The Politics of Schemas: Part 2
February 7, 2001
In the first part of this essay, I argued that the Semantic Web will be political because schemas, one of its foundational parts, are essentially political. I claimed schemas are political if they reflect the interests of the institutions that produce them, and they formalize an understanding of strongly or weakly contested world-chunks. Schemas are political when they shut out some interests while serving others, and when they take positions on contested questions and issues.
In this final part, I consider the relevance of political schemas to the XML community and suggest some avenues of further research and consideration.
XML is Not Immune
You may find yourself agreeing that schemas are political but wondering, nevertheless, what it has to do with XML practitioners or with XML itself. XML is, however, a universal data format. If we take the universal claims made about XML seriously, professional schema-makers must ask whether some interests and views of contested concepts might be excluded, perhaps systematically, from schema-making and from schemas; whether such exclusion is socially beneficial or harmful; and, if harmful, what should be done about it.
From the early days of XML's development there's been talk about vendor neutrality, interoperability, and universality. Such talk was part of SGML's appeal since the mid-70s and rightly so. Today that talk fails regularly to take account of politics. XML advocacy often ignores the fact that schemas may be vendor neutral but cannot be interest neutral; that schemas may be universally accessible but formalize a strongly contested understanding of a vital part of the world; or that schemas may distort or impede some people's interactions with the world in ways they find inequitable or inappropriate.
XML schemas are often placed in the public domain and available for anyone's royalty-free use (subject obviously to uncommon levels of knowledge and expertise) -- a state of affairs clearly preferable to proprietary alternatives. But is it enough? What good does it do that one can use, even modify a de facto standard schema, royalty free, when the schema reflects interests inimical to one's own, formalizes an understanding of the world one strongly contests, and is used in a widely deployed, vital Semantic Web application that has no serious competitor? What good does it do to modify the schema to reflect one's own interests and understandings if doing so renders it unusable?
More crucially, what good will a public domain schema do for people, relying on a Semantic Web application to mediate to them a world-chunk, if it does so in a way inimical to their own best interests? They can perhaps stop using it. But no one, aiming to build as ambitiously as the Semantic Web requires, can be indifferent to people eager to use it but choosing not to because it disdains or ignores or disadvantages them.
That a schema is in the public domain or royalty free is largely irrelevant to almost everyone who's not an XML practitioner. XML vendor neutrality may be true but, in a wider context, irrelevant. What really matters socially is the equitable and fair disposition of interests, understandings, and power. It's crucial that some computer experts, especially XML technologists, think about questions beyond vendor neutrality. If XML practitioners with the requisite expertise, knowledge, and curiosity don't think about them, who can and will?
The limits of effective change
Political schemas are conceptually independent of most considerations otherwise relevant to schema-making. The political nature of schemas is independent of the languages in which they are expressed. A political schema will be no less or more political when expressed in XML, SGML, UML, Java classes, RDBMS systems, symbolic logic, or natural language. It follows, then, that the political nature of schemas is conceptually independent of the particular XML applications used to declare them formally, whether DTD, W3C XML Schema Definition Language, RELAX, Schematron, TREX, etc.
Political schemas are also conceptually independent of political perspective. They are not political only if one holds a particular assemblage of political views. Schemas are essentially political because of the way the world is and the way people are. One might make this point another way by saying that the political nature of schemas is conceptually independent of the answers one gives either to the concrete political questions of one's historical situation or to the enduring questions of political philosophy.
The political nature of schemas is conceptually independent of the Semantic Web itself. Any technology that uses schemas, as described in Part One, is a concern for those of its users whose interests and understandings are at odds with those of the institutions that control it. The Semantic Web is intended to mediate to its users a chunk of the world. Recall the Web-based banking application from Part One: it mediates a part of the world, a bank account, to its users such that some state changes in the Web application cause side effects in the real world. It is in that mediation, based on machine representations of the world, and thus an understanding of what the world is like, that the political nature of schemas is especially troublesome. Thus, while I claim that the pitfalls of political schemas are largely independent of the Semantic Web, the more robust and the more strongly mediative the Semantic Web becomes, the more likely it will be that some of its users will find their interests and understandings effectively shut out.
