The Wikipedia entry on Information retrieval quotes the character Dr. Seward from Bram Stocker’s Dracula,
“But do you know that, although I have kept the diary [on a phonograph] for months past, it never once struck me how I was going to find any particular part of it in case I wanted to look it up?”
Diary-keeping is an age-old form of recording intimate personal information and Dr. Seward’s conundrum is one which still remains, though the rise of say digital journal keeping for example has begun to offer a solution. We’ve all experienced that feeling of knowing that we’ve written something down which we want to refer to later, but can’t find it again. Digital recording is making it easier to recall information, which can be accessed through search functions and the rise of the relatively new area of Personal Information Management (PIM) is making this all the more possible. Seemingly, it not just recording ‘useful’ personal data which is on the up, but according to Bigthink we are recording any personal data possible and in the process becoming “data-sexuals”:
“The datasexual looks a lot like you and me, but what’s different is their preoccupation with personal data. They are relentlessly digital, they obsessively record everything about their personal lives, and they think that data is sexy.”
This idea, (though a bit cringe-worthy) doesn’t seem so far-fetched when I think of the amount of personal information peers and colleagues put in social media – what they ate for breakfast, what they’re reading, what film they just saw, where they’ve been for drinks, what music they’re interested in and the list goes on. More and more of our personal preferences, choices and habits are going online whether it’s really of any use to us or not. It’s now even possible to record and publish online the contents or your bin and your heart rate in real time.
And of course all this information ends up in databases.
Our latest DITA lecture concerns databases and information retrieval, which introduced many of us to the (largely) hidden world of stored and categorised data behind the websites and search engines we all interact with on a daily basis. The amount of data held in databases which makes these platforms useful is incomprehensible, particularly when you think of the amount of connections and associations made between each object within them.
The Web 2.0 era in which we all find ourselves is characterised by an increased ability to interact with the net and influence and mould the ways in which information is presented, used and made. Becoming more personally involved with the databases that feed the world-wide web is practically unavoidable,with social media sites, search engines and online shops recording and constantly updating our personal data. It’s come as no surprise then that in this lecture, I began to wonder how much of these databases compiled by online platforms concern information about me and what form it takes.
I’d like to think that the parts of myself which end up in databases reflect well on me. I’d like to think that if I met the database me I’d be pleased with myself, but the trouble is much of the data about me isn’t consciously selected and recorded by me and of course neither is it controlled by me. I don’t know who can access it or indeed change it for whatever purpose, if they wished to do.
Beginning to think about databases has not only given me a greater basis of understanding of how digital technology works, but it also brings to the surface inevitable questions of what information is in those databases and who (or what) chooses that information and controls how it is used.
A good read which considers these questions along with how personal data may be collected and used in the future is Evgeny Morozov‘s ‘To Save Everything Click Here,’ which I’d recommend to other DITA students interested in reading around the power of the internet and what it may have in store for us.