A fragment of a world full of metadata…

12/16/2003

Metadata, then, is data about data. Jason has posted a piece about metadata called Metadazzle Overfizzle, the vast amounts of metadata that seems to be appearing for every piece of actual content we’re producing on computers and how much this new state of affairs reminds him of writing a love letter using Excel.

As an example, posts on weblogs can have categories, permalinks, post dates, post times, # of comments, # of new comments since your last visit, # of words, # of trackbacks, who last commented on a post, titles, authors, icons, prompts to read more, karma scores, # of versions, “email this” links, referers, and all sorts of other things.

Which made me wonder to myself about the amounts of metadata that I might receive from letter sent to me through the post. Obviously a few pieces of information are clearly metadata-like. There’s the address that it’s sent to complete with house number, street name, district/town name, city, county and post/ZIP code. The postcode in the UK being a nicely detailed piece of metadata for a letter that would get your location down to around 16 homes. Sometimes you’d have details for country in the address too. Sometimes on the back or top left you’d expect to see all the details of the person who sent the letter to you. Then there’s the stamp, which explains the amount of money (or the class of postage) that’s been used to send the letter. Then maybe – if it was a complex package – you’d have to write the class on explicitly to make sure that it was clear which class the cost corresponded with. So more metadata there. Then there’s the information that’s on the postmark itself that tells you which sorting office it came through and what time it was processed. Obviously whether the postmark actually intersects the stamp or not has an impact on whether or not it’s still functionally usable as a medium of letter exchange, so that’s probably an extra piece of metadata there. And we haven’t even opened the letter yet.

So we’ve opened the letter and again we have the address fields displayed – both sent to and from. We probably don’t need to worry too much about that though, since we’ve already captured most of that information. Then there’s the date upon which the letter was written, which we need to note down because it may be radically different to the date when it was sent. Then if it’s a piece of business correspondence there may be a RE: field, which I suppose we have to call a subject and then maybe the people who have been ‘carbon-copied’ in on the letter. But that’s a bit businessy, so let’s ignore that for a moment. Then of course there’s the letter itself (blah – content), then the name of the person who wrote the thing (author – finally!). If it’s a professional piece of correspondence – of course – you might also need to put in separate typed and signed names to end (extra data there, as it’s both pertinent who wrote the letter and that you believe it’s them). And then there will be an indication that there may be attachments or not.

Of course that’s not all the information you’d get from the letter concerned. You’d get much much more than that. You’d get a sense of whether it was professional or personal by the way the letter had been addressed, whether it was hand-written or not, the size of the envelope, the colour of the envelope, its flexibility and weight. And if you wanted to record information about the letter (which might – of course – have bearing on how you were to read the content of it) to any degree of accuracy you’d have to think about the smell of the paper, it’s thickness and approximate quality, whether it was pre-printed with an address, whether it contains a logo, how cleanly it was folded, is it colourful or black and white, whether it’s written in green ink, how steady or efficient or loopy or shaky or spidery is the handwriting, whether it’s written up to the margins and in tiny writing or whether each line of text has been carefully strapped to the ghost of the printed sheet of lines that could no doubt be seen – as if through tracing paper – through the page as it was written upon. And there’s got to be more… The scratchiness of a pen knib, the slightly deformed circle of paper that could be a circle of dried salt-water. What other things could be recorded in a love letter that might need to be recordable?

Because the thing about metadata (if you’ll bear with me for a moment as I take still further liberties with our common conceptions of the word) is that for the most part we’re exposed to it all the time – vast amounts of it, in fact, around every physical artifact that we use. Over and above the obvious data, there are textures, sensations, handwritings, stamps and fragments of information that all have a bearing on how we read the almost trivially information-sparse chunk of scrawl that’s actually supposed to be ‘the message in itself’. A single romantic letter dribbles metadata out of every flat, folded, ink-inscribed surface, and we assimilate it and operate with without the slightest concern for the amount of contextual information that we’re being forced to ingest. Human background-readable information, absorbed invisibly and unconsciously or so routinely that it no longer feels like information at all.

Because in fact it’s not that there’s too much metadata in the world, it’s that we have incredibly primitive and vestigial mechanisms to help us transcribe it from world to idiot-savant computer companion. We’re stuck in a middle-period between the emergence of useful computer processing power and the computer’s upcoming ability to self-annotate, transcribe and create metadata simply, elegantly (and in vast amount) in the background all the time. In the meantime our transcription processes are tedious and long, our computers eager but clueless – and the amounts of metadata available for any given thing trivial compared to the richness of information and association you could get from a genuinely interested and knowledgeable person. This will all change in time of course, but in the meantime (and in fact regardless, given the information we generate without even noticing it on a routine basis) we’re stuck writing love letters in Excel whether we want to or not.