I was reviewing Alex Wright’s 2008 New York Times article on Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum, an often-ignored precursor to the World Wide Web and predecessor even to Vannevar Bush‘s memex (or was it Emanuel Goldberg’s?), when I happened upon this quote from Michael Buckland, professor at Berkeley’s School of Information (I like that name for a school… and hey! Danah Boyd knows him!):

Critics of the Semantic Web say it relies too heavily on expert programmers to create ontologies (formalized descriptions of concepts and relationships) that will let computers exchange data with one another more easily. The Semantic Web “may be useful, but it is bound to fail,” Dr. Buckland said, adding, “It doesn’t scale because nobody will provide enough labor to build it.”

The same criticism could have been leveled against the Mundaneum. Just as Otlet’s vision required a group of trained catalogers to classify the world’s knowledge, so the Semantic Web hinges on an elite class of programmers to formulate descriptions for a potentially vast range of information. For those who advocate such labor-intensive data schemes, the fate of the Mundaneum may offer a cautionary tale [Alex Wright, “The Web Time Forgot,” New York Times, 2008.06.17].

That passage must have stuck in my subconscious, since it sounds very much like the concern I expressed in our class on the Semantic Web this summer: where will we find enough expertise to properly wire and check the Semantic Web? To scale up, Semantic Web technology almost needs to be telepathic (uh oh!).

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