Gardner Campbell has recently written a couple of posts on the opposition between “documents” and “data.” I think this is actually a very profound topic that gets at the heart of what is at stake in academic technology, both philosophically and technically, and the approach we take to Gardner’s concerns reveal a great deal about what we think the goals of academic computing are. Regarding the technical issues, I’ve presented a couple of talks on the topic which you can see here, here and here. In this post I want to say something about the philosophical dimension.
I think the document/data opposition is really about the difference between the structure of the structuralists and the discourse of the hermeneuticists, and therefore carries all the weight of that discussion. As an anthropologist, I was steeped in the structuralism of Levi-Strauss (and the post-structuralism of Sahlins), but I discovered on my own (and with the help of the incomparable Larry Bouchard) the wonderfully constructive criticisms of structuralism by Paul Ricoeur. I think Gardner echoes Ricoeur’s concerns when he expresses a wariness toward the RDF-world of the Semantic Web, versus the more discursive world of Web 2.0. But I also think Ricouer opens the way for thinking about the relationship between the two approaches, as two moments in an interpretive arc that traverses the “world” of the ontological and the always situated domain of discourse, the event within which meaning is not merely a reproduction of a prior structure, but an achieved social reality. I think that is something like what Gardner is getting at when he speaks of the “semantic energies” of the two approaches.