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12. Databases and Information Storage & Retrieval

Overview

Computer databases are the chief contemporary means for storing, managing and retrieving information. Databases determine the forms in which information is stored as well as the methods by which it can be accessed. In order to be stored in a database, information must be formalized to a greater or lesser degree; the particular ways in which a given database is constructed often determine much about the picture of the world the database can ultimately present. Databases are important to almost every software application, and in many of the most critical applications—those that are concerned with the administration and structure of society—databases sometimes play unexpectedly large parts.

Background

Conceptually, the systematic organization of information extends back at least to the French Encyclopedists of the 17th Century, and is the central concern of Bush's Memex. What these systems all share is a concern with the way in which information can be organized, searched, and displayed. The evolution of digital databases is one where ever-more complex relationships can be established between data, but also one in which the end results presented to a user are thoroughly mediated. Contemporary databases in some ways fulfill the dream of the Memex, but at the same time raise the question of whether we have gained a better understanding of the world, or one which builds in tendentious claims about the informational structure of human society. Abstractly, a database is a collection of data organized in some way so that desired items or information can be quickly retrieved according to a set of search criteria. In practice, databases refer to a specific set of software models that have been developed and deployed by a small number of corporations and that today fuel almost all data-oriented applications (especially websites).

Basic Issues

Broadly speaking, a database is a representation of a given range of knowledge that is arranged in some kind of order. According to this definition, examples of databases include:

Database structure

All databases have the following features to some extent, but they are especially apparent in software databases.

Indexing, categorization and searching

Database software

Databases and their uses

STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. What are the basic elements of a database?
  2. What is the difference between types of databases (flat, hierarchical, relational?)
  3. How do differences in types of databases allow information to be generated in different ways?
  4. What are different methods for searching databases?
  5. What are the consequences of these different methods for the user's understanding of the search results?

SYNTHESIS QUESTIONS

  1. How would you relate databases to such concepts as entropy, information, and order from information theory?
  2. How do present-day databases and information retrieval systems relate to Bush's concept of the Memex?
  3. In mathesis universalis, symbolic logic was the core concept, and the goal was to create computing machines; with information theory, the core concept is the selection of the right message, the separation of signal from noise, with the goal being machines that can more effectively retrieve information. What significance, if any, would you ascribe to this shift from mathesis universalis to information theory, and the accompanying shifts in the desired function of computers?
  4. In many ways, schemes for information storage like the one described by Ted Nelson in today's reading ("A File Structure for the Complex...") describe not the storage of information so much as the various ways in which a researcher might make connections between it. In what ways does contemporary information storage fulfill or not fulfill Nelson's goals, for example in a database-centered application like Amazon or Google?
  5. Norbert Wiener's writings on cybernetics are especially concerned with the potential misuses of control technologies, especially when these uses are kept secret by government or industry. Can you think of a way that technologies like ERP and CRM could be used according to the social principles Wiener espoused?

READING FOR WEDNESDAY