There is a range of appropriate responses to all this, but modifications of XML technology, of specifications, of encoding formats, of political persuasions are not included in that range. The political nature of schemas cannot be avoided by taking up a different political viewpoint or by using one set of conventions for formally expressing a schema rather than another set.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Computer experts have a professional responsibility -- to say nothing of their responsibilities as citizens and as human persons -- to "take a pro-active public role in promoting societally beneficial uses of computers and discouraging harmful ones" (CPSR 2000). Two questions follow from this professional responsibility. First, to what extent has the XML community thought seriously about the responsibility to distinguish benefit from harm? Second, to what extent have analytical tools necessary to doing so been developed? The urgency of the situation is signaled by the magnitude and direction of two vectors of technological change -- the first, to put onto the Web everything that can be; the second, to schematize everything on the Web that can be. Computer experts cannot presume every effect of such far-reaching change is or will be benign or felicitous. What can we do to respond appropriately to the political nature of schemas? In what remains I suggest where we might go from here.
The XML development community -- especially academic researchers and independent developers situated outside large corporations -- should think and talk explicitly about politics and XML technology, particularly the Semantic Web. The issues are too important, the technology too complex, to leave such thinking to others alone. Managers, marketers, politicians have a role, but not the role of XML developers. The conversation should include technically savvy specialists in fields like ethics, philosophy, and law. Those who think very deeply about schemas and about the Semantic Web must consider how competing interests and contestedness matter to the creation and use of schemas.
There are irreconcilable interests and strongly contested concepts central to both the political traditions of Western democratic societies and to schemas already made, being made, or planned. Privacy is one such concept. Economic development, censorship and content labeling, informed civic participation, education, natural resource usage, financial information, the relation of doctor and patient are others. The list is long and varied; and it grows longer and more varied every day. Schema-makers need to come to theoretical and practical terms with the likelihood of there never being widespread agreement among the relevant parties about the contested meanings and competing interests of these and other aspects of public, common life.
Part of coming to terms with this likelihood is theorizing about the treatment and adjudication of competing schemas, including those which may be in principle irreconcilable and those that may not be. Such work is hard for human beings. No one seriously claims that machines will ever do this work for us. We have to face, then, a schema forking problem: the existence of multiple, irreconcilable schemas of the same (or overlapping) world-chunks. I can't think of any good reasons why this won't or shouldn't happen. It's rational for people (or, better, institutions) to consider forking a schema when the standard one doesn't serve or even harms their interests. While I'm certain that it will and in some cases should happen, I am not certain how or whether future versions of the Web can be developed to deal usefully with the fact of multiple, irreconcilable schemas. I suspect that these issues will be subject ultimately to resolution by non-technical, social mechanisms, that is, by legislatures and courts. Computer experts need to think hard and clearly about the politics of schemas so that, when called upon, they have something useful and responsible to say to legislators, judges and juries, oversight committees, etc.
What can be done?
First. Schemas are either reconcilable or not. When not reconcilable, we must know how to respond justly and equitably; that is, how to deal with multiple irreconcilable schemas, both technically and in terms of policy (which is better when attuned to technical realities than when not). When reconcilable, some form of provisional accommodation will either be practical or not. Attention must be given to the ways in which such accommodation is possible. We need to know, in short, what accommodations are technically feasible before technically impossible or impractical accommodations are established by courts or legislatures. Where a schema concerns competing interests and weakly contested concepts, there may be rational hope that an equitable, just resolution is possible; where it concerns strongly or essentially contested concepts, and so there is little or no possibility of resolution, we must find ways to proceed justly and equitably.
