The Semantic Advantage

November 27, 2007

Semantic technologies and hypertext

Filed under: hypertext,semantic technology — Phil Murray @ 3:45 pm
Tags: ,

I suspect that if you’re interested in semantic technologies, there’s a good chance that you go back a ways in hypertext. Some of you even know that “hypertext” didn’t start with the World Wide Web.

My interest in hypertext began in 1988, a year or so after the watershed event of the community — the Hypertext 87 workshop at Chapel Hill. That exposes my age a bit, but Andries van Dam’s Hypertext 87 Keynote Address, makes it clear that I’m a relative newbie. Van Dam observes in his keynote, “I’m a Johnny-come-lately to hypertext: I didn’t get started until 1967 …”

The hypertext pioneers I met in the ’80s and ’90s were immensely talented and just downright interesting to be with. And I suspect that many of them have strongly influenced — yea, verily, are still strongly influencing — the still-emerging domain of semantic technologies.

I’d like to begin the process of finding out where they are now … and how what they did contributed to the way we work now.

Let me start with Bob Glushko, who recently co-authored Document Engineering (MIT Press, 2005) with Tim McGrath. Bob was closely associated with one of the more successful commercial pre-Web hypertext systems — Electronic Book Technologies’ DynaText application.

More recently, Bob can lay claim to first use of the term semantic literacy:

We emphasize “computer literacy” (desktop applications and web surfing) but I’ve never heard anyone fret about how poorly people name and define the things and concepts that their computer applications capture and process for them, which seems more important to me. We need “semantic literacy” or maybe even “ontological literacy” but maybe we don’t teach it because it is too hard to explain what they mean.

Amen to that. (But I am envious that Bob came up with the term first.)

Hypertext seems to have infected Bob and many others, including myself, with a compulsion to solve the core problem of the Information Age: Finding useful knowledge in an ocean of information.

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