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?”