They say you can never go home again. It’s a complicated idea, and an idea that summarizes what might be considered an emotional impetus for databasing. It’s also an idea that opens the doors to some fundamental questions regarding the worth of all-inclusive databases.
Going home is like moon-walking, but really moon-walking. To go home means to go backward while moving forward in time and space, back to the place you come from, a place that exists merely as an ideal reflected across the very time you’re traversing. Some aspects might resemble themselves well enough to match your definition, but others won’t. If those others have changed, so has ‘home.’ Bit by bit, piece by piece, and the process doesn’t stop. (‘There is water at the bottom of the ocean,’ says David Byrne.) So, maybe Thom Wolfe was right. You can never go home again— but you can sure try to remember.
Change is ubiquitous and of this ubiquity is born the high premium on remembering. We look back to our roots, the house we grew up in, the first meal we cooked in our tiny first apartment, and we become nostalgic. We create little catalogs of materials, attach meaning to physical representations of the past so we can save, in some small way, moments that slip past. In other words, we database our lives to easily access the past; we database our lives to add permanence.
The practice of databasing solidifies our viscous pasts and it stretches the boundaries of the present. It always has as (Bowker, 2006). It just so happens that at this point in time the process of databasing dovetails with contemporary developments in technology that allow for databasing with greater inclusion.
It seems to me, that one view regarding modern databasing practices is as follows: if everything can be databased and preserved, then everything should be databased and preserved. (It’s as though there’s an element of societal separation anxiety at work…) As an anecdotal example, I’d like you to take a look at how many people carry around cameras with them when they go out to bars with their friends. Were there so many cameras at parties before the age of Facebook? There weren’t when I was 21.
Inevitably things fall apart, and access to those memories stored in personal and cultural databases becomes spotty— at least, it has in the past. With that spottiness, however, comes the heightened value of the aspects which remain accessible: they allow for inference into those aspects that have disappeared. (Think of the emotional drive behind Doublefold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.) Would those aspects that have become more remote have as much value if they were there, plainly accessible for all to see and ‘remember’? Don’t we partially create and reflect our contemporary societal identity by making inferences about the past? Would these inferences be as telling if all aspects of the past were accessible across time?
Databasing is nothing new. Its existence across time alludes to its inherent connection to human life, which might be partially explained by an emotional impetus for databasing as practice. But, we’ve never before been in a position where it is possible to preserve so much, and we owe it to ourselves to question the implications of all-inclusive databasing practices, of being able to go home whenever we want.