8 September 02003

In Dreams, I Walk With Metadata

Last night I had one of those out-of-the-body dreams, waking up with the feeling that I'd been contacted by some alternative form of intelligence.

Looking back in the cold light of day, I realised that this form of intelligence was in fact a parable for standardised metadata, a viral meme with a whiff of the occult about it.

It started when Graeme Rimmer of go2Ten very kindly sent me some guidance to help me sort out the navigation and stylesheets for this site yesterday afternoon. Getting back from the cinema, I thought I'd just spend an hour implementing what he sent me. I don't really do coding, but I dabble just enough to be dangerous — mostly to myself. So my tinkering with Graeme's stylesheet kept me up until around 5.30am. For hours and hours I was just on the brink of getting it all to work the way I wanted...

Though I rarely have trouble sleeping, my mind needed to wind down a bit before it could rest. I ended up reading the opening pages of Justina Robson's Natural History (here's Mike Harrison's review — with thanks to him for recommending it to me): a passage that required me to get my head round a post-cyborg protagonist that may be machine-made-organic or vice-versa.

Perhaps those circumstances explain why I dreamt about being approached by what I can only describe as a movement — not an individual, not a collective, but a social presence nevertheless — with a mission for me. It/they didn't approach me in person exactly, or by phone or email. It was more subtle than that. More as though they were communicating through my dreams.

The mission? The mission was that they wanted me to put some special tags and codes in my web site and my work. If I did this, my work would spread more widely, invisibly and quickly. It would be as though I could communicate with other people subconsciously: infiltrate their dreams.

And at the same time this would encourage other people to follow suit, using the same tags and codes. That would be good for them too. In fact it would be good for everyone. We would all become part of the movement.

So, the argument went, I ought to see that it was a no-brainer; my civic duty to help make the world a better place. I may have never seen any of the Matrix films, but I read Neuromancer in '87, and for a while I was there, in my dream, inside the code and the data, propagating the mission through multiple parallel routes.

Vertiginous and mind-altering it may have been, but the whole deal also had something sinister about it, as though, in a mix of scientology and pyramid selling, I was being offered the opportunity to (a) unlock the secrets of personal power, and/or (b) get in at the ground floor and profit from the spread of this stuff. You-may-never-have-this-opportunity-again. People might genuinely be happier but does it have to come across this way?

I woke up and remembered that I'm under contract to help produce Parts 1 and 2 of the British Standard for Interoperability Between Metadata Systems Used for Learning, Education and Training.

Note for those not in the know: metadata is data about data, often provided in machine-readable format so that computers can collect coherent information with little or no human intervention — effectively a subconscious spread of messages. XML, RDF and FOAF are some of the acronyms to drop if you regularly talk to machines.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Miscellany on 8 September 02003 | TrackBack

Back in '94 I had dreams of massively mutually recursive data structures after immersing myself in ML (a Lisp like language) for several days before an exam. The structures were a programmatic representation of Ministry's Psalm 69, an industrial metal track that was playing on my hifi/alarm and woke me after far too little sleep, at 7:30am. The whole auditory hallucination experience was very vivid, odd, and sadly hasn't happened since.

Posted by: Paul Makepeace on 9 September 02003 at 12:51 AM

Not that we want to encourage sleep deprivation or other means of inducing hallucinations, but in one of his books, interaction architect Bruce Tognazzini alleges that if you eat a big cheesy pizza just before you go to bed, you've got a fair chance of having some 'creative' dreams.

Posted by: David Jennings on 9 September 02003 at 1:50 PM
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