<videovortex> Geoff Bowker on Databases

Geert Lovink geert at xs4all.nl
Tue May 15 09:55:35 CEST 2007

> See also: http://epl.scu.edu:16080/~gbowker/

> It is, integrally, a period when massive new waves of
> information classification and standardization took
> place – international classifications were developed
> of diseases, work, criminal physiognomy and so forth:
> facts could be split apart, sorted into pigeon holes
> and re-assembled in new ways.  It is a direct
> outgrowth of this work at the turn of the twentieth
> century that we get the emergence of the database as a
> central cultural form.  Lev Manovich puts it
> beautifully:
> As a cultural form, database represents the world as a
> list of items and it refuses to order this list. In
> contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect
> trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events).
> Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies.
> Competing for the same territory of human culture,
> each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of
> the world (Manovich 1999).
> Manovich develops syntagm/paradigm couple, where the
> syntagm represents a statement that is made, and the
> paradigm represents the set of possible statements.
> He argues that with the new technology:
> Database (the paradigm) is given material existence,
> while narrative (the syntagm) is de-materialized.
> Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed.
> Paradigm is real, syntagm is virtual.
> The observation obtains, but its inception should not
> be attached to the new computing technology.  Rather,
> the current status of databases completes the movement
> begun in the nineteenth century of universalizing
> classification systems.
> One can see Manovich’s argument becoming true in fine
> in the development of database technology this
> century.  The first commercial available computer
> databases were organized hierarchically.  If you
> wanted to get to a particular piece of information,
> then you went to the overarching category and made a
> series of choices as this category broke down into
> groups then subgroups until you got to the specific
> piece of information that you required.  This mode of
> traveling through a database was called ‘navigation’.
> The next generation, network databases, followed the
> same logic.  The user had to follow one of a number of
> predefined pathways in order to get to the data – it
> was more ordered than a straight narrative archive but
> it still pre-imposed a set of narrative structures on
> the data.  The following generation, relational
> databases, began to break this mold.  The underlying
> database structure is a set of relations or tables,
> each table having rows and columns.  This matrix form
> allowed a new form of enquiry to be made: you no
> longer had to travel the preset pathways, you just had
> to declare what you wanted to know in a controlled
> language.  Finally, object-oriented databases operate
> on the principle that you don’t need to know either
> pathways or relationships beforehand: each data
> ‘object’ carries its salient history with it, and
> pathways and relationships can be in principle
> reconfigured at will (Khoshafian 1993: 114-121).
> Frances Yates begins her Art of Memory with a contrast
> between the great geniuses of two different ages –
> Aquinas and Einstein.  Aquinas was recognized a
> genius, she claims, because of his prodigious memory;
> Einstein because of his brilliant thinking.  We can
> add a third term to this sequence, with the
> development of the human genome database.  The
> canonical scientific act for our times (sequencing the
> genome) resonates with the social and technical turn
> to non-narrative memory described by Manovich.
> To give a name to the current epoch – the site of the
> memory practices explored in this book – I will call
> it the epoch of potential memory.  To continue
> Manovich’s trope, this is an epoch in which narrative
> remembering is typically a post hoc reconstruction
> from an ordered, classified set of facts which have
> been scattered over multiple physical data
> collections.  The question is not what the state
> ‘knows’ about a particular individual, say, but what
> it can know should the need ever arise.  A good
> citizen of the modern state is a citizen who can be
> well counted – along numerous dimensions, on demand.
> We live in a regime of countability with a particular
> spirit of quantification.  Foucault (Foucault 1991)
> pointed out that this is one of the principles of
> governmentality: a modern state needs to conjure its
> citizens into such a form that they can be enumerated.
>  The state may then decide what kind of public health
> measures to take, where to provide schooling, what
> kind of political representation should be afforded,
> etc.  Uncountables in the West are our version of the
> untouchables in India: a caste which can never aspire
> to social wealth and worth. In order to be fully
> countable and thus remembered by the state, a person
> needs first  to fit into well-defined classification
> systems.  At the start of this epoch, the state would
> typically, where deemed necessary, gain information on
> its citizens through networks of spies and informers
> writing narrative reports; such information gathering
> continues but is swamped by the effort to pull people
> apart along multiple dimensions and reconfigure the
> information at will.
> Steve Cisler
> Center for Science Technology and Society
> Santa Clara University
> http://scu.edu/sts/

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