No Need to Argue Personal Semantics

Posted by & filed under on July 2nd, 2008.

In December 2006, James Kim and his family were stranded, their car stuck in heavy snow. After a week, fearing for their survival, James headed out into the wilderness to find help. In the dead of winter, he was wearing nothing but street clothes. His family was found in their car two days later, alive and well. Two days after that, James was found in a ravine. He died of exposure.

When I first heard this story, I said to a friend, “That man was a hero.” My friend disagreed. I found that a little disturbing. James Kim was clearly a hero. I was wondering what in my friend’s character was preventing her from acknowledging that fact. After some debate, our differences became clear. We were just arguing semantics.

For me, a hero is one who acts selflessly for the benefit of others. Those qualities of nobility and action are what define my personal meaning of “hero”. For my friend, “hero” embodies all those attributes, but one additionally: success. She certainly wouldn’t disagree that James Kim was noble and brave. He just didn’t succeed in his act of bravery. Hers was merely a more restrictive notion of heroism.

Everyone loads their thoughts and language with these types of deeply personal associations. At Primal, we refer to these subtleties of meaning as “personal semantics.” We can share a common definition of the word, but we will never share a common definition of its semantics. A tiny word like “hero” cannot possibly contain it all.

Is technology coming to the rescue? Can machines help surface and mediate these types of miscommunications? They should, but not until semantic data is played to its strengths. We’re arguing for semantics as first-class data, as the data of information consumption and personal meaning. It’s far more than metadata in the service of search and retrieval. When you’re looking for a killer app for semantic technologies, why not embrace the most killer aspects of semantics?

I can’t explain precisely why I think James Kim was a hero, but I know one when I see one. If I asked my friends to share their personal perspectives on heroism, I could whittle it down pretty quickly. I could see on which points we’re aligned and where we disagree. And in that process, I think I’d learn a tremendous amount about the subject, about the people I asked, and a whole lot about myself. We may still argue, but it won’t be about the semantics.

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