The new cartographers
(Why would we ‘do’ Linked Data?)
Once apon a time, I met a woman who changed my life. She’s a tiny, bright eyed woman. Full of sprite, eyes like shiny buttons, a smile that makes you feel safe and warm and loved.
She was incredible to me because she took my world and turned it on it’s head. Where I had been struggling about in the weeds of complexity and computer systems not quite built to meet what I needed, of dealing with constant change and hoping like hell that I had remembered all the things I needed to remember and hoping like hell that the people around me did too, she took this risk, this complexity, and made it instantly knowable. What magic was this? Was she truly a sprite?
All new ideas take time to catch on.
Consider cartography- the earliest known maps are 14,500 years old. But it was not until a mathematician ( Eratosthenes) calculated the circumference of the Earth that maps truly came into their own, allowing generations of people who came after to know where they were and to see where they were going.*
Know this: This moment you are in, it is one generations to come will record. What happens next is absolutely up to you.
In the many conversations that have followed between my sprite friend and I, I’ve come to several understandings about this moment we’re in. Cartography wasn’t simply: one moment we’re drawing meaningless shapes and then the next suddenly changed by the fact we could pinpoint where we were on the Earth. No, it was discovering how to draw a map as opposed to painting a landscape. It was understanding the stars. It was knowing the Earth was round not flat. It was knowing that there was more there than we could ever have imagined on our own.
Change is a thousand drips until the rock is sheered straight from the cliff. You wouldn’t know that, would you? We’re spun a kind of a fairy tale when it comes to the inventions that have changed our lives. That we bumble along until ‘ta-da!’ the world is changed in a moment.
We know Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web. But what about all the things that had to exist first in order for him to arrive at that moment? The existence of hypertext. The capacity for us to transmit information from one computer to another via a network. All the hardware. Lots of other things I’ll never be able to understand. Decades of work, by many people, long before.
The goal has always been the augmentation of our limited human brains. Not the internet itself, but what it does for humankind.
More than 20 years ago, Sir Tim had another idea, one which moves the internet beyond a collection of parcels of information. Like a mother gently shaking her child awake at the end of a long journey, I want to gently shake you awake and say, ‘We’re here now’.
Linked Data is the idea that we can know ourselves, that we can use computers to help us know all the things we need to know, to have them to hand, and not need to rely on my failing memory, or your memory, good as I’m sure it is. We’re struggling right now I think, to have the answers, to be able to make decisions and know for sure there’s nothing we forgot. Nothing someone else would know that we need to know, except for the fact that we don’t know to ask them.
Linked Data is the idea that we can map the stars of our minds and draw new knowledges from what we find.
Linked Data is the birth of a new kind of cognition for our machine made friends. It isn’t to be feared- it is still less than even a tiny baby is born with in terms of our human capacity for categorising and learning the relationships between things.
Linked Data is the idea that our existences are similar enough that there will be times we will all agree that a hat is a hat and a star a star. There’s lots of semantics in there of course, but if we can teach a child that a star is a star and una stella, and a Red Giant Star all at once, then we can do this. Indeed, we do already. We exchange data automatically, we use ontologies every day, we create URIs and sometimes we even use PIDs. We have technologies now to make all this stuff do things, really do things and deliver things. That’s why the time is now. If you don’t take the leap, someone else will, and it will be your world they are redefining. If there was ever a moment to feel the fear and find courage, it is now.
That woman who changed my life? She’s just one of thousands of people working hard all over the world. In that, I am glad to say, that there are lion hearts out there, bold and unbowed (thank you, you know who you are, and I’m pleased to say, too many to list). It is these special people, men and women and everything in between, who keep me looking to tomorrow and what lies beyond. For we inch ever closer to changing the world, to redefining our understanding of who we are in the world, and our capacity to change it. And that right there, is the point for me.
We sit in a strange equilibrium of change. Messing about in the weeds and documenting, categorising and tagging each and every one of those weeds to make them known. To make managing the weeds possible. And looking to the deep night sky and all the stars and knowing there’s a better way to know the weeds than looking at the stars, than looking at the weeds.
*I don’t know much about cartography and was terrible at geography at school, so much of what I’ve said can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_cartography#Early_modern_cartography I can tell you my favourite memory is flying in the dark over a desert and seeing little villages like glowing spider’s webs scattered across the darkness. Geography as I know it outside of school is a kind of poetry of our humanness. After all, it is ourselves we are searching for in the landscape, isn’t it?