Tim Berners-Lee
Date: 2007-07-04, last change: $Date: 2007/07/06 23:14:29 $
Status: personal view only. Editing status: stable.

Up to Design Issues

Cultures and boundaries

When a group of people communicate amongst themselves, they develop, to a certain extent, their own language. Sometimes, they pick terms understood by one party, talk enough to develop a shared understanding of the meaning of the the term, and adopt it across the group. Sometimes, as discussion proceeds within the group, meanings are adjusted so that they can be used for new concepts which are created or discovered by the group's activity. Sometimes, a group will deliberately and quite specifically make up a new term, choosing it to be hopefully different from any other word or phrase used before. While this is evident in technical groups, this process also happens in all walks of life, legal and political, as well as social and familial.

The result of this process is a new language, a new strain of language, just a twist in the use ofor just a twist in the use of an existing word. The first and motivating effect of this, large or small, is to enable communication within the group. A greater shared vocabulary broadens the scope of common discussion which can be made without misunderstanding. The second, complementary and inexorable effect of this change is to create a common bond within the group, which at the same time, erects a barrier around the group. In most cases, all of this is unintentional. For every linguistic development which promotes communication within the group, a corresponding step change is made in the difficulty of communicating across the boundary, between inside and outside the group

That which makes a group culture stronger necessarily isolates it from others.

The culture of the group comprises many things, but the common terms and their meaning, and the set of concepts net which interconnects those meanings, are a very significant part.

So it is, then, that a working group will, given a free rein, work in relative isolation for several months, and when they have finished have great difficulty explaining the specification documents to their peers outside the group. Often this will be a surprise to the members of the group. They may see those outside the group as rather slow to understand, and those outside the group might see the group as having a tendency to use jargon, or to misuse jargon. It may be worse: those on one side of the boundary may see those on the other as being stupid, malicious, or even heretical.

An incomplete but essential solution to the problem is for those involved to think about what those on the other side of the boundary are thinking. This is hard work. (It involves, we discover, use of specific parts of the brain! [SaxePowell] ). This is the job, in a conversation, of listening, the stuff of most manuals and self-help books on human communication. In a technical setting it can involve a careful study of the words used in the other's seemingly senseless protestations, to build up logically a conclusion of how those words must be related in the other's mind.

The process of forming a common culture for a large community is, therefore, full of this work of listening to others. It slowly builds a new set of common terms. The work of taking an specification from one group, and though review and discussion, getting it to be th subject of consensus in a wide group, will typically involve reexamining the terms it uses and often changing them as the group itself goes through the process which the individuals, or for that matter smaller groups, within it had already done. The motivation, for technical specifications, is to get wider interoperability of systems. The motivation, for diplomatic and political things, is to get a common decisions, and to reduce global strife.

There is constant tension between the need to get things done quickly with less effort, by working within a small group, and the need to get this wider understanding which takes so much more time.

Now, in practice, life is made up of a fractal tangle of overlapping communities, of overlapping cultures. This means that the tension is ever-present. It also means that there is always a small amount of common language shared by a very large number of people, and always a very large number of concepts local to an individual, and everything in between. In centuries before this one, geography played an important role in constraining groups, and so nested two-dimensional pattern existed.

With the Internet and the Web, we can connect things without the constraint of these nested geographical areas. We can chose to be a member not just of communities such as town, region, state and country, but of specialists in a given field, or people with a particular medical condition, or people concerned about a particular global issue,. world wide. This means that the topology of the communities, and the connectedness by some metrics, may be different and in fact better than before. The topology which emerges depends on the individual choices of many people. But there is a hunch that a fractal distribution, emphasizing all scales, will be important.

The Semantic Web is a technology engineered specifically for this situation. Terms are defined in ontologies (groups of consistent, related terms). Ontologies are defined by communities. A given person is involved in many communities. A given message will mix terms from many ontologies. A given operation only requires consistency between parts of ontologies which are in use for that operation.

This will promote work toward greater harmonization, but it will not predicate the operation upon the establishment of a global ontology of everything. We know that a single huge ontology of everything cannot be done, as it the effort of getting consensus on it becomes unimaginable. We know that stovepipe systems with only local ontologies leave us with communication, and especially the re-use of data, which just does not happen, to our great detriment. And so we engineer specifically for a fractal topology.


(There are many books on these topics.)

[SaxePowell] Rebecca Saxe and Lindsey J. Powell, It’s the Thought That Counts: Specific Brain Regions for One Component of Theory of Mind.

Up to Design Issues

Tim BL