November 25, 2003
The Root of the Problem
Many of the talks I had in Sanibel were about our current social problems: what they are, why they persist, what can be done. I loved having so many Europeans to talk with, since I find them to be more open, more personal, more informed about world events than many Americans, particularly in professional settings. It might seem odd to have a whole lotta philosophizing going on at a technical conference, but I was thrilled by it. As technologists, we have more power to change things than often we realize. With something as pervasive and as influential as the Semantic Web promises to be, I feel it’s important to consider its potential to improve things, to help ease the pain of ourselves and our neighbors.
You don’t have to look very hard to find pain in our world. Examples abound. Diseased drinking water in developing countries is killing hundreds of children an hour, all of it preventable. In the past year, 2.4 million people died from AIDs in sub-Saharan Africa, bringing the number of orphaned children there to 11 million. Each year, we lose another 78 million acres of rainforest in the world, which is bigger than the area of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, and Indiana combined (bigger than Poland) which also results in the extinction of an estimated 50,000 species of plant and animal each year. Closer to home, more than 40,000 people are killed each year in American car accidents. Just as many die from gunshot wounds.
When most of us hear such stats, we shrug them off as sad but out of our control. Many think, “Not my problem,” while the rest will say, “What good could I possibly do?” as they send their check to Greenpeace. This feeling of being overwhelmed by it all, this well-intentioned apathy, is natural and understandable, but it’s the root of the real problem. We can’t care about all of it. It’s just too much to keep track of. The media knows this, so it packages each problem into pro vs. con, us vs. them, thereby polarizing the complexity, the interconnectedness, of our problems into something easier to digest. Ultimately, this simplification affects all of us. Our mental muscles atrophy, and it becomes easier to say, “That’s depressing” and change the channel.
But even when we’re motivated and aware, our efforts are often in vain because we’re only working on one piece of the puzzle. We make an effort to mend something over here and sure enough, the tide surges in behind with an even bigger problem. We talk the talk with all who’ll listen, pacing daily with our portable phones, but in the end we’re just exhausting ourselves. It’s like some sick game of Wack-A-Mole, with real hurt and real need popping up over and over. Each time, we sense the situation and brace ourselves for battle, then bop the sucker down with whatever passion and talent we can muster at the time, then up comes another… an endless fruitless game that leaves us weary of the world.
What we need, as Fritjof Capra says, is to solve all of it, all at once. To do this, we need a new vision of the world, a more interconnected view. I believe this will be the real legacy of the Semantic Web. It’ll give us new eyes. We’ll be better able to see the surrounding context of the issues in our daily life.
And it’ll make tons of money, and it’ll be a lot of fun, and it’ll make our worklife more efficient…. but my thought’s remain with the mother watching her child die from malaria simply because we can’t get the wealth of America to her in time, because most of us over here don’t even know there’s a problem.
It may be a reach to say that RDF and ontologies can help save that child’s life, but ultimately, I think they will. You see, links mean connection, and connection means caring, and caring means we’ll help if we can. There’s more than enough money and people and time to solve these problems. We’ve just gotta want to, and now, honestly, on balance, we don’t.
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