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The Semantics Mystery

Originally published June 7, 2007

I admit it. When it comes to semantics, I don’t just get it. You can call me misguided, an old fuddy duddy, or just plain dumb. In one way or another, perhaps all of those names fit. But at the end of the day, I just don’t understand semantics.

Let me explain.

The other day, I attended a conference on semantics. I went there with a truly open mind. I wanted to learn, and I was open to multiple interpretations and multiple opinions. What I really wanted to know was: What business problem was semantics solving? What relevance was there between semantics and the real world? What value proposition for the conduct of business was there that was being addressed by semantics?

I really tried to understand what was going on. And at the end of the day, I found nothing. Maybe it was there and I didn’t see it, but I found nothing.

One branch of semantics I looked into with great interest was ontologies. Having done some cursory work in the field in my own software development, I thought that surely here was a value proposition. But no. At least, I couldn’t find it.

Then I looked at semantic logic. Now semantic logic is quite interesting. It reminds me of a really good crossword puzzle – the kind I like to take on flights between Europe and the U.S. But while semantic logic is interesting, how it applies to any business problem is beyond me. No luck here.

Then I looked at linguistics. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of all. Linguistics has been around for years. There have been countless hours of research and countless government grants in the field of linguistics for a long time now (at least 30 years). And where is the business problem that is being addressed by linguistics? Certainly it is nowhere on a large scale. It is true that there are some small startup efforts that make use of linguistic technology. But after thirty years of research, you would think that there would be a lot more technology on the table – a lot more proof in the pudding.

Perhaps the problem is me. Perhaps semantics just doesn’t have a commercial application and never will. Perhaps the point of semantics is not to have commercial success.

Another possibility is that semantics is a technology whose time has not yet come. That is always a real possibility.

A good friend of mine has a daughter that went to a prestigious Ivy League graduate school and was working on a Ph.D. in basic theory of classical music history. I asked my friend what his daughter was going to do with such a degree after she graduated. My friend said, “Why, she is going to teach, of course.”

As this vignette demonstrates, there are some things in life where the point is not to have any commercial applicability. The point of the exercise is in going through the exercise, not achieving anything commercially viable. Perhaps semantics fits into this category.

I do think it is unfair to take undergraduates and put them through a course of semantics with the inference that they are learning a useful skill. It is because of this practice that high tech firms often choose to hire graduates from the school of business, not students with a computer science major. It is often said that when you hire graduates with a computer science background, you have to spend two years getting them to unlearn what they were taught, whereas business majors have a clean slate and an open mind.

It is easy to see where this attitude has come from.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

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