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May 5, 2017

Partial connections in ways of knowing: Technocrats vs. The Database

May 5, 2017 | By | No Comments

In some of my earlier blogging in CHI, I reflected on the extent to which a digital database would reflect the ways of thinking and knowing that were used by the people who produced the data points from which the database is built. Here, I try to collect those thoughts.

The epistemology of the database and the epistemology of hydroelectric planners only have “partial connections” (Marisol de la Cadena, Earth Beings, 2016). This fact brings advantages and weaknesses to scholarship based on a database such as this. A key strength is that the data reflects the areas of interest of historical actors; a limitation is that it recombines and reframes the information in ways that may not actually bear relevance to people’s actual lives.

In the context of this database about hydroelectric planning in late colonial Uganda and Kenya, the constraints of this limitation are somewhat minimized because the source information already exists in tabular form. Digitizing and recombining hydroelectric records introduces contemporary epistemologies to reframe historical knowledge in a way that is largely foreign to the discipline of history – but I do not think that it is an activity that would have seemed totally foreign to the technocrats of the Uganda Electricity Board of the 1950s, who were already beginning to experiment with the use of computers to analyze their data. To see the creation of a digital database from their knowledge as a natural extension of it would be teleological, but I think it would be an overstatement to say that the two epistemologies are only coincidental.

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