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   Re: Open Standards Processes

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  • From: Gregg Reynolds <greyno@mcs.com>
  • To: xml-dev@ic.ac.uk
  • Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1998 22:13:41 -0400

Rick Jelliffe wrote:
> People have been saying that the W3C process is not open.
> I was invited to join the SIG as an outside expert, and not as a
> spokeman for any group. 
> . . . they can only use whatever experts are available.
> For markup languages, there are not a real lot. And I (and I am sure
> many other newcomers to the XML SIG) found that many issues
> being discussed are so complicated that it would hinder progress
> if issues had to be re-discussed every time a new person came along:
> to be actively involved requires that you study up on what has already
> been done, as much as possible.
I can't help wondering if the standards under discussion don't differ
qualitatively from your garden-variety standards like how big and yellow
a banana must be to cross a border.  Standards like XML and her sisters
may well be a flash in the pan, to be replaced by the Next Great Thing
in a decade or so; or, as I think more likely, they may well have an
impact and longevity more akin to Gutenberg's printing press. 
Absolutely impossible to predict what cultural and political
consequences will follow, once the huge investments have been made
embedding these standards into our material (electronic? cyber?
information?) culture.  The experts involved do indeed possess very
impressive technical expertise, but perhaps it's too important to leave
to the experts.  OK, so it's not exactly human cloning; but I have this
nagging suspicion that 103 years from now the political scientists and
historians will be writing about how the Web (in spite of honorable
intentions of its Western designers) managed to serve, without anybody
noticing, as yet another subtle instrument of Western/Northern
domination rather than as the liberating force so many hope it will be. 
I hope this doesn't sound too alarmist; but consider the cultural impact
of a monopolistic operating system company in the first era of
widespread personal computing.  People on this list don't need
reminding, but the vast majority (at least in the US) have never even
learned the there are other ways to compute.

If I've misunderstood something I hope somebody will correct me, but if
I'm not mistaken pretty much everybody involved is from the the
"developed" world, mostly the West.  This observation is not to be
construed as a slam against the W3C or the people involved, whom I
respect a great deal.  The W3C has no doubt made excellent good-faith
efforts to internationalize the standard; but is there any input from,
say, an Indian librarian?  An Egyptian computer scientist?  An Ugandan
Web-site operator?  Has the W3C made an effort to seek out qualified
professionals from "the South"?  I don't see how it's possible for a
truly "world"-wide-web to happen without such input.  

Case in point: in spite of the excellent work that has been done to
extend support to non-European languages, none of the current standards,
as I understand them, properly support right-to-left writing systems. 
They may support *content* in Arabic (or Farsi or Hebrew), but the many
10s of millions of people who use the Arabic writing system need to be
able to access all aspects of computation in their native languages. 
It's fine to be able to operate *on* another language; what's needed is
the ability to operate *in* that language.  Then "they" will not be
dependent on "us" for their software.  I understand it's no easy matter
to rewrite gcc to support c programs written entirely in Urdu, but XML
(and XSL and etc) is another matter.  It's entirely reasonable (IMO) to
write the spec in a way that supports multiple writing systems.

Well, if you've read this far, thanks for indulging me.  To tell you the
truth, the whole reason I got involved in SGML etc is because I wanted
to have hypertext versions of the great classics of Arabic literature. 
Now the possibilities of these technologies are so intoxicating that I
get a little excercised at the thought of my 2nd favorite language being
passed by.  And isn't the thought of contributing to a profound and
widespread expansion of freedom more exciting than the prospect of a
making a few bucks?

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