I was pleasantly surprised that my talk on the AustESE (Australian scholarly editing) infrastructure went down so well with the audience. Less surprising perhaps was their negative reaction to my suggestion that there might be a life for the digital humanities outside of XML. XML has for a long time (since 1998 at least) defined what the digital humanities were all about, and so to cultivate the creation of an alternative that would overcome its fundamental limitations may indeed seem like heresy. Not only does practically every tool in DH depend on XML (TEI Guidelines, XSLT, XQuery, XPath, Oxygen, etc.) but also the skills of digital humanists are based on those same technologies. To suggest that XML may not be the way forward seems to imply two unpalatable consequences:
- all the texts we have encoded so far may have to be redone
- all the tools we have developed on top of XML would have to be thrown away
This seems crazy, as well as heretical. But let me explain why I think it is not.
In answer to the first objection a fully-featured import facility would overcome any fears that encodings would have to be revised. The ability to ’round-trip’ the data back to XML (albeit with some loss) would also quell fears of ‘lock-in’ to a possibly unstable alternative.
In answer to the second objection, the skills of digital humanists and all other technicians evolve continuously. We are at the mercy of the software industry, and learn whatever tools they offer us to do our work. What I am suggesting is that we instead devise our own tools to do our specialised job far better. As an added bonus such a suite of tools would be under our control and not subject to commercial whims.
The industrial future of XML