A Canticle for XML

Something I’d like to think about in regards to XML and endeavours such as the Orlando Project is the ephemerality of digital text, and its ability to communicate with the future.

We’ve talked a little bit about the idea that perceived value is reduced when an item is more ephemeral — that’s visible in the decreasing value placed on books to magazines to newspapers. We’ve also talked a bit about a digital text’s position as ephemeral — there’s (usually) no obvious physical item to hold, so it doesn’t feel ‘real’ to us in the same way that a stack of paper does, and although they’re almost impossible to get rid of entirely, it’s definitely possible to loose the software or hardware that is capable of parsing them.

XML is really exciting because it’s designed to communicate with the future. A lot of it is being written by people who work with very old materials, and therefore by people who understand the value of a text that can be read far into the future. We don’t bother attempting to preserve most of the random digital texts that we create throughout the day (texting, tumblr posts, emails and so on, as well as less visible ‘texts’ such as the invisibly recorded patterns of our mouse movements, our Amazon purchases, or our search histories).

XML is also exciting because it’s so full of metadata — it’s text that can talk about itself. In that sense, it’s really not that different from the machine we read about in Of Writing Machines and Scholar-Gipsies, which was able to write a poem and sign its name. It doesn’t feel particularly uncanny right now, because we exist in the same time period as the people who are creating the metadata. In the future, though, we’re going to loose that familiarity, and it’s possible (I personally think it’s likely) that these documents will take on the same eerie, prophet-like quality that the poetry machine has now. (At the very least, the metadata might feel a little bit like the scribblings of monks who bored while copying illuminated manuscripts.)

To that end, my question for this week is: how does it change the way we write when we’re attempting to create a text that will communicate with the future, without our assistance? And who is our imagined audience — are they imagined replicas of ourselves? Do they have the same values that we do? How familiar are they with our technology, and for what purpose would they like to read our data?

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