Memory Practices in the Sciences

From Inside Technology

Memory Practices in the Sciences

By Geoffrey C. Bowker

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.





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.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262025898 274 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 19 illus.


$25.00 T ISBN: 9780262524896 274 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 19 illus.


  • Bowker offers a playful and richly textured look at the way we maintain records of the past and the multitude of purposes such memory practices can serve in the present. In so doing he reminds readers that the context in which we record the past shapes the stories we can tell.

    Stephanie Young

    Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences

  • Every reader will find much to ponder in this provocative exploration of the relationship of the present to the past.

    Jean Alexander

    College and Research Libraries


  • A brilliant and subtle analysis that uncovers and explains how conventions of naming, classifying, recording, and remembering create and preserve human knowledge. This book is required reading for all who do science or want to understand it—a real tour de force.

    John Leslie King

    Dean and Professor, School of Information, University of Michigan

  • An elegantly crafted meditation on a series of historical horizons of memory machines. Social statistics, geological processes, cybernetics, databases, and biodiversity each became master models of and models for their times, recommencing and recommanding what is to be remembered, forgotten, or deemed irrelevant. And yet, Bowker concludes, all knowledge is nonetheless local, and utopian claims to universality, while constructing irreversible infrastructures, nonetheless cannot contain all that is needed for their own maintenance or our human mindful lives. Written with erudition and humor, this is a brilliant exploration of the aporia of our arkhe and archives.

    Michael M.J. Fischer

    MIT, author of Emergent Forms of Life and the Anthropological Voice


  • Awarded "Best Information Book 2006" by the American Society for Information Science and Technology (ASIS& T)