I remember in some of my first jobs in the restaurant industry how surprised I was at the depth of feeling that employees could feel toward one another. Waiters screaming at other waiters; kitchen staff dismissive of out-front staff, everyone sharpening knives about pompous managers, and the like.
Strangely, this past week had many similar flashbacks for me.
If you have been around a bit (not necessarily all the way back to the Tulip frenzy in Holland), you have seen hype and frenzy screw things up. This whole idea of the “last fool” is pretty disgusting and has a real effect on real people. Speculators pushing up house prices 20% per year in Vegas and Miami being only the latest most extreme examples.
Tim Berners-Lee does not blog frequently, but, when he does, it always seems to be at a moment of import.
In his post tonight, I think he is with grace trying to say some things to us. He talks about buzz and hype; he tries to put silly notions about “killer apps” into the background, he emphasizes the real challenge of how a democratized knowledge environment needs to find new measures of trust, and again he talks about the importance of data and linkages.
The real stimulus, I sense, is that in the current frenzy about “semantic Web” stuff his real points are being misunderstood and misquoted.
In all this Semantic Web news, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The benefit of the Semantic Web is that data may be re-used in ways unexpected by the original publisher. That is the value added. So when a Semantic Web start-up either feeds data to others who reuse it in interesting ways, or itself uses data produced by others, then we start to see the value of each bit increased through the network effect.
So if you are a VC funder or a journalist and some project is being sold to you as a Semantic Web project, ask how it gets extra re-use of data, by people who would not normally have access to it, or in ways for which it was not originally designed. Does it use standards? Is it available in RDF? Is there a SPARQL server?
For those of us who have been there before, we fear the hype and cynicism that brought us the dot-com era.
If you feel that you are truly part of a historical transition point — as I and those who have been laborers in the garden of the semantic Web do — then we sense this same potential for an important effort to be hijacked.
The smell of money is in the air; the hype machine is in full swing; VCs are breathy and attentive. Podcasts and blogs are full of baloney. Media excesses are now observable.
One perspective might say that “perspective” will tell us that all of this is natural. We are now in the midst of some expected phase of a Moore chasm or some other predicted evolution of technology hype and development. But, let me ask this: how many times must we be a greater fool to be a lesser fool? We’ve seen this before, and the promise of the semantic Web to do more deserves more.
I wish I had Tim Berners-Lee’s grace; I do not. But, all of us can look around and gain perspective. And, that perspective is: Look for substance and value. Everything else, grab on to your wallet.