Representation of Knowledge

9 Sep 2016

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Databases and the Representation of Knowledge

By Janina Hoth

The aesthetic and structural characteristics of knowledge systems have been a recurring subject in Art History and Digital Art. Every medium represents knowledge in its own distinguished way – from scrolls, books and libraries to card indices, keywords and search engines to contemporary inventions such as e-books, databases and Wikipedia (Keller 2014: 4-6). In order to gain knowledge from raw data, its classification and representation is a necessity. It needs to be organized, structured and presented in predetermined forms and functions if we want to be able to perceive, understand and develop it. One example is the engraving “Wisdom and Ignaz of Loyola in conversation in a library” by Johann Andreas Pfeffel from 1695 (fig. 1).

The figures of a scholar and a bishop point to the seemingly endless shelves of books and rooms behind them. Each figure holds an emblem in front of him. The left one is clearly marked as an intellectual personating wisdom and the other one is Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit fraternity. He personifies the schola affectus (school of hearts). The return to the school of hearts is the final educational process before becoming a Jesuit(Schindler 2014: 463). The central question, shown in the Latin phrase at the bottom of the image, leaves choice to the viewer which of the two men should be trusted in respect of education. Following the figurative logic, the answer is rather easy. The owl and the masks on the scholar’s chair are signs of earthly wisdom as well as the occult. This indicates a possibly sinful life, should the knowledge not be taught rightfully. The Jesuit is decorated with angels and a halo. Clearly, the guidance of a Jesuit intellectual is needed in order to gain true education. The library does not show an actual place, but symbolizes encyclopedic knowledge. It seems as if the knowledge of all humanity lies behind them in their great collection. There is no idea of selection. As the engraving shows, the ideal of universal knowledge existed, but it was always structured and organized by ideological beliefs and political ambitions. Libraries were not just a space for wisdom, but symbols for representational purposes and control as well. They were supervised by educational control and accessibility (Friedrich 2013: 22).

This specific type of systemisation with ties to a specific place and the control of an organisation is a past example for controlling knowledge while representing it. Knowledge and its gathering have always been connected to a specific worldview as well as social and political ideas and strategies. At a first glance, the digitisation of knowledge seemed to have done away with this paternalism. The internet with its no space limit and global accessibility presented a radically new possibility for the old idea of the universal library.

At the beginning of the new digital age, as Lev Manovich for example wrote about in his book “The Language of New Media” (2001), theorists believed in the Internet to mark a possible end of the mediation of knowledge (Galloway 2011: 378). The digitisation has definitely changed the way knowledge is gathered, distributed, perceived and consumed. Today, the Internet has made it possible to liberate knowledge from bodies of institutions and distribute data unfiltered. But the digitisation is still a type of mediation generating new ways of representation. For example, the seemingly endless space for gathering knowledge challenges the limitations of the amounts, which we are able to process. Knowledge in its digital form is always in danger of becoming unperceivable and unusable.

Although the library offers a controlled and limited, but clear system of classification, the digitisation appears to be more suitable for realizing the ancient idea of a universal knowledge in its appealing idea as well as overwhelming logic. It demands new definitions for the representation of knowledge. The difference lies not only in the general methods of collecting information, but in the perception of the reader.

While a book represents a static and definite textual form, electronic data and devices are disclosed in form and function, because they offer users constant references to other texts or media forms (Rowe 2013: 2-4). This demonstrates one of the key elements and abilities of digitisation, but can also constitute a total relativity of knowledge (Rowe 2013). Electronic texts are more similar to a scroll than a book in their ability as ‘collections of (verbal and visual) ideas that can arrange themselves into a kaleidoscope of hierarchical and associative patterns’(Bolter 2001: 77).

If one understands the scroll and the book as two different media, each creates a visual space for knowledge that has a distinct influence on how we perceive their content. The difference between the two media can also be seen in an undated engraving from the GSSG (fig. 2). The room is divided into a library with books and one with scrolls. While the books are arranged mostly in a clear manner with each in its own space, the scrolls are spread all over the room and hang one above the other in the shelves. The connectivity of the scrolls in a fluid transition from one to the other encourages an intertextual reading in comparison to the more separated books. The engraving portrays the development from one media to the next with the accumulation as well as classification of knowledge.

Intertextuality is a common element between the scroll and electronic texts, but the digitisation has created far more changes in the representation of knowledge. An analysis cannot be limited to electronic texts in PDF files or e-books. It introduced new and old issues concerning the disposability and usability of knowledge… it has turned from letters and paper into data and codes. Processing data to information and then to knowledge online (and thereby digitising it), is a process far more complex than merely saving a file online. The transformation performs not only a change from one medium to another, but works on the semiotic level as well…(more)