Text Encoding Initiative – a historical paper

I read this interesting paper from Allen Renear, met at SoSornet-06 a few weeks ago in London.

Theory and Metatheory in the Development of Text Encoding, Allen Renear, Scholarly Technology Group, Brown University November 3, 1995.

I just managed to put my hands on an old working draft, but it seems complete. It’s a seminal paper worth reading, if you work on text annotation and markup… think it was published on The Monist’s’ Philosophy and Electronic Publishing electronic conference, in 1996.

It is a clear description of where the traditional philosopical work becomes handy, with respect to the text encoding work.. (and, more generally, how well established philosophical methods of enquiry are re-used in software design and ontological engineering). Some extracts follow:

I am particularly interested in how, as practical questions give rise to
theoretical enquiry, the views of textuality offered by practitioners of
text encoding recapitulate an interesting and familiar evolution from
a kind of platonistic essentialism, to a less platonic and less
essentialist, but still realist, pluralism, to positions that seem more
pragmatic, constructivist, and antirealist. Although the domain is a
practical one, and the theorizing is presumably directed at resolving
practical problems, the discourse which carries this theoretical
evolution contains many argumentative strategies familiar to
philosophers. These include arguments from hypothetical variation
(to discover essential properties), existential instantiation (to display
ontological commitment), conceptual involvement (to detect
conceptual priority) and others. Ultimately this story reveals that
theories about the nature of texts appear inevitably and inextricably
intertwined with theories about the nature of theories and the
distinction scientific inquiry and philosophical argument is in
practice very hard to make out.

And a good review of the text-processors evolution, from old typesetting machines …

By the 1960s text encoding systems were widely used commercially
to support computer text processing and computer typesetting. At
that time a compositor or author would prepare a data file consisting
of “markup” (computer codes specifying formatting information) and
“content” (codes specifying the linguistic items of the text, such as
alphabetic characters and punctuation). This file would then be
processed by formatting software, creating another data file which
would then be transferred to a printer or typesetting machine to
produce printed pages of text.

…… to the first discussions on content-based text encoding:

The earliest endorsement of this approach was by software engineers
who were, of course, not trying to make an ontological point, but
rather to promote a particular set of techniques and practices as being
more efficient and functional than the competing alternatives. To
promote their approach and discourage others they offered a
theoretical backing which both explained and predicted these
efficiencies (Reid 1981, Goldfarb 1981). But in the course of the
discussion, some partisans of content-based text processing inevitably
claimed more directly that the alternative representational practices
were inefficient because they were based on a “false model” of text
and that their many disadvantages and inadequacies ultimately
flowed directly from that flawed conception. (Coombs et al 1987,
DeRose et al 1990).

And the emergence of a dedicated working group in 1987:

The principal vehicle for the development and standardization of
descriptive markup for the humanities is the *Text Encoding Initiative*.
The TEI, founded in 1987, is an international effort to specify a
common interchange format for machine readable texts; it has
developed an SGML-conformant language, known as “TEI” which is
in common use, particularly among scholars in the humanities and
social sciences.

Very interesting also the second section….

In this section I attempt to fit the progress of theorizing about texts
(and eventually, theorizing about theorizing about texts) into three
stages: Platonism, Pluralism, and Antirealism.

Here he describes the inevitable presence of various coexisting world-views (pluralism) on the same text, initially thought to be the instantiation of a single hierarchical model (platonism).

When researchers from the literary and linguistic communities began
using SGML in their work, the implicit assumption in SGML that
every document could be represented as a single logical hierarchical
structure quickly created real practical problems for text encoding
projects (Barnard et al. 1987). Briefly the difficulty is that while the
SGML world assumed that text encoders would always represent the
logical structure of a text as a single hierarchical structure, there in
fact turned out to be many hierarchical structures that had reasonable
claims to be ‘logical’. A verse drama for instance contains dialogue
lines, metrical lines, and sentences. But these do not fit in a single
hierarchy of non-overlapping objects: sentences and metrical lines
obviously overlap (enjambment) and when a character finishes
another character’s sentence or metrical line then dialogue lines
overlap with sentences and metrical lines.

And the final development of the pluralistic perspective, towards a post-modern antirealism:

Pluralistic realism allowed that there are many perspectives on a text,
but assumes that texts have the structures they have independently of
our interests, our theories, and our beliefs about them. The antirealist
trend in text encoding, which is consistent with post-modern
epistemologies such as constructivism and neo-pragmatism, rejects
this view, seeing texts as in some sense the product of the theories
and analytical tools we deploy when we transcribe, edit, analyze, or
encode them. It is interesting that just as Landow (1992), Bolter
(1991), and Lanham (1993) have claimed that electronic textuality,
and particularly hypertext, confirms certain tenets of post-
modernism, Pichler and others are suggesting that text encoding and
the creation of electronic editions also confirms a post-modern view
of texts: texts do not exist independently and objectively, but are
constructed by us.


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