Data and Reality (William Kent)

A book that’s eternally useful to me in modelling data is William Kent’s Data and Reality. Written in what we might call the dark ages of computing, it’s not about specific technologies, but about unchanging but ever-changing reality, and strategies to represent it. Any time I get confused about how to model something or how to untangle someone else’s representation, I reread a relevant section.

The third ambiguity has to do with thing and symbol, and my new terms
didn’t help in this respect either. When I explore some definitions of
the target part of an attribute, I get the impression (which I can’t
verify from the definitions given!) that the authors are referring to
the representations, e.g., the actual four letter sequence “b-l-u-e”,
or to the specific character sequence “6 feet”. (Terms like “value”,
or “data item”, occur in these definitions, without adequate further
definition.) If I were to take that literally, then expressing my
height as “72 inches” would be to express a different attribute from
“six feet”, since the “value” (?) or “data item” (?) is different. And
a German describing my car as “blau”, or a Frenchman calling it
“bleu”, would be expressing a different attribute from “my car is
blue”. Maybe the authors don’t really mean that; maybe they really are
willing to think of my height as the space between two points, to
which many symbols might correspond as representations. But I can’t be
sure what they intend.
—Bill Kent

I originally read the 1978 edition in a library, eventually got the 1998 ebook, and as of 2012 there’s a posthumous 3rd edition which I haven’t seen; I would worry that “updated examples” would change the prose for the worse, and without Bill having the chance to stop an editor.

See also Bill Kent’s website for some of his photography and other papers.

This book projects a philosophy that life and reality are at bottom
amorphous, disordered, contradictory, inconsistent, non- rational, and
non-objective. Science and much of western philosophy have in the past
presented us with the illusion that things are otherwise. Rational views
of the universe are idealized models that only approximate reality. The
approximations are useful. The models are successful often enough in
predicting the behavior of things that they provide a useful foundation
for science and technology. But they are ultimately only approximations
of reality, and non-unique at that.

This bothers many of us. We don’t want to confront the unreality of
reality. It frightens, like the shifting ground in an earthquake. We are
abruptly left without reference points, without foundations, with
nothing to stand on but our imaginations, our ethereal self-awareness.

So we shrug it off, shake it away as nonsense, philosophy, fantasy. What
good is it? Maybe if we shut our eyes the notion will go away.
—Bill Kent