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Join the discussion in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Digital Culture:

"The Right Mix," by Ralph Lombreglia (June 4, 1998)
Digital technology has made the private recording studio itself into a new kind of musical instrument.

"A Function Specific to Joy," by Harvey Blume (April 29, 1998)
Are we ready for computers that know how we feel?

"Where the Rubber Meets the Road," by Ralph Lombreglia (March 25, 1998)
The next phase of the digital revolution depends as much on education as on technology.

For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index
The Invisible World Order

If digital technology is to serve humanity (and not the other way around), we'll have to come to terms with the database and all that it implies

July 29, 1998

On July 17th, one hundred and twenty member states of the United Nations agreed to create a permanent global war-crimes tribunal, to be called the International Criminal Court. As with anything the UN does, the results were messy -- the court's jurisdiction remains uncertain and the United States seems unlikely to support it -- but the intentions were clear. While not the strong global court that many human-rights advocates hoped would emerge from the proceedings, the ICC and other projects like it are signs that on the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which posited that justice for individuals is not limited to the borders and the prejudices of nation-states), the world is getting serious about thinking of itself as a world.

Many projects now try, in the wake of atrocity, to make sense of what happened: among them, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the Commission for Historical Clarification in Guatemala, the planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the ICC. One of the main things they have in common is the use of databases. Finding out who did what to whom, where and when, on a national and international scale, requires a sophisticated means of archiving, retrieving, cross-referencing, and analyzing evidence and information. As Patrick Ball, who has worked for the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the projects in South Africa and Guatemala and similar ones in Argentina and Haiti, writes in his book, Who Did What to Whom? (1996), "Human rights monitoring work is about information: getting the facts straight is the basic requirement for many organizations' work." As we envision more and more of these global institutions we are simultaneously confronted with the prospect of more and more databases of increasing size and complexity. Already an integral part of fields as diverse as library science, law enforcement, and marketing, the database's presence and importance is set to grow even more. The time has come to take a step back and ask the question: Are we ready to live in such a place?

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There are few things today that haunt the popular imagination like the database. It is the chest that contains the most intimate details of our private lives, and we are constantly anxious that someone else may have the key. It can be seen as its own technological disease, metastasizing, impartial, given to paroxysms, and ultimately consumptive. The database may be the nucleus of the information economy, but it is also -- as Jorge Luis Borges anticipated in his story "The Library of Babel" (an unsettling tale of a world that is its own endless library) -- mysterious and somehow threatening. Few writers have been able to capture the logic of the database (our electronic Library) as succinctly as Borges: its lexicon of infinity, its redundancy, its elusiveness. As the invisible architecture of the database -- "whose center is everywhere," Borges wrote of his metaphorical Library, "and whose circumference is nowhere" -- slowly spreads among us, we are suspicious that it is there, recording, but uncertain as to exactly where.

Related link:

"Our Data, Ourselves" (FEED, May 1998)
A FEED Document on Vice President Al Gore's recent privacy initiatives, featuring commentary by David Shenk, Jon Lebkowsky, and Stanton McCandlish.

This spookiness of the database makes it a powerful metaphor, an effective image called forth repeatedly in the popular cultural swirl. "In the course of an average day," began the dark fairy tale Al Gore delivered in a speech to NYU graduates last May,
you may use your credit card to buy groceries. You may visit the doctor for a check-up, and have your health information punched into a database. You may surf the Web, and send an e-mail to a friend. And at every step of the way, you may be leaving a trail of personal data that can be used or abused by others.
The "data crumbs" that are left behind do not help Hansel and Gretel out of the forest; they only let the witch track them down. Instead of hearing tales of getting lost, today we begin to sense that we cannot hide. "In case you think this nightmare is only a threat to the men in L.A. County, think again," Bryant Gumbel spins on the evening news show Public Eye. "The deadbeat-dad databases for all fifty states are due to be linked together this fall. Once that's done, a man whose name shows up in error anywhere could be pursued everywhere." Everywhere, anywhere, and nowhere, as present and as phantom as Ebola or E. coli. The database is invoked by journalists, politicians, producers, and writers as the plague or the muse. "Big Brother" runs in the headline or the pitch -- it's the hook of the day.

We now have an entire industry concerned with "information logistics," where creating "customer-centric data warehouses" is "mission critical." High-speed and complex query processing becomes a "prediction utility," measuring past actions to predict future choices. The world is seen and measured according to the geography of the database: columns, rows, tables, and entities. We are all knowledge workers today, and our clay is data to be molded and shipped however and wherever we see fit. No industry or institution is without its data marts. We live and work amid a landscape of memory, teeming with systems designed only to retrieve and sort information.

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In Sarajevo the State Commission for Gathering Facts on War Crimes has been gathering information about the course of the war in Bosnia since 1992. The Commission has compiled more than 7,000 testimonies from victims and witnesses of war crimes. This amounts to more than 50,000 pages of documentation, 11,000 photo negatives, and 600 hours of video records. They have registered the names of 29,000 people who are suspected to have been involved in war crimes. This is just one example of the work it takes to document the atrocities humans are capable of. But collection is just the beginning. As Mirsad Tokaca, the Secretary of the Commission, recently told me, "The main characteristic of our database is establishing connections between events, victims, perpetrators, witnesses, and locations. It is important because perpetrators committed crimes at different places, in different times and manner and against different peoples." As Patrick Ball said in a recent interview with the Human Rights Tribune, "Proof and evidence would no longer be limited to one or another specific document, but to the relations between documents [and acts], pattern and repetition. This is what computers are really good at."