Second. Schema making should be made vastly more open to all those parties whose interests are at stake. "Open" means in this context open to democratic participation, that is, participation by democratic institutions and their representatives. There is every reason for the institutions that create schemas to invite technically competent representatives of all interested parties to participate in appropriate ways. Judging from my informal (but not cursory) surveys of schema projects over the past two years this happens infrequently and piecemeal. (But it can often be very difficult to judge how significantly open a schema project is from publicly available information.)
Democratic, public participation will tend to make schemas more responsive to multiple interests, more equitable as to whether or how contested concepts are handled. It won't make them less political; it may tend to make them more just. But the present situation, in which schemas are said to be open but aren't in fact very open to input from others, is intolerable, a point that cannot be overstressed. (In one sense there being a fissure between what is said about schema-making and what is true of schema-making is worse than if no one ever claimed schemas were open at all.) The social and institutional process by which public schemas are made must become more democratic and egalitarian than it presently is. Leaving schema-making to the suspect vagaries of the market is no substitute for serious democratic participation in the process itself.
Third. Democratic and civil institutions need to give serious attention to funding interdisciplinary research in this area. Computer experts need experts from other domains to join them in collaborative work on these issues. Such research is best funded by institutions whose purpose is to serve the public interest, broadly conceived: universities, NGOs, institutes of public policy, governmental research funding bodies like the National Science Foundation, etc. For example, one project that needs to be funded is a comprehensive survey of public schema projects. Having empirical data in hand about the degrees to which public schemas are significantly open would be a valuable baseline.
Fourth. Computer experts should begin educating non-corporate institutions -- watchdogs, public interest groups, think tanks, oversight and regulatory commissions and bodies, international standards bodies -- so they too may discuss and work on the issues around politics and the future of the Web. A minimal requirement of professional responsibility is to inform the relevant parties of the extent to which their interests may be in play in schema creation and use. I am convinced that most of these institutions are blissfully unaware of the political ramifications of schemas and the Semantic Web. We need to be willing, not only to work for free to build free software tools like XML parsers or web servers, but to work for free to educate others about the political implications of schemas and of XML technology generally.
Fifth. Schema registries and repositories must be made, and must always remain, completely open to all schemas. One way to disempower the use of alternative schemas is to make them difficult to find. The apparatus and infrastructure around the use of schemas may be just as political as schemas themselves. The same may be said for resource discovery mechanisms. Controlled vocabularies and topic sets, often crucial to properly extensible schemas, are, as proper parts of schemas, subject to the constraints already discussed. Often topic sets and controlled vocabularies most overtly reflect the interests and understandings of the institution(s) of production. Schema extension mechanisms are intended to avoid chaotic, uncontrolled schema change, which is well and good. But we must consider how to make schemas extensible for alternative interests and contested understanding as well. In the fullest social context that kind of extensibility is as vital as more purely technical kinds.
Sixth. It may be possible to develop a heuristic for classifying public schema projects. Such a heuristic, if reliable, could save time and effort by focusing research. One might begin by distinguishing, as a matter of degree, between politically vulnerable and politically resistant schema projects. One next needs a list of simple questions to ask about a schema, questions like these:
- Is the schema's world-chunk politically disputed ordinarily (that is, in the real world)?
- To what extent is the controlling institution obligated, inclined, or resistant to include public participation in the schema's creation, use, or extension?
- What is the "size, ownership, and profit orientation" (Herman and Chomsky 1988, p. 3) of the schema's controlling institution? (Institutional analysis and the historical development of modern media suggest that "size, ownership, and profit orientation" may indicate clusters of contested understandings and competing or conflicting interests.)
- Is the schema's world-chunk one over which government has some regulatory interest?
- Does the schema formalize part of the socio-cultural world or the internal state of a machine?
- Are the interests reflected in the schema the only relevant interests there are? Are there other interests not so reflected?
