The Semantic Advantage

September 16, 2009

Using circles and arrows

Many “semantic” practices and applications — including “brainstorming” and construction of computer ontologies — involve the use of (a) circles or other symbols (“nodes”) to represent concepts or ideas and (b) arrows (connecting arcs or “edges”) to represent the relationships among the concepts or ideas.

(Tim Berners-Lee uses the phrase “circles and arrows” in at least one of his papers: “The Semantic Web starts as a simple circles-and-arrows diagram relating things, which slowly expands and coalesces to become global and vast.” in “The Semantic Web lifts off” by Tim Berners-Lee and Eric Miller. ERCIM News, No. 51, October 2002. His original vision is for metadata for documents.)

The graphic representation is not the tool itself in some cases, but a method of helping users visualize and/or manipulate complex, abstract data that is difficult for the average human to understand quickly — for example, RDF expressed in XML.

Mapping arguments on a whiteboard in support of decision making is a common practice in many meetings. (But integrating those representations into subsequent discussions is almost always a challenge.)

We need a much better and more widely usable set of tools for such purposes, but just applying current, limited tools is useful in its own right. One thing you definitely begin to understand as you try to deconstruct your arguments into meaning — especially when using graphical tools for that purpose — is that the process itself is useful in getting to meaning.

The process is useful in exposing what is tangential, peripheral or simply irrelevant. You tend to create and refine elemental, focussed, unambiguous assertions that can be verified as true or debunked.

You certainly expose conditions and constraints that apply to those assertions. Sweeping generalizations quickly become far less general … but often more useful. And you find that most of what you have written is not part of the core meaning that you want to represent and transfer.

That process, however, is still not easy. And you need to have a set of guidelines to keep yourself on track.

I will explore some of the tools and issues in this area in future posts.



  1. Sometime you might want to hear a tale about a semantic network dbms that was developed by IBM in the ’70’s, and that I encountered ’80’s as a customer, and that I influenced the IBM team to created some interfaces like balls and sticks, and dynamically generated widgets (scrolling lists, etc.) that reformatted the screen based on the data structure being navigated. Me liked it!

    Comment by Doug McDavid — October 23, 2009 @ 12:07 pm | Reply

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