Ph.D. research outline as of Summer 2022. 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

Artist website and statement at www.irmielin.org


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Francis Hunger, databasecultures@datadmin


Content Table and short theses below. I wrote the dissertation in German and currently ranslate it to English.

The form of the database – genealogies, operationalities and praxeologies of relational databases in East and West.

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 practice 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 develops important concepts used throughout the book. It 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 it 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

In this second part, three sections explore the genealogies of the relational database. How did the concepts emerge, which later formed the relational database? The first section looks into formatting data through the processing of structured data with relational algebra. It explains how structure creates 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 explores how data was activated through formalizing data input and through a new query language for predicate logic, today known as SQL. It 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.

The section 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 and the machine independence of data.
Finally, this section explains 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 (hence ‘relational database’). These allowed for then 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 AND school_district = 817“.


This section begins by exploring 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 diagrammatic reading of table contents unfold through a periodical order and spatial order. It then conceptualizes knowledge operations as traversing tabular space.

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 “The Literature of the Middle Ages in National Categories”, statistics of silk production under king Louis XIV., planning tables for business process and organization as suggested by Frederick W. Taylor in the 1920s and the work of human computers on logarithmic tables in the U.S. of the 1930’s.

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 (for filling in the voids). Adding a new column to a table is identified as one of the most important epistemic operations, since it creates new data space. This observation allows to mark the tabular grid as a discursive practice. The section closes with the conceptualization of queries and set logic as inter-medium between the surface (the user interface) and the machinic depth (processing and memory) of computers.


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. Finally, the chapter explore On-Line Analytical Processing (OLAP), a data practice of the 1990s, which eventually led towards what we know as ‘Big Data’ today.

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) in the 1970s to 1990s and asks whether there has been a ‘socialist’ database management software. Unearthing important yet 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 important socio-economic concepts around software production in East German, this section explores 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 coordination of production and services, namely 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 Robotron’s Subject-Oriented Programming Systems (SOPS).

What may 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.

With these case studies in mind, 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 ‘efficiency’, 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 explores how the Computer Science Centre at the Technical University Dresden in cooperation with Robotron created the first self-developed relational Database Management System in the GDR during the 1980s. It 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.

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.

This chapter 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.

The form of the database – genealogies, operationalities and praxeologies of relational databases in East and West.

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

Short Theses

Relational databases order the world and enable cooperation. Whenever software is mentioned, relational databases are always already a prerequisite. From the perspective of cultural techniques research, this dissertation examines the genealogies and the operationality of relational databases, the tabular origins of knowledge order in databases, and the economic processes encoded as transactions, and how they became mappable in relational database management systems.

Further, the genesis of the concept ‘database’ in the 1970s from Management Resource Planning applications is investigated in East and West. Since previous historiography has focused strongly on a single actor and the situation in the U.S., the project contrasts this narrative with the example of the Eastern European GDR in the years 1970-1990. By juxtaposing SOPS (East Germany) and SAP (West Germany), differences and similarities of long-term software applications in capitalism and socialism can be worked out.

The following theses guide the project:

– The emergence of the relational database can be observed at the threshold of the economic global networking of late industrial capitalism and at the transition from disciplinary to control society. It enables international flows of goods, people and information and is a fundamental medium of cooperation in a global infrastructure of information processing.

– Relational databases are part of an emergent complex of knowledge organization anchored in cultural techniques. In addition to their mathematical-logical operationalization based on set theory, it is tabulation and process-related practices of transactional symbol processing that add new, collaborative registers.

– In contrast to Artificial Intelligence or networks, (relational) databases are genealogically linked less to cybernetic concepts of information and more to registering and coordinating everyday practices, which leads to the necessity of an adequate reformulation of the concept of ‘information’ as ‘in-formation’.

– The comparative view of the emergence of relational databases in the West and East at the transition from the mainframe to the personal computer reveals media specifics in conception and use.

In the course of the dissertation, a materiality of data (in databases) is established. Media theory discourse, which has to a large extend concentrated on algorithms, will be supplemented by the triad of data-model-algorithm and the concept of in-formation. Further, the investigation of actual software in the GDR provides new historical insights into database practices.

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