Ph.D. research located at Visual Arts Ph.D. program at Bauhaus University Weimar. Theoretical advisors: Prof. Gabriele Schabacher (JGU Mainz) and Prof. Henning Schmidgen (BUW Weimar), Artistic Advisers: Prof. Yvonne Wilhelm & Prof. Christian Hübler (knowbotiq, ZHdK Zürich).

The research was funded by a Graduate Stipend of the Federal State of Thuringia 2017–2020

The defense took place in November 2022 and currently the dissertation is being translated to English and I’m looking for publishers.

Artist website and statement at www.irmielin.org


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Francis Hunger, databasecultures@datadmin

The Form of the Database – Relational Databases and the rise of cooperative software practices.

Francis Hunger, francis.hunger@irmielin.org

Databases constitute today’s most important data organization and processing technique. How did they become one of the most pervasive, and at the same time, invisible practices that enables human cooperation? This study starts out as an historiographic uncovering of the central medial concepts of databases, resulting in the praxeological concept of ‘data as formation’, in short: in-formation.

1. Opening a research field

The introduction looks into the layered fields of software studies, and it discusses the concepts of cultural techniques, infrastructures, and cooperative figuration in regard to database management systems. Since the book draws on historical events primarily during the 1950s to 1990s, historiography is discussed as a field of tension of East and West during the Cold War period. Then, the introduction lays out a research methodology to avoid common pitfalls of a historical grounded approach, such as describing actors as superheroes of computing, the teleological description of technological developments, or describing the ‘Eastern Block’ as a deficit society. Instead, it proposes using concepts like ‘foreign-making’ and researching ‘small countries’.

2. Genealogies: How the concept for relational databases emerged

Three sections explore the genealogies of the relational database. The first section explains how structure and data create new knowledge. The second part discusses how databases become operational through tabulation and the diagrammatic-epistemic space of the table. Third, the study explores transactions as explications of how to coordinate and synchronize data and real-life actions.

Formatting—Structured Data and Relational Algebra

This section starts out with a close reading of the original proposal for a relational database logic by Edgar F. Codd at IBM, 1970. Focusing on the emerging user perspective of direct access to computers, the engineer Codd explored techniques, which position the relational database logic in the field of information retrieval. The section further marks an approach to information, that differs from cybernetic concepts of data and information: a praxeologically grounded structured logic of information as formation, which grew out of bureaucratic and managerial approaches to information processing.

It further reconstructs the now forgotten philosophical grounding of how relational databases logic creates meaning by naming entities captured from reality, then known as the ‘universalists versus nominalists’ debate. It then looks into how these logical concepts were realized as technology through set theory.
Finally, this section explains for the non-specialist the relational view on information and normalized relations by uncovering the interactions between set theory, the model and information scheme, and the usage of set theoretic relations. These allowed for new epistemic operations on a set of information using predicate logic and Boolean connectors to pose questions like “SELECT students FROM school WHERE age < 12”.


This section first explores tabular materiality and operationality through looking into the materiality of the table, the board, and the tabular grid. It looks into how the constructio of the grid constitutes information and how the diagrammatic reading of table contents unfold through a periodical order and spatial order. Information is then understood as data put

A rich historical exploration of tabular practices uncovers how the order of knowledge materializes in four different kinds of tables: knowledge tables, statistical tables, transaction tables and mathematical tables. These get explored by looking into tables, beyond the ‘cybernetic age’, for instance, the 18th centuries’ tables about world literature of the middle ages, statistics of silk production under king Louis XIV., planning tables for business process as suggested by Frederick W. Taylor in the 1920s and the work of human computers on mathematical tables at the optical company Carl-Zeiss Jena.

The section then argues how these table practices transferred into early database technology, tracing how concrete use cases shaped a technological discourse: ‘Emptiness’ in tables demonstrates the need to produce new data. Adding a new column to a table is identified as one of the most important epistemic operations, since it creates new data space.


Talking about databases, their function as a memory, archive or collection is often foregrounded. A closer look allows for a re-conceptualization, through understanding how transactions constitute the inner data dynamics of databases.

This section is developed from a historical genealogy that begins with the medial-economic technique of double-entry bookkeeping and how it allowed for the early depersonalization and financialization of capital through record keeping techniques in 15th century Italy. It then looks into the interweaving of commercial and statistical epistemic fields as a precondition to develop modern dispositives of transaction processing.
Looking further into 20th century practices of airline ticket vendors, this section explores along the example of American Airlines, how a ticket seller became an information provider. From there the section reconstructs the emergence of On-Line Transaction Processing (OLTP) using databases to coordinate production and services globally and in real-time.

3. Techno emergence in an East/West comparison

The third part explores how relational databases increasingly became the center of software applications and infrastructure, focusing on business practices. In a comparative approach, it uses case studies in East Germany (the GDR) from the 1970s to 1990s and asks whether there has been a ‘socialist’ database management software. Unearthing almost forgotten software packages which organized data processing in a fundamentally new way, it discusses the ‘Western’ production databases BOMP, COPICS, and MAPICS (IBM), and R2 (SAP) intertwined with the East German SOPS (Robotron). Finally, the chapter explores how the GDR developed its own relational database management system, DABA 1600, re-interpreting ‘Western’ technology.

Contexts of the case studies

To setup the historical context and socio-economic concepts around software production in East Germany, this section introduces institutions of planning and control in the GDR, the major computer hardware and software producer Robotron, and how the embargo of the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls shaped Eastern software production during the Cold War period. The practice of adapting software for Eastern computing hardware is explored and an overview of eleven GDR database systems is given.

