[ Learn about SGML! ] ...*Darwin Among the Machines* (Susanne Langer and SGML)

Following is an email message I posted to a newsgroup of scientists and humanities scholars, trying to introduce SGML and why it is important.
Date:Thu, 2 Apr 1998 19:34:46 -0800
Reply-To:"H-NEXA: the Science-Humanities Convergence Forum"
Sender:"H-NEXA: the Science-Humanities Convergence Forum"
From:"Katherine B. Branstetter, Editor H-NEXA" <kathbran@WELL.COM>
Subject:SUBJECT: ...*Darwin Among the Machines* (Susanne Langer and SGML)
Date: Thu, 02 Apr 1998 05:38:27 -0500
From: "Brad McCormick, Ed.D." <bradmcc@cloud9.net>

> From: jlm@twics.com (John McCreery)
> 4) "Is he right about the two bits?" What do you mean by right? Digital
> technologies reduce all information to bits which can then be used to
> approximate analog processes to any degree of accuracy desired, including
> degrees imperceptible to the ordinary human senses.
> "Making symbols is what we do."

The last line above, of course, echoes Susanne Langer's beautiful
little book: _Philosophy in a New Key_, where she too has some things
to say about analog versus digital communication.

It is correct that we can asymptotically approach mimesis (reproduction
of the appearnace of an original in a copy of it) in digital communica-
tion.  There is a trajectory from smoke signals to Morse code to the
newspaper wire photo to high-end photocomposition equipment to the
MIT media lab.  But, in many cases, the *structure* underlying the
original is lost from the "get go" (ab initio), so that the
"progress" (increase in information density) does not even attempt
to make *progress* (advancement in insight).  The best 8x10 inch
(or whatever size it may be) glass negative of silver halide deposited
from one of the great optical astronomical telescopes (or the computer
file "directly" generated by a CCD device, etc.) contains no more
information about the structure of the universe than the retinal
impression of a fool looking in the same direction, or a snapshot
taken with a "Brownie" (or lo-res digital camera).

But there are alternative possibilities.  I would strongly
urge everyone who has any interest in "symbolic forms" to
learn about (and thereby perhaps acquire the desire to
study in depth, and to use, and to contribute to the further
elaboration of...) the computer text markup standard: SGML
(Standard Generalized Markup Language).  In a nutshell, it
is a way of embedding explicit *structural* support: semiotic
"reinforcing rods", into ordinary language text.  I think SGML
may be an advance in communication on the same "order of magnitude"
as the coming of uniform printed editions, as Elizabeth
Eisenstein interprets that epochal process in _The Printing Press
as an Agent of Change_.

> <!doctype response [
> <!element response - - (#PCDATA)>
> <!attlist response type (appreciative|offended|other) other>
> <!entity % THINK "include" >
> <!entity % ELSE  "ignore" >
> ]>
> <response type=appreciative>This is a
> message about <![%THINK;[SGML]]><![%ELSE;[sound and
> fury, signifying nothing]]>.</response>

SGML was invented by Charles Goldfarb, of IBM Corp, ca. 1980, and
has grown into a number of ISO international standards, and
a world-wide community (in a more *affectively* rich sense than
most things in the computer world...) of persons dedicated
to solving problems of "data management", especially the very
largest problems of massively complicated and complex
information and knowledge, e.g., service documentation for
jumbo jets.  It also has evocative elegance which
suggests (to me, at least) such things as new kinds of haiku.

SGML is not another attempt to reduce the "messiness" of
everyday discourse (the foundation of the human Lifeworld)
to a formalism (I believe Leibnitz was one of the first to
have this misfortunate idea).  It doesn't tyrranize at all
(even as much as dictionaries and grammar books do).  Rather,
it gives us previously unimagined *opportunities* to
reflectively recurse between what we say and how we say it.
If, as George Steiner said, most books are about other
books, and if, as I heard a former poet laureate of the
United States [name forgotten] say on NPR's "Fresh Air"
yesterday (1 Apr 98): the vitality of discourse depends on
our words echoing things others have said before (Steiner's:
shared background of referential allusion), SGML is a
tool not only of logic, but of *rhetoric* in an ethical
as well as motivational sense.

There are many resources on the World Wide Web concerning
SGML (there is also a "dumbed down" version of SGML which
will likely replace HTML, which itself is *an* SGML
application [actually: instance], in the next few years).

One place to start is with SoftQuad corporation's website:

      [30 Oct 98: Changed To:
          [09 Oct 99: This link no longer works; Interleaf has removed
                  the page from its corporate website.]]

SoftQuad produces a number of SGML tools, including
the Panorama Viewer Netscape plug-in [of which
free trial versions are endlessly
available...], which enables one to
view native SGML documents which exist on the World Wide Web,
on such topics as Dry Bean research, or the collected
original writings of various [United States] Civil War
era belles lettrists, story tellers and others.  I have
placed a brief "management slideshow" overview about some
aspects of SGML "hyperlinking" online, at:

      [09 Oct 99: This link no longer works; Grolier has removed
          the pages from its corporate website.]

It will be a shame if the potential of SGML suffers the
same disappoointing fate in our culture
as the "technology of the spirit"
which is the printing press, suffered in China, half
a millenium ago.  We can perhaps prevent a possible
coming cultural "excinction of the dinosaurs" and a
new Babel-onian de-construction, if we seize the
opportunity which is offered to us.  It's also
great fun.

Of course I may be wrong.  But I hope at least (to
echo Joseph Weizenbaum) those who come after us will
not be able to say of us: "They didn't even know they
had a choice."

\brad mccormick

Note: There is a computer programming language which enrichs our relation to numbers a way somewhat analogous to the way SGML enriches our relation to language: Kenneth E. Iverson's APL (A Programming Language). Click here for a high-level overview of APL.
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