Thinking on the Web Book Review

Continuing work on my 5th competency:  Servant Leadership in Technology Facilitation and Collaboration.

Alesso, H. P., & Smith, C. F. (2009). Thinking on the Web : Berners-Lee, Gödel, and Turing. Hoboken, NJ: A. John Wiley & Sons.

This book is written for computer science students and web professionals, however even a casual reader can gain an understanding of a vision for the future of the web. The book intermingles philosophy and questions about intelligence with logic and programming languages. The book begins with a section on what is intelligence, including the big questions asked by Gödel (what is decidable), Turing (what is machine intelligence), and Berners-Lee (what is solvable). If you thought the web was just static HTML pages, think again!

The second section of the book looks at web ontology and logic. Ontology in this context is all about organizing information in a way that the machine can read it. People write “ontologies” to categorize and organize information so that software agents can use the information to make decisions. This section reviews the Resource Description Framework (RDF), Web Ontology Language (OWL), logic and inferences, and the Semantic Web Rule Language (SWRL).

The book ends with a description of how the semantic web could be used for search engines to search concepts instead of terms (p. 208), and for software to perform complex tasks for humans.

Throughout the book, the question keep arising: what is meaning and what is meaning-making? Can a machine “understand” or only follow rules? What does it mean to understand?

Interesting Concepts
The authors state that the web was designed for humans, but it should be designed for machines too (Alesso & Smith, 2009, p. 68). Does this mean rewriting all the pages on the Internet to include RDF, OWL or other semantics so the machine can read it? Or will something easier and faster be created? The limitations of the web today is that it’s not in a form that the machine can use it.

p. 178 Web services ought to be able to interact with each other and “call” each other. They can’t do it now because of interoperability issues and propiertary server technologies. They can’t do it now because the issue of trust is a huge problem.

p. 203-204 The semantic web is where software agents take on actions and perform complex tasks.

p. 232 Open standards are critical to make all this work.

p. 246 The goal is for computers to understand the web in order to do complete tasks.

Just when you think you have a good feel for what the web is and are keeping up with the tools, a radical concept such as the semantic web comes along. While most of the programming and logic in the book is over my head, I gained a glimpse of the vision for the next generation Internet. If we think the world is interconnected now, wait till the machines themselves interact with each other to do work/tasks for us!

What does this hold for e-learning online? What will be the effects for distance collaboration? How will it affect e-Ministry? The comments in the book suggest that the semantic web could “create the ability to work across distributed locations in communities of learning and enable content creation outside of the classroom” (p. 181). It could work well for “project discussion, remote working, and collaborative document creation” (p. 181). Interestingly, I see and use all these applications already with the current web. How would it change if I had my own personal software agent to do work for me? I’m not sure. Still, it’s interesting and intriguing to see what the web gurus are thinking about!

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