Lexis-Nexis -- the information-retrieval service best known by college seniors writing theses and by journalists tracking sources -- has more than 7,300 databases. They contain more than one billion documents consisting of more than one trillion characters. Each day 120,000 news articles are added, and 4.5 million documents are added each week. That works out to seven documents every second. The databases grow 40 percent every twelve months. The hardware to store all this data -- amounting to four terabytes (or 4,000 gigabytes, or 4,000,000 megabytes) of memory -- takes up about 22,000 square feet. Massive if you compare it to the shrinking size of your PC, but miniature if you compare it to the volume of the same amount of information on paper.

The direct-marketing firm Metromail Corp. claims to have information on 95 percent of American households, and more than 200 million people's consumer data. It's all stored in the largest Oracle database in the country. Claritas -- the firm best known for creating the "lifestyles database" PRIZM, a dissection of the United States into sixty-two lifestyles, from "Pools and Patios" to "Shotguns and Pickups" -- has information on approximately 100 million households. Another of the company's demographics databases contains information so reliable that it is "cited as admissible evidence in legal disputes in three states."

The Internet is perhaps the fastest growing warehouse of data today, already home to 350 million Web pages and three terabytes of data. The Internet Archive is trying to save every page that comes online; their Web crawler gathers snapshots of 3.5 million pages per day. The average Web page is only online for seventy-five days, so this is something of a sysiphean task. Borges never imagined that his "Library of Babel" was not only endless but also dynamic.

The FBI uses databases for its work tracking criminals. Its National Crime Information Computer handles two million inquiries a day and contains almost 8.5 million records, on everybody from license-plate thieves to missing persons to murderers. When you are pulled over for speeding, your highway patrolman checks your plates with the NCIC. The FBI estimates that the database -- which police officers across the country have access to -- was in 1997 responsible for recovering 110,681 cars, worth about $570 million. (The NCIC's most famous recent catch was Timothy McVeigh. Before becoming a suspect, McVeigh was pulled over because he was driving a car without plates. His name was entered into the NCIC system, and when, a few days later, the FBI needed to find their man, they knew where he was because of the entry. They found him almost immediately.) As the FBI agent Jeff Thurman told me, "NCIC makes it very difficult for someone to flee the area and function in a normal manner." It makes it very hard to disappear, that is. America isn't so big after all.

"In the beginning there was information," Freeman Dyson tells us in Origins of Life (1986), referring to the first cell's ability to store its own genetic information. And the Human Genome Project, which has done more than anything in recent history to shake our confidence about what being human really means, is primarily a data-acquisition and data-management project. As a researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory told me, "The genome is nothing more than a big database." More than three billion sequences will be entered into the Genome Sequence Database (one of several such databases being created) once the genome is mapped, and the etiological aspect of the project -- tracking the various combinations of the 100,000 human genes that have a hand in determining, among other things, intelligence, sexual preference, and disease -- is staggering.

Health, law, and marketing. The database runs each, and what used to be known as the self or the soul, or just the personality, is now nothing more than quantifiable data, the sum of categorized parts. "They erased my life. I want it back," runs the refrain for USA Network's new TV version of The Net. Our genome may only be "information," but are our personalities, too? Can a life, or a person, be "erased"? In a culture of information, variation becomes another database entity, uniqueness just the object of another search, elimination just a keystroke away.

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"In the project of an international criminal court lies the promise of universal justice," Kofi Annan said to the International Bar Association last summer in anticipation of the ICC summit in Rome. Justice on such a scale needs evidence -- forensic data -- on an equally large scale. When we say universal justice, we are implying the need for universal data. The more we try to create global organizations, the more indebted we are to the already ubiquitous database.

When the Department of Defense issued its report on preventing transnational threats (from nuclear proliferation to the $500-billion-a-year drug-trafficking business), the primary recommendation was for a "two-way global information system," to be called the Secure Transnational Threat Information Infrastructure. "The United States must get smarter about transnational threat groups -- their motives, organization, sources of support, and operational means," the report said. When someone -- especially a policy analyst -- says "smarter," we know data is involved.

Globalism, though, is different from internationalism. Globalism implies institutions to which the nation-state is subordinate. It's a word that sounds terrifying and impossible, implying a scale and complexity that is often unimaginable -- like the database. In the project of globalism we see the problem of the database: freedom, autonomy, and control begin to slip away. The database may be justified by the humanitarian ideals it could serve, as in the case of the ICC, but that makes it no less scary.

If we are to make sense of the increasing numbers and influence of such institutions, then we will have to come to terms with the haunting presence of the database. This will no doubt entail a form of preventive care: to dispel its myths, to control its use, and limit its growth. One wonders, though, if it is not already too late. The Clinton Administration, as The New York Times reported last week, is planning to create a national health database -- assigning every citizen a "unique health identifier," a computer code allowing each individual's medical history to be tracked from cradle to grave -- that would greatly facilitate medical research and help to improve health-insurance coverage. Thus the database promises not only to promote the ideal of universal justice but also to protect the health of our individual bodies. Yet with each new promise the question remains, What will protect us from the database?

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Andrew Piper is a regular contributor to FEED, an online magazine, and will be a Mellow Fellow in the Humanities at Columbia University this Fall.

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