Towards a Semantic Web for Culture


  • Kim H. Veltman Maastricht McLuhan Institute


Today's semantic Web deals with meaning in a very restricted sense and offers static solutions. This is adequate for many scientific, technical purposes and for business transactions requiring machine-to-machine communication, but does not answer the needs of culture. Science, technology and business are concerned primarily with the latest findings, the state of the art, i.e. the paradigm or dominant world-view of the day. In this context, history is considered non-essential because it deals with things that are out of date. By contrast, culture faces a much larger challenge, namely, to re-present changes in ways of knowing; changing meanings in different places at a given time (synchronically) and over time (diachronically). Culture is about both objects and the commentaries on them; about a cumulative body of knowledge; about collective memory and heritage. Here, history plays a central role and older does not mean less important or less relevant. Hence, a Leonardo painting that is 400 years old, or a Greek statue that is 2500 years old, typically have richer commentaries and are often more valuable than their contemporary equivalents. In this context, the science of meaning (semantics) is necessarily much more complex than semantic primitives. A semantic Web in the cultural domain must enable us to trace how meaning and knowledge organisation have evolved historically in different cultures. The paper examines five issues to address this challenge: 1. different world-views (i.e. a shift from substance to function and from ontology to multiple ontologies); 2. developments in definitions and meaning; 3. distinctions between words and concepts; 4. new classes of relations; 5. dynamic models of knowledge organisation. These issues reveal that historical dimensions of cultural diversity in knowledge organisation are also central to classification of biological diversity. New ways are proposed of visualizing knowledge using a time/space horizon to distinguish between universals and particulars. It is suggested that new visualization methods make possible a history of questions as well as of answers, thus enabling dynamic access to cultural and historical dimensions of knowledge. Unlike earlier media, which were limited to recording factual dimensions of collective memory, digital media enable us to explore theories, ways of perceiving, ways of knowing; to enter into other mindsets and world-views and thus to attain novel insights and new levels of tolerance. Some practical consequences are outlined.