[Taxacom] online publishing

Bob Mesibov mesibov at southcom.com.au
Fri Jul 23 06:14:24 CDT 2010

Paul van Rijckevorsel wrote:

"I guess that is just the point: at this stage there is no way to tell what will win out eventually."

But what does 'eventually' mean? Putting taxonomic data in a digital archive is just one instance of what historians call 'transmission', the passing of knowledge from one cultural group to another. For most of our cultural history (think 10s of 1000s of years) transmission was oral, and it's still oral today for many items of knowledge. When writing came in, many scholars were appalled at the implications for the future of transmission of knowledge, as noted by Plato (http://english.ttu.edu/kairos/2.1/features/brent/platowri.htm), and never mind what language or format.

What does this have to do with XML vs PDF? If we want to transmit taxonomic knowledge, we need to have some idea of who will be receiving it and when. The discussion so far seems to assume the 'who' are people who think like us about the natural world, and the 'when' is the digital revolution of the past ca 25 years projected forward indefinitely. For that imagined audience and that indefinite time, I can see UTF-8 text marked up with XML as a reasonably solid bet.

I'm not sure this is realistic, though. Add 250 years to the 250 since Linneaus and we're likely to have vastly fewer taxa in the wild, and who knows what kind of civilisation. Add 500 years and all bets are off. If the aim is simply to say to the future 'This is what was alive once', then the best possible transmission is well-preserved specimens and (pace Richard Pyle) genomes (as material or information). The format/medium discussion needs to focus on how to transmit information associated with the specimen - future-proof labelling.

Some things fossilise easily, some don't. Maybe what taxonomy needs is a research program which comes up with new kinds of fossilisation, so that we can preserve (literally) specimen characters longer and better, in case anyone in future wants to know what we succeeded in wiping out.
Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
03 64371195; 61 3 64371195
Webpage: http://www.qvmag.tas.gov.au/?articleID=570

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