How the way we hold knowledge about the past-in books, in file folders, in databases-affects the kind of stories we tell about the past.
The way we record knowledge, and the web of technical, formal, and social practices that surrounds it, inevitably affects the knowledge that we record. The ways we hold knowledge about the past-in handwritten manuscripts, in printed books, in file folders, in databases-shape the kind of stories we tell about that past. In this lively and erudite look at the relation of our information infrastructures to our information, Geoffrey Bowker examines how, over the past two hundred years, information technology has converged with the nature and production of scientific knowledge. His story weaves a path between the social and political work of creating an explicit, indexical memory for science-the making of infrastructures-and the variety of ways we continually reconfigure, lose, and regain the past.
At a time when memory is so cheap and its recording is so protean, Bowker reminds us of the centrality of what and how we choose to forget. In Memory Practices in the Sciences he looks at three "memory epochs" of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries and their particular reconstructions and reconfigurations of scientific knowledge. The nineteenth century's central science, geology, mapped both the social and the natural world into a single time package (despite apparent discontinuities), as, in a different way, did mid-twentieth-century cybernetics. Both, Bowker argues, packaged time in ways indexed by their information technologies to permit traffic between the social and natural worlds. Today's sciences of biodiversity, meanwhile, "database the world" in a way that excludes certain spaces, entities, and times. We use the tools of the present to look at the past, says Bowker; we project onto nature our modes of organizing our own affairs.
Geoffrey C. Bowker is Professor and Director of the Evoke Lab at the University of California, Irvine. He is the coauthor (with Susan Leigh Star) of Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences and the author of Memory Practices in the Sciences, both published by the MIT Press. Wiebe E. Bijker is Professor at Maastricht University and the author of Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs: Toward a Theory of Sociotechnical Change (MIT Press) and other books. Trevor Pinch is Goldwin Smith Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University and coeditor of The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology (anniversary edition, MIT Press).