Friday, June 13, 2008

Databasing the World

One of my textbooks for my current class is the e-Book Structures of Participation in Digital Culture (free to download). This book is an amazing read, with almost all the articles being pure gold.

I already wrote about danah boyd's Friendster article and another fascinating article in the book is Geoffrey Bowker's "The Past and the Internet". I'm greatly simplifying his work, but I think I have drawn out the key concepts.

Briefly, he posits types of communication that deal with memory, the traditional oral and the more recent electronic. This manifests itself into two means to disperse memory, the database (of which the Internet with its vast unordered, storage of data would be one) and the narrative, and quotes Manovich (pg. 2):
the 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

Bowker lists benefits of this "databasing the world" (p. 22) beyond the obvious memory aid to allowing more freedom for "holding past experience" (p. 24) as the past previous rigid structures of classification that confined, shaped, or locked out events that didn't fit the schemes and thus lead to
relative paucity of tales we could tell about our past, today the traces have multiplied and the rigid classifications are withering. (Who now does a tree search using Yahoo categories in preference to the random access mode of Google?) (p. 24).

Due to the vast wealth of knowledge our societies have now accumulated we now rely on computers for storing knowledge, for our memory. This has dangers as then our past can be reconstructed to justify the present (reflective of the elite's agenda). Yet, Bowker argues for balance between the two forms of memory for the sake of our future:
The information tools of empire (i.e. statistics, databases) lend a certain sense of inevitability to all the changes we witness - we are either enthralled by the spectacle or deadened by the difficulty of imaging change. Seeing our own past as open, so that our present is not completely determined, is therefore a political act. (p. 34)

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