The Biggest Problem with Technology
Posted on December 8th, 2008 by Richard
The biggest problem with technology is complexity. A technology is only as valuable as its ability to be used to provide value. When any technology is too complex it creates barriers to use. Even if a technology has great value, it will see little interest if it’s too complex. And even if the value of the technology is greater than, or commensurate with, its complexity, the lack of use (aka adoption) will be apparent. There may be a general lack of interest to a technology, however if interest is high, and adoption is low, there’s a high probability that complexity is the cause. This can be summed up in a simple equation:
technology adoption is inversely proportional to its complexity / unit value
One technology that fits this complexity equation is the Semantic Web. If you look at the initiatives such as standards, notations, reference implementations, technologies, and even products, a few obvious observations can be made:
- Most of the “members” of the Semantic Web community are in Universities, working in R&D labs for commercial companies or governments or in high-tech fields such as bio-tech.
- Much of the work is designed for and by individual researchers and users. From what I’ve found, very little work has been done to support multi-threading, concurrency or even performance at Web scale – that is an exercise for the user. Perhaps commercial products provide this, but they are too costly and their trial versions are insufficient time-wise if you have a day job and a life or capability-wise if you want to do something slightly complex.
- Much of the work to date is theoretical, however there are some excellent examples of Semantic Web solutions. Unfortunately, these real examples are too complex and esoteric for mainstream extrapolation, but it does prove that given sufficient motivation one can make the Semantic Web real (but not really practical for most. Which brings us back to the complexity equation above).
- Risk. If you have sufficient time and/or resources to develop Semantic Web solutions, you can. Most can’t; or won’t due to Risk. The value of the solution is often exceeded by the risk (actual or perceived). Given the Risk (and cost due to complexity), most companies would choose to invest in solutions that use mainstream (“proven success in the market”) technology
But what if you really want, need or could use what the Semantic Web promises and avoid the complexity equation?
The good news is: you can. Faced with the challenge, promise and opportunity of semantic technology, a Web community formed to address practical use of semantics. Perhaps not intentionally, as they had a more practical need and semantics could have been an implicit byproduct of their efforts. Using available standards and tools (e.g., HTTP, HTML, XML, XHTML, RSS, Atom,…), they created a set of agreed conventions and a common, collaborative model. The alternative would be to create formal standards bodies, and have expensive meetings around the world, and develop rigorous, mathematically sound models, structures, etc. But, really, who has time for all that? What, with all the real work that needs to be done?!
Now this community is open to anyone to participate, suggest, recommend, discuss and contribute ideas. The conventions are agreed, yet are still extensible. Best of all, using the set of available standards and technologies already available, they could include this metadata information in their current Web content where others could discover it, those who did not care to use it could simply ignore it and everything still works as it should! Who is this community that formed the essence of the lower case “semantic web” (vs. the upper case, ivory tower “Semantic Web”)? Why its microformats!
Embedding and including meta-information in content to provide basic, but potentially very rich, meaning in content on the Web was a pragmatists dream. This pragmatic, practical approach to add structured semantics to Web content in a manner accessible to a wide range of Web practitioners at many levels, was at the opposite end compared to the approach of the formal Semantic Web.
While the big R&D shops, universities and others with deep pockets continued their theoretical modeling and implementation exercises of the Semantic Web in their Ivory Towers; bloggers, wikimasters, webmasters and other denizens of the Web began to structure, define, add and share meta information using the common tools at hand to create something new, practical and usable. Since microformats are made of very basic components of the Web (and Web 2.0), they are readily understood by the many and varied denizens of the Web from PhDs to corporate developers to Junior High kids who can put them to use in whatever context they require.
In essence, the upper-case Semantic Web has found itself circumvented by the defacto conventions (still not standards) of the lower-case semantic web used by many. Again, simplicity has trumped complexity in the utilization of technology, in this case, semantic technology.
Even if the Semantic Web is better, richer, fuller, rigorous, etc., than the semantic web, simplicity will usually win over complexity. In this context, winning is really widespread use. Widespread use infuses more content throughout the long tail of the Web with semantics through simple meta-information, which in turn leads to more meaning in Web content. With the increase in meaning in Web content, we have a richer set of meaning with which to work in the next round of Web content creation and distribution. This is recursive, as more semantic content leads to more meaning, which leads to more semantic content…
Peace.adoption, complexity, HTML, Metadata, microformats, RSS, Semantic Web, Technology, technology adoption, technology complexity, Web 2.0, XHTML, XML