Featured Abstract: Feb. 23

Each Monday and Thursday, an abstract from one of the symposium participants will be posted to facilitate discussion.  We welcome your comments!

Featured Abstract: “Where Semantics Lies”

Stephen Ramsay, University of Nebraska

Should the syntax of XML have been scrapped in favor of s-expressions?  This debate, which raged for years and which occasionally reappears, has all the ring of a religious war (Windows vs. Mac, Emacs vs. Vi, big-endian vs. little endian).  In this talk, I will suggest that while in general this discussion generated more heat than light, it pointed toward an important set of issues that bears on the problem of data modeling in the humanities.  The question isn’t which syntax is superior, but rather, what does it mean for a syntax to have a semantics and (more critically) where does that semantics lie within the overall system?

I begin by claiming that our common definitions of “semantics” (within computer science) are too vague, and offer a definition loosely based on Wittgenstein’s notion of meaning as a function of use.  I then use that definition to distinguish between XML as a syntax that binds its semantics late in the overall computational process, and an s-expression-based language (like Lisp) that defines its semantics early.  I then pose the question: What would it look like if we were to imagine systems that take our present data models and bind them early?

The purpose of this exercise is neither to rekindle this debate, nor even to suggest that the conception of semantics within XML or s-expressions is flawed.  It is, rather, to reimagine our current data models as having options beyond what has been commonly offered — not just data to which we apply algorithms, but data that is itself algorithmic.

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