Manovich offers an artistic definition of a database and a few specific applications of the data structure, but I want to discuss the fundamentals of the technology alongside very popular sources of databases and the ethical, and slightly nerdy, importance of databases — the qualities of which carry physical affects and digital applications that require computational care while sometimes perpetuating moral questions.
What is a database?
In its simplest form a database is a sequence of rows and columns whose rows correspond to elements or packets of information, be it a person, tweet, google search result, etc. and whose column corresponds to a piece of the information: name, author, date posted, etc.
One of the most popular forms of databases is an SQL database. (SQL = “Structured Query Language”) Wherein the data exists as a table with columns the user can sort, alter and make queries or selections/filters to to get information out.
Where do we encounter databases?
In addition to video games, museums, and the generalized “Web” mentioned in Manovich’s work, there are a few increasingly popular examples of databases which have large impacts on the modern digital world.
Google: When we use the word ‘google’ we are simply referring to the interface used to access the database that the company Google has collected. “Spiders” or, as Google sometimes puts it, ‘web crawlers’ visit the entirety of the generally accessible ‘Internet’ and gather information which Google stores in their database. Users then query the data stored for information like articles, images, documents, webpages, etc. Google’s Search Algorithm holds similar structure to SQL databases is in its filtering and sorting of data by its diverse variables.
Facebook uses databases in its collection of human information. Which, of course, raises the digital-age old moral question: is it ethically sound to be collecting ‘personal’ data? That is, data from a vast group of people. The question stems less from the concept of the structure, as data is meant to be stored, and more from the extent and subject of the data that is being collected. See this previous blog post I made about the ethical dilemma of Facebook’s sometimes unsolicited collection of “private” data.*
Why are they important?
Beyond the artistic, cultural value that Manovich mentions, databases occupy physical space and computing power — something we’ve discussed in the past with cloud computing. Databases can easily be neglected as a computational ‘thing’ that collects data and exists purely in our digital ‘cloud’. Take google’s data center for example. There is no magical cloud that information floats across. It, instead, lies in the ones and zeroes of physical hard drives and memory devices that exist in factories sprinkled all across the world leading to real world impacts.
In the modern world this constant spread and collection of information has come to be a big part of our progress being made in the digital world today. The constant moral questions being asked, from Facebook’s collection of personal information to Trump’s proposed “database for muslims“, are all raising an equally important question of how, why, and for what should we use databases?
*Also, see this post for additional thoughts on data collection as a whole.