Robotron and SAP: Socialist and Capitalist Enterprise Resource Management in Comparison

This section explores how early databases emerged from the need to coordinate production and services, and it surveys Robotron’s Bank Storage of Technical Information (BASTEI) and IBM’s Bill Of Materials Processor (BOMP). It then looks at automated data maintenance with IBM’s COPICS and MAPICS, systems which influenced not only the Western SAP R2, but also the Eastern Robotron Subject-Oriented Programming Systems (SOPS).

What may first appear as a techno-historical exploration, is actually a deep dive into an emergent media of coordination and a comparison of Socialist and Capitalist database practices. This includes a still unknown early history of West-Germany’s SAP and East-Germany’s forgotten innovative pendant Robotron SOPS.

Further, the section unearths computing practices of modular integration, and the formalization, formatting, and computerization of reality in databases. It then develops a new descriptive perspective on ‘rationalization’, the saving of ressources, which moves the concept from an assembly line-oriented notion to a transaction-oriented meaning.

California, Technical University Dresden and Robotron Dresden:  The Problem-Oriented Seminar on Databases and DABA 1600

This section looks into academic knowledge transfer between West and East and how a ‘small country’ such as the GDR with limited resources incrementally innovated database technology through research, dissertations, transition to production and database deployment on its
K 1600 microcomputer series. It shows that technically the concepts from the West were reapplied and refined in the East.

4. Cooperative media practices of the database

Did ‘socialist’ databases exist in the East during the Cold War? This concluding chapter summarizes the concepts of relational databases as today’s most important data organization and processing technique. It discusses in how far it is possible to decenter the historiographical narrative of database management systems’ emergence and its consequences for the history of computing.

The section further looks into consequences for the concept of data as a practice that puts information into a formation and the consequences of database practices as media of cooperation. It discusses future research questions. For instance, how structured data from databases is processed through signal oriented ‘neural’ networks in machine learning and what the distinction between structured data and data as a signal means for a cybernetic and for a praxeological media theory.

It concludes with the realization that Eastern and Western media of cooperation were astonishingly similar in form and function, both rooted in the deep genealogies of organizational and knowledge producing data practices. Genuinly ‘socialist’ database practices did not exist, reather they were almost identical to the usage in the capitalist West.

The form of the database – Relational Databases and the rise of cooperative software practices.

1 Opening a research field

1.1 Theses

1.2 Storyed fields in the software studies
– 1.2.1 Cultural techniques research
– 1.2.2 Infrastructure studies
– 1.2.3 Cooperative Figuration

1.3 Historiography under the tension of the East-West discourse
– 1.3.1 Overlapping approaches
– 1.3.2 Periodizations
– 1.3.3 The material as a base

1.4 Navigation

2 Praxeologies of relational databases

2.1 In-Formatization – structured data in the relational algebra
– 2.1.1 Focusing on the use
– 2.1.2 Names and meaning
– 2.1.3 Set theory and machine independence
– 2.1.4 Data independence
– 2.1.5 The relational view on In-formation and normalized relationships
– 2.1.6 Conclusion

2.2 Operationalization – tabulation
– 2.2.1 Tabular materiality and operationality
– 2.2.2 Tabular practices
– 2.2.3 At the threshold of databanking
– 2.2.4 Conclusion

2.3 Coordination – Transactions
– 2.3.1 The medial-economic network of double-entry bookkeeping
– 2.3.2 Depersonalization of capital and registration
– 2.3.3 Interlocking of commercial and statistical fields of knowledge
– 2.3.4 Dispositifs of the transaction processing
– 2.3.5 A ticket seller becomes an in-formation provider
– 2.3.6 On-Line Transaction Processing (OLTP)
– 2.3.7 On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP)
– 2.3.8 Conclusion

3 Stations – Technoemergence in East/West comparison

3.1 Contexts of the case studies
– 3.1.1 Institutions of planning and management in the GDR
– 3.1.2 The Robotron combine
– 3.1.3 Embargo of the Coordinating Committee on Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM)
– 3.1.4 Software adaptations
– 3.1.5 Temporal and Topological Overview of database systems in the GDR

3.2 Robotron Dresden and SAP Walldorf: Socialist and capitalist Enterprise Resource Management in comparison
– 3.2.1 Dresden & Walldorf: Coordinating the production process
– 3.2.2 Dresden, Berlin(East): Digitization and standardization
– 3.2.3 Dresden, Guben, Moscow, Rostock: Subject area Oriented Programming Systems (SOPS)
– 3.2.4 Walldorf: SAP and modular integration
– 3.2.5 Dresden, Walldorf: Concepts for the In-formatization of reality
– 3.2.6 Dresden, Berlin(East): Rationalization between assembly line and transaction
– 3.2.7 Conclusion

3.3 California, Dresden University of Technology and Robotron Dresden: The Problem-oriented seminar »databases« and DABA 1600
– 3.3.1 A computer science center at the TU Dresden
– 3.3.2 Joint research and development – institutional framework
– 3.3.3 A problem-oriented seminar as a hub of knowledge transfer
– 3.3.4 Research results from the department of information processing
– 3.3.5 Transition from research and development to production
– 3.3.6 User information
– 3.3.7 Conclusion

4 Why databases, why now? Cooperative media practices of the database

4.1 Research questions
4.2 Results of the examined material
4.3 Results for the history of computing and software studies
4.4 Future research questions
4.5 Coda – Your return has been picked up

→ author: Francis Hunger, published on: 2020-Oct-22