The Semantic Advantage

April 10, 2009

An economy of meaning. Or, why “semantics” is ugly but important.

Filed under: semantic technology — Phil Murray @ 8:32 pm

An economy of meaning? Yep. And I mean that explicitly in the sense of economic competitiveness and socio-economic solutions that pay direct attention to meaning. Not information.

Of course, we all rely on information. Always will. But we can’t rely on information the way we once did. We might be proud of our bookshelves or our long lists of browser bookmarks, but they’re decreasingly effective in helping us solve our problems. It’s not our fault. It’s the fault of information itself. There’s just too much to handle and apply.

That is, in part, the message of the Semantic Web. And my use of the phrase an economy of meaning is closest perhaps to Ilkka Tuomi’s use of the phrase Towards the New Economy of Meaning in his presentation, “Networks of Innovation”, which focuses on new socially-constructed forms of innovation.

But a “semantic perspective” is much more than that. It’s more than just innovation. It’s not just about controlling costs. It’s about survival. It is the reason, for example, that progress in providing healthcare has ground to a halt, even slipping backward at times, in spite of rapid advances in medical knowledge and treatment technology and in spite of massive financial resources.

Together with former associates at the Center for Semantic Excellence (CSE), I have been evaluating the causes of the problems in healthcare in the United States for many months — from multiple perspectives. But it got personal recently when my wife underwent hip-replacement surgery.

  • In the pre-op phase, we experienced a surgical team that operated with both efficiency and humanity … while surrounded by dozens of different technologies. (I misplaced my wife’s cane because I tried to put it someplace in that maze of technologies where people wouldn’t trip over it.) Lots of direct personal contact.
  • On the recovery floor, it was often quite different. The hallways were crowded with what my wife (a medical professional herself) refers to as “COWs” — Computers on Wheels — and other technologies. The staff spent a lot of time at those laptops. Caregivers are, of necessity these days, at the beck and call of what CSE member Tom Bigda-Peyton pointedly refers to as “people not in the room.”

    My personal impression was that the less-competent and less-caring members of that staff were far more concerned with what those screens demanded of them than what their patients (and their families) asked of them. It had little to do with inadequate staffing. There seemed to be an abundance of personnel. That can be deceiving, of course, but both minor requests (a blanket for the chilled elderly patient in the next bed) and important treatment concerns went unaddressed for  far longer than seemed reasonable. The staff ignored our surgeon’s standard practices for pain management.

  • At home, the first 45-minute visit by a physical therapist was occupied almost exclusively by notetaking … on yet another laptop. Not much therapy. A technician arrived to draw blood that would be used to check levels of Coumadin, a blood-thinning agent vital to safe recovery in such invasive surgical procedures. The results were available in a few hours to the doctor’s staff, but they seemed in no hurry to report those results — and deliver any changes in dosage — even with a long weekend coming up. In fact, the staff seemed rather clueless about the importance of correct and timely adjustments of the medication.

Nothing went wrong. My wife is recovering much more rapidly than expected. The surgeon did his job very well. And neither my wife nor I would want to go back to pre-technology medicine.

What’s troubling here is less the current state of care than the warning signs of problems to come: the demands of capturing information, demands that distract from properly interpreting that information and delivering the service itself; the growing role of intermediaries who have no stake in how well that service is provided (in particular, those “people not in the room”); and the continuing growth in costs, even as technology is applied successfully to specific requirements.

Those troubles are hardly limited to healthcare. And the only way to solve them is to understand how we have created, transferred, and applied meaning in these situations in the past … and how we must do so in a world now dominated by information.

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