Creative Digifest #SXSC2 Speaker Profiles: Hugh Glaser

Hugh Glaser is Chief Architect at Seme4 Ltd., a company that specialises in Linked Data (Semantic Web/Web of Data). As such, he is a technology provider for a wide variety of industries – in fact it is hard to thing of any sector that has not shown an interest in finding out what Linked Data can do for it.

In addition to general work and consultancy he is responsible for a number of significant practical activities in Linked Data:

a), which helps to establish linkage between datasets;

b), which is a Linked Data application that gives a unified view of some fixed datasets plus data from the Linked Data cloud;

c) See UK, which allows users to explore a number of Open Data resources against a geographical background.

Prior to joining Seme4 in 2009 he was a Reader in the School of Electronics & Computer Science at the University of Southampton, UK, and is now a Visitor in the Faculty.

How are digital technologies transforming our lives?

Not as much as we think. In particular, humans are communicative animals, and we will use whatever works to communicate. It takes years before people work out exactly what a particular technology does, and how it fits into the lives they want. And I think that when they do work it out, it is often not as revolutionary as it seemed at the time, or revolutionary in comparison with the past. Take email as an example. It is very exciting when it first becomes available, and most of us who have used it for a while will have been irritated at some time with the flood of messages from people who have just discovered it for the first time. But slowly the users of the new technology work out what is good for them (and acceptable to others). And in the end it is often not so very different from what went before, just a little more convenient. For many people who have used email for a while, the vast majority of emails they send an receive will be messages that would have gone via another medium (letter, memo, telephone call, water cooler comment) in a pre-digital age.

When I first got an iPod all those years ago, I spent ages getting my music all organised and I needed one with a big disk because I had a lot of music. Now I have worked out that what I want the iPod for is to do time-shift on Radio 4 comedy programmes and a select few spoken podcasts, so that I can listen to them when I am driving. I used to do something similar with CDs and before that cassettes, only now it is just more convenient.

In the creative sphere, artists have always embraced new technologies for rendering their ideas. Hockney’s iPad art is a natural activity, but is not a significant abstract difference to his previous use of Fax. And it is less controversial in its time than the challenging idea that photography might be a branch of the creative arts.

I believe that Blogs and Twitter have close parallels with the various styles of pamphlets in the 18th and later centuries. Perhaps Charles Dickens and Thomas Paine would have naturally moved their pamphleteering to WordPress and Twitter.

I recently came across this enjoyable list of questions,, which give some interesting perspectives on the historical developments of social networks.

I often think that Facebook moves us back to the villages that we lost with population movements. Many people will feel that they are now closer to the extended families that now live around the world, where these people would have lived nearby in past times. The incidental knowledge from the snippets on such sites is very similar to the comment you make as you pass a relative or friend on the High Street each day, giving background awareness of your circle of acquaintance.

I was (“lucky enough”?) to be in Prague during the revolutionary times of 1968, when the Warsaw Pact invaded. It was astonishing to see the velocity of information around the city. Newspapers and pamphlets were coming out hourly, there were amateur radio stations filling the radio spectrum, and in fact you could meet a radio station on the top of a car as you walked around (they would move to avoid triangulation from the KGB). When people celebrate Twitter as being a necessity for the Arab Spring to happen, I always have some concerns that such people have not experienced or even studied what could really happen without it. Revolutions did happen before the internet.

Of course, scale and accessibility do change, but it is arguable that the fact that people can access more sources of information is as much a political change as one brought about by technology. Printing was a tightly controlled activity in many countries in the 18th century, and the wider access came from relaxation of the controls. Interestingly we see similar tensions online at the present, where almost all countries control access to some extent.

The fact that communication across distance is undoubtedly easier, to the benefit of all, is tempered by the fact that distant communication becomes more necessary as people move apart in the knowledge that they have such communication.

What can the latest technologies do for you?

Ideally they make us more efficient, clearing space and time for activities that we find more self-fulfilling than some of the drudgery. In this sense, the digital technologies are little different from the hardware that emerged in the home throughout the early and middle 20th century. And it comes with the same contradictions: people could find themselves spending more time maintaing their vacuum cleaners, washing machines and especially unreliable cars than the time saved – time spent maintaining the new digital technologies can be very challenging. Again, the road to understanding what the technologies can do for each individual, what role they play and whether they are appropriate is a rocky one.

If you’re not online, are you out of the game?

No. It may seem like it, but things settle down in social circles, so that eventually people find a comfortable milieu. We should, however, have serious concerns about the claims that new technologies make about celebrating the heterogeneity of human interaction and activities. Many of the digital technologies were claimed to be liberating in this respect, the “long tail” idea that on the web there is a good market for minority interests that can therefore support suppliers. As this theory of the long tail has become questioned and even debunked, the interests of the users of digital technologies have become more restricted again, tending back to a more homogeneous world. Of course the majority “centre” shifts, but the minority at the edges is not necessarily being served as well as was promised in the brave new days of the web in the 1990s.

All in all, I’m not suggesting it’s not fun, and not enriching, but perhaps people with grey beards have a responsibility to try and help us all get it in perspective, while still experiencing the huge excitement.