Thursday, August 12, 2010

Intersection 09: Semantics

In his five-part entry in The Columbia Science and Technology Review, Brian Harley explored the possible effects of the Semantic Web on the practice of law. And somewhere in that five-part entry, this line struck me the most:

“To quote the oft-repeated wisdom, the difference between a lawyer and a layman is not that the lawyer knows the law, but that he knows where to find it.

Harley postulates that the Semantic Web will transform the way lawyers practice. Essentially, the Semantic Web is a more powerful way of organizing, identifying, and retrieving huge amounts of data. The way I understand it, this is somewhat similar to those applications used by search engines, but on steroids: the search results are ideally so specific that one really gets what one seeks. Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” option, Harley implies, does not even come close.

Perhaps another way of understanding this is to compare it to those Legal Bibliography exercises that required the use of indexing tools in order to find the solutions to legal problems. Through its more sophisticated way of organizing, identifying, and retrieving data, the Semantic Web eliminates the actual, tedious process of checking the indexing tools, and the actual hunt for the needed resources. It sifts through the database and returns to you with the very answer you seek as found in statutes, cases, and other possible legal sources.

The Semantic Web’s promise with respect to the legal practice is not hard to appreciate. As Harley pointed out, there is too much legal data out there and the lawyer’s job is to find the provisions of law, jurisprudence, etc. that are appropriate to a particular case. And if other fields are currently toying with this structure, it’s not hard to see why the legal world won’t play along. At present, we already have electronic copies of laws and Supreme Court decisions on discs and online. One only needs the GR number or SCRA citation, and s/he is good to go. If the Semantic Web promises to go several steps further, why not take the leap, eh?

While the Semantic Web is a promising prospect for the legal practice, I find myself leaning towards the status quo more. My status quo anyway. I’ve been accessing laws and cases electronically for a couple of years now, and I have no complaints. I am quite satisfied with the fact that search engines and law database software point me towards a particular direction, and I am excited to go on the hunt on my own after that. The Semantic Web, I feel, would eliminate way too much of the “hunt” part. Uncertainty is what makes research all the more exciting and challenging.

But then again, in today’s world, I suppose the Semantic Web concept makes sense. I guess I’m just old school… to a certain degree. Or maybe I’m just old. And need to get schooled quick.

-- William G. Ragamat

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