Media @ McGill

Neal Thomas | Semantic Web, Semiotic Web: Themes for a Postmetaphysical Informatics

Submitted by hive on

The internet has been provoking a sea change in what computers are for, as a technology: how they organize interactions with the material world, and how they inscribe modes of understanding. In addressing this broad change, my dissertation project combines media theory, the philosophy of technology, and both analytic and continental metaphysics, in a critique of three major social computing interfaces.

Over time there has been a shift from using computers in their capacity to calculate, sort and process information, to using them for the purposes of communicating digital information to each other. This shift has been a slow but steady move towards social computing. Over the past few decades, software design has moved from an analytic model of human-computer interaction (HCI), to one that more explicitly acknowledges the social, or human-computer-human interaction in informational practices. Recent theory in social computing suggests that meaning should emerge from the reciprocality of action and understanding, or what ethnomethodology calls accountability. This gradual commitment made in the design of recent information systems figures as an important background for this project.

The first chapter is now complete; it laid out the entire framework for the project in detail. The central concern for the opening chapter was to introduce three case studies - the XML/RDF markup schema, Google's PageRank algorithm, and shared metadata services like and - and to explain how each will be interrogated for its discursive-material relationship to social reason. It set up themes of medium, materiality, meaning and metaphysics in support of the work to follow. It detailed how the software designs will be examined in subsequent chapters: first for their procedural-rational principles of operation, and then for the ways that those principles generate a fluid, interactive system of meaning-exchange online, through the formation of semantic ‘units' of operation.

Chapters two, three and four will rely on this framework to draw out the social-communicative and rational implications for each case. My concern will be to determine how each generates a particular formal-analytic exemplar for discourse in network society, through the formation of these semantic units. I will be asking: How does each particular ordering principle shape collective knowledge practices online? How do these technologies construct a digital-discursive relationship to information, through various classificatory affordances?

To speak in the abstract, social computing practices, combined with networked protocols, now offer a subtle set of tools for dynamically and flexibly structuring the flow of content as nodal networks of meaning-making, with meaning understood as sets of generic, semantic units; objects of information that shuttle back and forth over the net as a decentralized, digital medium. Where TCP/IP and the DNS traffic in the more basic units of addressed packets and destination servers at the level of transport, social computing increasingly traffics in a register closer to discourse: the units are those of personal identity, categorial species/genus relations, citational links, and digital files. In a strong sense the units are like individual database records. But they are records whose defining ordering schema is now stored and modified publicly online, and also partly embedded into the record itself, so as to be more easily distributed. This more flexible approach to information-objects has been made possible by a set of novel interfaces, enabling the automation of semantic referentiality, or networked, machine-read meaning. They work in different ways. Sometimes machine-readable meaning gets encoded directly by human actors, into or on top of digital documents and web pages - here think of markup practices like HTML and XML, or the tagging practices for photos at Other times, meaning is encoded more obliquely through automated processes, extracted algorithmically by indexing the web, and parsing text in specialized, technical ways, like Google's PageRank. Each different process operates with a particular logic, yielding different outcomes of significance. What they share under the umbrella of social computing is that units or nodes of information have become far more fluidly relational and communicative on the network, in an overall flattened, decentralized structure. Think of the internet as slowly moving from pockets of individual databases, each with their own private schemes that never encounter one another, to an enormous open meta-database of virtual, semantic objects, which get marked up and queried by different actors as pragmatically necessary. The initial push to interconnect computers through the network form has given way to a second-order intellectual reorientation of data structures, where even laptop and desktop operating systems are changing so that they come to operate according to these networked-object principles, at far deeper levels.

The research laid out here focuses on opening up some big, underlying philosophical questions about these developments. It binds together different elements of recent humanities research into software and social computing by asking after an essential supervening tension: one between socially informed meaning - which is plural, dynamic and emergent - and software-based representational logic, which impresses discrete identity onto the buzz of materialized meaning, through technically encoded disambiguation. In other words, this is a tension constantly reconciled in different ways at the technical level, between ambiguity in the lifeworld and computability in formal systems.

Having sought out the relationship to social-collective reason fostered by each interface, I will construct chapter five as a broad and thorough philosophical analysis of all three. It will be focused squarely on the metaphysical implications of social computing. On the one hand, the discussion will involve bedrock notions of analyticity and symbolic logic at work in computing. These are located in the tradition of what I am calling formal ontology: Kant, Russell, Frege and the logical positivists. On the other hand, the cases will also be read through Heidegger, Habermas and Deleuze, relying on their respective involvements in a loosely-defined ‘postmetaphysical' position, which is centered in social and differential ontology.

I am laying out an argument about current capacities for rendering discrete identity, or semantic ‘thingness' in social software, by describing the ways that web protocols and processes ‘make discrete' informationally in the contemporary moment. These are functional rules in software, imposed to transduce computable units from out of social-discursive meaning. Through the application of analytical and logical principles, a certain relationship to information and knowledge-productive practices is constructed in each design, and I will argue that this naturally bears on the focus and mode of experiencing information that ‘comes out the other end,' in their daily use. In general, I am wondering how formal-predicative structures of judgment embedded in code intersect with the social-discursive judgment of people.

At a broader level, my assumptions and motivations for asking the question can be located in philosopher Andrew Feenberg's critique of rationality, and specifically his call for a more democratic rationality. He writes that "...the most important means of assuring more democratic technical representation remains transformation of the technical codes and the educational process through which they are inculcated." Certainly this type of activity goes on regularly at the level of W3C meetings, and in the open source movement, in struggles with and against other actors over the future implementation of network interfaces, structures and protocols. But this particular project operates at a more hypothetical level of metaphysical argumentation, in asking whether the organized circulation of semantic units online could be radically reconceived. How might semantic units be understood as social-rational ‘evental beings', in ways amenable to the deliberations of a democratic network society? Through some designed combination of its capacities to mediate, format and communicate, could the internet support more radically social-ontological processes?


Dourish, P. (2001). Where the action is : the foundations of embodied interaction. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press.
Feenberg, A. (1999). Questioning technology. London ; New York: Routledge.