Jun 17, 2008

Professor Michael Buckland Recalls Information Pioneer Paul Otlet

From the New York Times
June 17, 2008

The Web Time Forgot
By Alex Wright

Mons, Belgium — On a fog-drizzled Monday afternoon, this fading medieval city feels like a forgotten place. Apart from the obligatory Gothic cathedral, there is not much to see here except for a tiny storefront museum called the Mundaneum, tucked down a narrow street in the northeast corner of town. It feels like a fittingly secluded home for the legacy of one of technology’s lost pioneers: Paul Otlet.

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or "electric telescopes," as he called them) that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a "réseau," which might be translated as "network" — or arguably, "web."...

Although Otlet’s proto-Web relied on a patchwork of analog technologies like index cards and telegraph machines, it nonetheless anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web....

Some scholars believe Otlet also foresaw something like the Semantic Web, the emerging framework for subject-centric computing that has been gaining traction among computer scientists.... Like the Semantic Web, the Mundaneum aspired not just to draw static links between documents, but also to map out conceptual relationships between facts and ideas. "The Semantic Web is rather Otlet-ish," said Michael Buckland, a professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.

Critics of the Semantic Web say it relies too heavily on expert programmers to create ontologies (formalized descriptions of concepts and relationships) that will let computers exchange data with one another more easily. The Semantic Web "may be useful, but it is bound to fail," Dr. Buckland said, adding, “It doesn’t scale because nobody will provide enough labor to build it." ...


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October 4, 2016