The Da Vinci XML Code

As information developers whose job it is to seek and document the truth, we should always be skeptical when a novel claims to be based on the truth. Yet such is the central claim of Dan Brown’s best seller, The Da Vinci Code. In this novel, members of a secret society (the Priory of Sion) are portrayed as the protectors of Jesus’ bloodline. In the book’s preface, titled Facts, Brown states that the Priory of Sion is an actual society. This claim is based on the discovery in 1975 of parchments in the French National Library claiming to list members of this society, including such notables as Isaac Newton, Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci.

In reality, however, the Priory of Sion was the invention of an eccentric Frenchman, Pierre Plantard, who was obsessed with creating a reunified Europe ruled by the Catholic Church and a divine monarchy. He imagined himself as the leader of this empire, fabricated the documents, and placed them in the national archives. In the early 1990s, Plantard confessed to his deception, yet Dan Brown still claims the Priory of Sion is a real and ancient society

There are many other distortions and historical inaccuracies littered throughout this novel. So why is The Da Vinci Code a best seller? Because people love a conspiracy and don’t allow details like the truth to get in the way.

The Theory Behind Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy theories and theorists abound. Some theorists claim that the government has covered up evidence of contact with aliens from other worlds. I remember seeing a film of a supposed “alien autopsy”, which was later exposed as fiction. Other theorists believe that the earth is flat and therefore the entire NASA space program is an elaborate hoax. You have to wonder if these believers would include their membership in the Flat Earth Society on their resume.

Many conspiracy theories emerged soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Despite the overwhelming evidence that the attacks were carried out by foreign terrorists, many people believe that the Twin Towers were brought down by a “controlled explosion”, that a missile (not a plane) slammed into the Pentagon, and that the U.S. government launched the attacks as an excuse to wage war.

Conspiring the Theorists

I think the proper way to deal with conspiracy theorists is to create conspiracy theories about them. Did you know all conspiracy theorists are members of a secret society called the Conspiratori, that they came from another planet and control the banks, economy, military, and entertainment industry, and that they are responsible for all wars, pollution, and the fact you can never match up your socks after washing them? Can they prove they are not members of such a society?

The problem with conspiracy theorists is not that they are wrong, but that they distract us from uncovering what’s really going on in the world. The truth is not a “conspiracy” at all (although it may take some effort to reveal), and is often more unbelievable than any conspiracy.

A Religious Experience
Returning to the topic of religion, archaeologists, biblical scholars and religious historians have made exciting, actual discoveries, which are causing some people to reexamine their religious views. The most recent of these is the discovery of ossuaries that allegedly contain the remains of Jesus and his “family”. These discoveries are not intended as attacks on religion, but represent a fresh look at some of the world’s oldest cultures.

Now, you would think that something as mundane by comparison as information development would have no place for conspiracy theories. But as surely as Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa, you’d be wrong. In fact, there is a real conspiracy so deep, so large and so wide, it is extraordinary how little it is discussed.

The Real Conspiracy
This conspiracy costs the world billions of dollars and millions of lives a year, and causes widespread poverty, hardship, and misery. When it’s revealed to them, most would agree such a conspiracy exists, but would say there’s very little they can do about it. Many corporations and governments may know of this conspiracy but don’t want to commit the time, effort and money to resolve it.

What is this conspiracy? It is the conspiracy of information unavailability and information chaos. Much of the information that people desperately need either doesn’t exist, or is so chaotically organized it may as well not exist. Most organizations do not have information management systems, and are therefore endlessly duplicating their content, creating chaos. Most organizations have no formal system to get feedback from their users on what is missing and what can be improved. Most content is not structured using the newer technologies, such as XML, which is fast becoming the standard to organize and classify information.

The Hidden Truth
To be sure, this conspiracy is different from typical conspiracies, in that there has been no direct effort to hide it. However, it is still a conspiracy of sorts, because there has also been no major effort to reveal it and its tremendous effects on our world. It is a conspiracy of indifference, laziness and apathy.

Because of this conspiracy, most information developers struggle endlessly. They expend huge amounts of energy and time fighting the inefficiencies inherent in their tools and processes.

An Ideal Conspiracy
It does not have to be this way. The ideal information management system would:

  • store each piece of information once and only once, including everything from company and product names, to procedure steps, all the way up to overviews and descriptions
  • maintain the information in a pure XML format, forever separating the content of the information from its form and appearance
  • indicate to authors and reviewers the documents in which each piece of information is reused
  • automatically notify reviewers when the information they are responsible for changes
  • allow reviewers to create online discussions debating the changes until a resolution is achieved
  • automatically retain an unlimited number of versions of the information, allowing writers to revert back to any version
  • allow writers to classify information as intended only for specific versions, and mix and match the various pieces of information as required for each version
  • automatically indicate which information has changed
  • automate the process of creating and updating indices
  • allow writers to easily design WYSIWYG templates for all outputs, such as print, help, PDAs and the Web, and centralize the storage of these templates
  • be implemented throughout an entire organization, not just in the tech writing department

And most importantly, the ideal information management system would allow outside readers to give direct feedback to the information developers.

Of course, systems with most of these characteristics exist, but they are very expensive and difficult to implement. However, they often pay for themselves in a relatively short time.

A Document is a Terrible Thing To Waste
The ramifications of companies not using information management systems extend far beyond technical writing departments. Companies waste millions maintaining the information they have and lose millions more in lost opportunities. Specifically:

  • Millions are wasted on technical support because users could not find the information they need, forcing them to phone in.
  • Millions are wasted because users don’t know how to efficiently or properly use the products and services they’ve purchased, and unknowingly take “long cuts” instead of shortcuts.
  • Millions are wasted because users return products that function properly, but which they could not figure out how to use.
  • Millions are wasted in lawsuits. One medical company lost a lawsuit because they did not supply critical information in a consistent manner.

Imagine There’s Nothing Hidden, It’s Easy if you Try
When information is not shared, the world loses. Imagine if all publicly known medical information could be shared on a single database accessible anywhere in the world. Actually, the truth is not far off – many doctors confess they sometimes now Google their patients’ symptoms. Sites like Google and Wikipedia are useful, but they are not formal, official databases of information. An authorized Medical Wikipedia that could be accessed by anyone could save countless lives.

Imagine the progress that could be made if more organizations would store their information efficiently and be willing to share more of it. One gold mining company actually did this. They allowed anyone who wanted to to submit ideas on how to locate areas that could potential contain gold. A wide variety of people responded. All the information was shared. The result? Millions of ounces of gold was found, and the company exploded in value.

This is the true conspiracy theory: the conspiracy of information. Expose the conspiracy. Forget the Da Vinci Code – crack the XML Code and get the truth out.