My blog post below about Fouche’s use of a card index system to counter crime and terrorism in the early 1800s, led me down an interesting path to the inventor of card indexing, Carl Linnaeus in about 1760. What’s fascinating is that Linnaeus was faced with a very modern problem – volume of data. At the time the range of scientific discoveries of new flora and fauna caused an information overload. Linnaeus and other scientists of the time were overwhelmed with new information in large quantities. Big data is only a relative term.
Linnaeus needed a system that could record the data so that it could be retrieved from a number of directions, so he “invented” the process of card indexes, filling three cards for each new artefact, cross referencing them, then storing them in a particular order to allow easy retrieval. Not too dissimilar from any modern database, of course, but at the time it was quite a conceptual step, and required a taxonomy or ontology, in a sense. What comes first – the concept of the database or the concept of a taxonomy? Is it the need to organise the data that demands a taxonomy or does the taxonomy allow the creation of a database?
Linnaeus started off using large sheets of paper but in the 1760s moved to smaller cards as they were more manageable, physically to sort and order. Actually I think there is more to the simple index card concept of Linnaeus that meets the eye, and similarities with modern analytical tools that are not immediately apparent. I’m neither a database specialist nor an IT expert, so these are somewhat amateur comments. I’d be interested for the views of some of my colleagues who do have their head around modern tools such as Palantir:
- Linnaeus and Fouche’s card indexes demanded useful summaries of information in digestible quantities. So they force some “thought” before ingestion of data,
- Linnaeus could cope with different “formats”. Linnaeus included sketches on his cards to aid comprehension. Modern database analysis tools also allow different formats.
- Input is defined by the size of the card, demanding appropriate brevity and conciseness. The identity of the “inputter” can be inferred either from the handwriting or by a set of initials of the author. Dates too can be recorded.
- Moving index cards around a desk (easy because of their size) allows a visual component of the analysis process)
In summary, of course modern tools like Palantir are so much better but there are conceptual parts of the 250 year old card index system that are remarkably similar to modern tools, in ways that are not immediately obvious.