Databases: Doc or Not?

After reading the two slide shows, I think I’m more confused about databases than when I began. I had always thought of a database the way it’s described in the second set of slides: sort of like spreadsheets where one doesn’t see the whole sheet at once and only pulls out the records needed for a particular task (the difference between databases and spreadsheets being that databases can interact with one another). In the first slide show, however, Quamen seems to view databases as pure data, not as documents, since he says both “documents and databases” can co-exist. Is a database sort of like Plato’s ideal solids, in that it doesn’t physically exist anywhere as a document? Is the spreadsheet comparison just a way for us humans to give a structure to something that is really only bits of data scattered over a server?

In the second slide show, the description of a database as “a high-quality representation of the real world” muddied the waters further for me. How can a collection of data represent the real world at “high quality”? To use the example database, a table of information listing species of birds could, I suppose, literally represent real birds, but I don’t see this representation as being high quality, or really anything above rudimentary. The table doesn’t even stand in for actual individual birds, just species. Likewise, the table of data about club members could be said to represent them, but a person’s name and phone number is such a tiny fraction of who s/he is, I take issue with it being either a high-quality or a real-world representation. I suppose I’m just arguing semantics, as I am when I question whether or not a database is a document or not. And I guess the answer doesn’t really matter as long as I understand how databases work, which I do.


Data culture privileges queries and treats answers as if they are ephemeral.

This quote reminded me of the part of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where, after millions of years of computation, the supercomputer Deep Thought calculated the answer to the question of the meaning of life: 42. It wasn’t until after Deep Thought announced the answer that anyone realized they’d forgotten to ask him what the question was.

Maybe the question is “Are databases documents or not?”

3 thoughts on “Databases: Doc or Not?

  1. Matt Smith

    Yeah, after reading this I’m even more confused than I was before. Are databases like Shrodinger’s Cat? Do they cease existing once we think of them in a certain way? Do databases operate by quantum rules wherein they appear differently under observation?
    I, too, don’t regard data as a ‘high-quality representation,’ almost as an improvement upon the necessary deformations of reality. Interestingly, this is getting into the debate between nominalism and realism and the measure of meaning in semiotics. I am probably wrong in assuming that the PowerPoint even slightly suggests attributing a hierarchy of meaning to database, but the relative meaning-ness or authenticity concerning image, print, and data might be an interesting discussion to have. Famously, the Positivists of the early 20th Cent. claimed that nothing is worth saying if it isn’t scientifically verifiable. Does the selection that Susanna chose imply that print has a tendency toward nonsense? Do we understand data to be an accurate representation of reality or more informative than reality?

  2. Geoffrey Emerson

    I think the “understanding” that I presented in my post is not necessarily true, because now that I read some others I feel that its not quite right. I like the references to Schrodinger’s cat though, Matt, and I’ll raise you “this is not a pipe.” It seems that some of what you are questioning is the role of representation and its relationship to whatever it describes out there. I think many people live under the assumption that if we had calculus advanced enough we could calculate the world out there. I am inclined to agree with this, but the calculation itself is a representation to some extent, and if it isn’t then isn’t it just the map from the Borges tale–a map so detailed that its indistinguishable from the world it maps. I have no answers, but I think you both hit on something both fascinating and puzzling.

  3. Allison Wheatley

    To answer your first set of questions, Susanna, it’s my understanding that a database does, as you put it, exist as a document rather than just as scattered bits of data. A database is a set of interrelated tables, and the Excel workbook: database / Excel spreadsheet: table analogy seems to be a close one.

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