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Of documents, data and "semantic energy" - The Transducer

Of documents, data and “semantic energy”

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.

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