. As the ITU has suggested, a next generation needs to include an Internet of things. We need much more. Scholars in earlier cultures distinguished between different worlds ranging from metaphysical and mental to physical, man-made, social, and creative. These ideas need to be integrated into our plans for a semantic web such that we can search for knowledge and information at different levels.

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