XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

I’ve been playing with this analogy for a while, and I was pleased to hear the silence of assent when I took it out for a trial run at a session on Big Data at THATCamp Kansas a few weeks ago. It elicited some resistance at another moment that weekend, and I’m interested in the contextual differences.

The second group with whom I discussed my notion represented a couple of constituencies that I’m less familiar with in digital humanities, those interested in the semantic web and those who work with the languages that power social media. These folks mentioned Django, which is based on Python and was developed in Lawrence, Kansas. I haven’t yet learned Python, though I know about it, and William J. Turkel and Alan MacEachern’s The Programming Historian is bookmarked on my browser. (Thank you once again, Canada, for your excellent support of digital scholarship.)

My young colleagues pointed to Web 2.0, Facebook, and Google as examples of common tools not based on XML. I learned a lot from them–I’d never heard of Django before that conversation. But I don’t think their point invalidates my own.

I mean, after all, to point here to certain historical effects, including the use of Latin as the language of scholarship and diplomacy in Medieval Europe. (Easy for me, you may say, since I’m not a medievalist.) Thus, I think the analogy may be apt since XML lies behind long-term developments in what was long ago called Humanities Computing—efforts to consider how computers might facilitate humanities research, in Medieval and Classical Studies in fact.

Since the language also underlies such proprietary applications as MicroSoft Word and Excel, the analogy also alludes to the place of Latin as the foundation upon which the romance languages were built. Apt again, perhaps, since computational linguistics also makes use of XML.

I ponder this analogy because I want to better articulate the significance for liberal education of the effects of digital innovations on scholarship. And as I do so, I seek to understand digital scholarship in the larger landscape of digital culture.

I think that learning to feel comfortable with one type of coding (XML) can help humanities students develop the confidence to explore additional languages–like Python–and become ever more nimble citizens of their digital world.

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4 Comments

Filed under digital humanities, education

4 responses to “XML: The Latin of Digital Scholarship?

  1. Or the Latin alphabet. The idea being that an alphabet is a set of conventions you can use to represent written language, in the same way that XML is a set of conventions for representing data.

    You might be able to argue that TEI is the Latin of digital scholarship…

    • At the same time, I’ve been told that TEI is not a language–just a set of guidelines for using XML–in which case of course, if XML is an alphabet, then TEI _is_ a language…. 😀

      My XML as Latin analogy is not really one I would want to mobilize with colleagues who are already comfortable with these kinds of details. I’m looking for a way to help folks who don’t have this kind of understanding of what’s underneath the hood of our digital tools get a little bit of an idea of how pervasive XML is. My ultimate goal is to be able to argue that digital humanities for undergrads is a way to expose non-techies to code in a non-threatening way, thus giving them an opening into understanding some portion at least of what’s underneath this stuff that’s more and more the way we transmit and consume cultural expressions.

      What I mean to get at with the post is the way that XML is underneath a lot of what ordinary people do with our laptops every day. It’s how our data is stored for Microsoft Office applications. We use it in TEI, DDI, CIDOC-CRM too, but that doesn’t mean anything to my mother, for example. She has used Word, so the reference to Office is something she can grab onto.

      There are other things underneath our digital culture too, like Django or HTML-5. And you certainly don’t know nearly everything you need to know about how machines work if you have some comfort with XML.

      But if exposure to the pervasiveness of XML on the one hand and the simplicity of XML on the other can help make an argument ultimately for the value of digital humanities so that it can support the case for liberal education…. Well, that’s what I’m aiming for.

  2. Thanks, Hugh, that’s helpful. An alphabet. Kind of like Cyrillic?

  3. I don’t think the analogy holds up. First, it’s important to realize that XML is not a programming language. It is a (more-or-less) language-independent way of structuring information. Now, programmers often have to think in terms of structuring information, so there is something of a mindset in common to marking up documents and programming, but you can’t compare Python to XML. A better analogy might be that XML is something like an alphabet.

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