During his recent visit to Melbourne Paul Dourish gave a lecture to the school of Information Systems titled “No SQL: the Shifting Materialities of Databases”. He also spoke at RMIT’s Digital Interventions on his research into deep-space robotics.
In the talk he emphasised the plural nature of materialities, as opposed to what he calls “brute materiality”. Brute materiality characterises approaches that start with the physical requirements of computing: geographic proximity to existing data centers, sufficient power for servers, a cool climate to reduce air conditioning costs and so on.
The materialities of databases, on the other hand, refers to a broader category of things that get in between a conceptual problem and a programmeable solution. Paul gave the example of IBM’s integration of the System R protocol, the hardware to run it, and the standards by which databases would be judged. Google by contrast originated on cobbled-together systems and so its “map reduce” routine distributes smaller operations among older, slower processors.
Later in the talk, Paul argued that the databasing schema comes with political effects bundled inside. The extension of object-oriented programming to philosophy (by Latour, Harman, Bogost et alii) would seem to be relevant to the lack of heirarchy in attribute-value systems. XML would seem, in contrast, to be an attempt to reinscribe hierarchy onto what is already (or should be) a schema-less world.