Data Data Everywhere

We have spent a lot of time this semester talking about what “history” actually is. Part of the problem with determining an answer is that damn “narrative” thing that keeps getting in the way. Humans naturally seek a narrative in things. It might not be as flowery as a Jane Austen novel, but at the very least, we seek endgames.

Manovich discusses this in his article. Even something like Tetris has a type of narrative; get the blocks away or the game is over. Reach the last level. FInish the last page. The problem he sees with a database is a lack of such conclusions. To him a database is a static series of papers, nothing more. To his credit, when his article was written (1998) this might have been all the database could be, because that was available.

Regardless, Manovich’s problem is that he does not look beyond what a database is, to what a database can do. Nina Simon goes into this with her article. Her version of a database is a collective effort to sort out truth. A database can provide all the information one needs to construct a narrative. It just might require more effort on the part of the historian accessing the database.

One of the consistent issues presented in the readings for this week is the ever-changing internet itself. While Web 1.0 was just a place for stuff to go, Web 2.0 feels like the wild west. One of the problems Simon presents is the fact that some people would provide inaccurate information for a database. If the internet database is going to be used as history, more moderation is necessary.

But still, the question lingers; is the database history? It is an odd thing to figure out. On one hand, a piece of pottery in a museum is historical evidence. But the collection itself is a collection of historical evidence, in the same way that a monograph is a book about history, but not so much history.

The question becomes more complicated when you start to look at something like Social Explorer. Social Explorer is an incredibly thorough source of data and census records. But it is just that- numbers and percentages. There are no names, no stories to tell. Is this history?

I prefer to think of a database as a medium a historian can use. It is our job to pick the numbers out of the database and use them to tell a story. The same goes for a museum curator, who chooses works to present in a certain order to convey a message. That is where the history comes into play. Perhaps we as a discipline should focus less on semantics and more on collaboration; more could be accomplished that way.


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