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E-Business in the Enterprise – November 18, 2003

Invoices through the ages - XML tagging from prehistoric man to the present day

By Sean Mc Grath

This article is intended for all those who feel in need of some orientation in the strange and fascinating world of the invoice.  Our story begins with the creation of the theory of XML markup.

It is commonly known that modern e-commerce is heavily based on the concept of encoding invoices and other vital business documents in XML. Less well known is the fact that recent research shows that the core concepts of markup and invoices are significantly older than previously thought.

We cannot be sure when these concepts arose but we know they were in simultaneous use at least 15,000 years B.C. We know this because extensive analysis of cave paintings in Altamira in Spain and in Lascaux in France show clear evidence of the presence of invoices marked up in XML with clearly identifiable buyer/seller semantics. The true e-commerce interpretation of these works of art have escaped researchers for millennia as they are presented symbolically behind crude representations of animals and trees created with mud and ochre.

These cave paintings - often highly abstract representations of business processes - show the incredible ingenuity of ancient civilization. Understanding the language of these primitive invoice representations is opening up new vistas for historians of commerce who are unearthing striking similarities and differences between the constructs used in ancient and modern times.

For example, researchers have established that the concept of 'date' which forms part of our standard repertoire of invoice concepts in the twenty first century, first appeared in Egypt in the wall paintings of the tomb of Khnumhotep circa 1900 B.C. It was around this time also that the first major stylistic changes can be seen with a wide range of hieroglyphic markup invented to represent invoicing concepts. By today's standards, the representations are very flat, two dimensional and lack any evidence of an understanding of perspective. The flat structures are accentuated by sharp divisions in height between totals and subtotals leading to an overall disjointed vista typical of artistic work at the time.

Interestingly, tax amounts are displayed prominently in many of the hieroglyphic works which have allowed researchers to infer taxation revenues available to various Pharaohs. From these it was possible to estimate for the first time, daily rates for stone workers on the pyramids at Giza.

Greece, sometime around the first century A.D., saw the next major advance when artists such as Praxiteles encoded invoicing data directly into the statues he created of gods such as Dionysus for example. The Greek invoice constructs broke away from the two dimensional and are the first flowering of hierarchical forms so common in invoicing today. Critically in terms of realism display knowledge of perspective so critical in the creation of realistic terms and conditions.

The next significant advance came in the Renaissance when there was an explosion in the variety of media used to encode invoices. Fresco, Tempera, oil and canvas being the most popular for business documents, often represented symbolically in the form of cherubs in idyllic surroundings flying around the heads of kings and princes.

It was also during the Renaissance that the critical technique of foreshortening was mastered and this lead to the first realistic representations of the concept of days of credit so important in the later emergence of cashflow.

The late nineteenth century saw an explosion of activity when invoice creators sought to break free from the need to represent invoice data literally and used more artistic means to get their ideas across.

The so called e-commerce impressionists lead the way with their bold use of shadowed table layouts and striking color contrasts. The cubists followed, flattening the idealized hierarchical structures into flat surfaces again. These were designed to present multiple views of an invoice all at the same time. More recently, abstract expressionists have taken to throwing buckets of tags against a wall, or dripping them onto canvas from a suspended container until identifiable invoice patterns emerge almost at random.

Which brings us to the modern day which is commonly known as the post-modern era of invoice representation in XML. We are seeing a pluralism that is new and an increasing willingness to re-embrace the fundamentals of structure, form and content. Ironically, ancient methods such as pencil, charcoal and watercolor are re-emerging and the posting of Giclee[1] representations of invoices on web sites is a growing trend.

[1] http://www.gicleeprint.net/abtGclee.shtm