The Road to Intelligent Content
March 06, 2011
The topic of my contribution to Intelligent Content 2011 was titled "Implementing Intelligent Content Solutions". Admittedly, the presentation was a little ambitious given the time available. Nonetheless, with the indulgence and contributions of a very lively audience we managed to cover a lot of ground. In preparing and delivering the talk, as well as in participating in numerous discussions at the event, I was struck by the fact that this is not a new topic and the challenges we were touching upon have been with us a long time. The image above, Information Archeology, helps to illustrate this fact as it is an image I first used as an acetate foil with an overhead projector sometime in 1994. The point at the time, and it was a point heard often at Intelligent Content 2011, was that a lot of our information resources (indeed the vast majority) exist in a form where it is very difficult to find and reuse the content buried within.
The positive flip side to the Information Archeology image was called SGML - Illuminating Information. Now for some this will be an unfamiliar acronym. It refers to the Standard Generalized Markup Language (and not, as some were heard to say, Sounds Good Maybe Later) and it is the parent standard upon which such more familiar standards as HTML and XML were based. This is true even if there is an aspect to XML that secretly, or not-so-secretly, tries to break free from this connection (and this is not as salubrious an impulse as many believe). Back in the day, SGML was the mechanism available to us for exposing the internal structures of content and making them amenable to automatic processing such as would be needed to facilitate dynamic multi-format publishing. For those interested in learning a little more about these historical threads please see my whitepaper "The Emergence of Intelligent Content".
Fast forward to 2011 and we find the subject of illuminating information to be very topical indeed. With eReaders and mobile devices proliferating like summertime dandelions, the need to deploy smarter automation in the business of publishing is being reintroduced to many organizations. The original goals of SGML, now largely taken up by XML, are becoming more and more relevant. This continuity is in fact a good thing as it means that we can discuss the issues surrounding the move towards intelligent content, and the strategies for overcoming those issues, with reference to at least 20 years of experience. This is exactly what my presentation at Intelligent Content 2011 sought to provide.
The echoes from the past are indeed numerous and this led me back into my presentation archives. I found one presentation from 1995, one that I subsequently integrated into a week-long course on SGML Syntax, and this presentation was interesting because it so overtly addressed the topic of "content intelligence". My own short-form definition for SGML at the time was that it was an "intelligent markup language". I have taken the step of adding a crucial disclaimer in the form of a "Retro Alert" - warning readers that these presentations hail from a different era.
Scanning forward a couple of years, I found another presentation, this one from 1998, that delved even more deeply into the subject of "content intelligence" and this time it had taken up the ascendent acronym XML. This presentation, that I summarized as "XML and Complex Systems", was delivered to a Microsoft Users Group and one of the goals of this presentation was to introduce the attendees to the strong support that Microsoft was showing for this new W3C recommendation. I find this presentation interesting because it was very much positioned as helping the new champions of XML to see and benefit from the many lessons we had learned as an industry in the bad old days of SGML.
"XML and Complex Systems" is also interesting because it touches upon some of the deeper reasons why intelligent content is important. Under this scenario, content is not just something we produce to describe or promote a product or even the process that we follow to create the product. Under this scenario, intelligent content is what we use to create the products and to implement and sustain the production processes that are responsible for the products and how they evolve. Seen in this light, intelligent content takes on a dimension of significance that goes well beyond building a smarter web presence - although this investment is a pretty good place to start.
And just in case anyone was wondering if there was anything from the even more distant past that could be brought forward and related to the topic of intelligent content - I am going to say "yes". I did find that the discussions at the conference, and specifically those revolving the role of content strategy, reminded me of a very old framework for grouping and understanding the behaviour of people and organizations. The framework to which I refer comes down to us from at least the time of Hippocrates (c 400 BC) and probably from a good deal earlier than that. This is the model that was erected upon the four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and extrapolated to four behaviourial types (melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric). Just as this model finds echoes in many of the most modish models for psychological profiling and organizational analysis, so I find it fits our discussions of intelligent content very neatly.
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