Kurt Cagle wrote an excellent essay on semantics, Some Thoughts on Semantics.
He talks about the technologies associated with the building of the semantic web, and how each technology builds on the previous to provide greater degrees of accuracy. RDF can be used to make assertions and ontologies can be used to ensure the accuracy and validity of such assertions, and eventually other heuristics can be discerned and codified leading to greater accuracy in both search and discovery. This is the good that we all seek. However, as we writes, it is also the Sword of Damocles: the threat of being undone by the very systems we seek fervently to create:
Of course, this also raises some very disturbing questions about the ethics of using such systems, something I think as a society we are woefully inadequately prepared for. If a murder is committed and the use of an inferential engine can make a strong circumstantial case that a given person is the guilty party, is the use of such an engine admissible as evidence? If the performance of a query implicates a politician in a scandal inadvertently, can a news organization use this information to bring down that politician – can his opponents? Is it ethical to use such a tool to find not only terrorists, but those people who may become terrorists but aren’t at this point? The benefits of such systems are obvious, but just as the use of search engines is raising whole new levels of questions about the ethics of such search, so too will inference engines change the nature of how we interact with one another.
Semantics, as S.I. Hayakawa himself indicated, is a duel edged sword…it underlies the very nature of communication and what it means to be intelligent, yet when semantics is codified and computerized, it also takes meaning and turns it into a manipulatable construct that can be used for good or ill. We have taken philosophy and turned it into engineering …
It is ever so, in science and technology both, to explore such issues after the Big Boom rather than before.