- In whose employ were the experts that created the schema? Were any of them working actively to represent the interests and understandings of relevant parties other than the controlling institution? (Cf. Herman and Chomsky 1998, p. 18).
- What is the schema's scope? (A narrow scope may indicate fewer competing interests and understandings, while a broader scope may indicate more.)
Schemas and Justice
I assume that some form of standard schema regulation is likely in the future. Most regulation of the sort rests on at least two grounds: conceptual work about the technology in question and a theory of justice (even if only vestigial). Public policy is interested in the creation and maintenance of a just and fair society. Do we know how to think about schemas, or XML technology generally, in terms of justice, fairness, equity, and public policy? How does one go about relating a theory of justice to a schema?
We may begin by finding an analogue to schemas, one about which theories of justice and public policy already know. Schemas are understandings of the world that affect more than the institutions that create or control them. They are shared and imposed understandings. A schema is shared in that it's the system's operative understanding, a part of the logic of the system's mediation between the world and the system's users. The understanding at work in the system is perforce shared by each and all of its users: their interactions with the system are indirect interactions with the world according to the understanding of the world formalized by the schema. But this operative understanding may be at odds with the understanding of the world preferred or professed by users of the system. In this sense it is imposed on them inasmuch as they use it (absent considerations of consent, which are too complicated to raise here but important nonetheless). This dichotomy between the shared and imposed senses of schemas is analogous to law, which has the same dichotomous structure. Public policy experts and theorists of justice know better how to think about law than about schemas or the Semantic Web.
The linchpin of the analogy is whether law has the same dichotomous structure. Just like schemas, laws necessarily reflect interests and understandings of world-chunks. Law does not fall out of the heavens but is an artifact of human sociality. As citizens we share, at least abstractly, the understandings of the world embedded in law. Each citizen is obliged prima facie to conduct her or his interactions with the world in ways consonant with the framework established by law. Whether we agree with the interests or understandings reflected in laws, we are obliged not to transgress them (at least the just ones). But, as is the case with schemas, what about those cases where the interests or understandings embedded in the shared legal framework are ones we find inimical to our interests and understandings? While citizens are prima facie subject to law, which is in that sense shared, they may find themselves deeply at odds with an understanding of the world that some law(s) reflect.
While the analogy holds up to initial testing, it, like any tool, has a context of usefulness, one which is narrow in this case. It will break if pushed beyond that context. But as a way to begin thinking, the analogy is sound enough. Unlike laws, which in democratic societies are created by institutions that are formally democratic, schemas are often created by institutions that are neither formally nor informally democratic. Like laws, schemas are rarely interest neutral and may formalize contested understandings of the world. As with laws, we should set as our goal the creation of procedurally and substantively just schemas. One might proceed by adapting parts of John Rawls' theory of justice, including his work on just and unjust law, deliberative rationality, the original position, and so on. One might also do well to attend to practical moral traditions of procedural equity embedded in the rules of democratic legislative institutions.
I have tried in this essay to say something about the politics of schemas in order to say something about politics and the future of the Web. The social impact of schemas and the Semantic Web is yet a field of open-ended possibility. If the present Web evolves into anything like the Semantic Web, and perhaps even if it doesn't, political schemas will shape the way its users interact with the world. Despite uncertainty about just what the Semantic Web is, we can be certain that whatever else happens with the Web in the next ten years, schemas will remain central to it.
Political schemas may limit what we notice, what we can say or think about what we notice, and to whom we can say it, especially inasmuch as we use machines to mediate parts of the world to us. The Semantic Web vision means, if anything at all, creating software systems that mediate the world to some of us in useful and, one hopes, fair, just, and good ways. What XML technologists say and think and do about the politics of schemas, the Semantic Web, and the social benefits of the technology they create will go a long way to determining the Web's future, and maybe something of society's future too. I hope I at least have said enough to encourage the wide-ranging and free conversation it is the responsibility of XML technologists, along with others, to have.
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