Traditionally, a document was a piece of paper, whether it was an 8 ½ x 11 standard piece of paper, an 8 ½ x 14 legal piece of paper, or any of a number of standard paper sizes.

But really, what matters about a document is not the paper or other material that it’s on, but the stuff on it, whether it’s a drawing, painting, text, form, financial records, or whatever. The “document,” or the piece of paper or other material, is merely the container or the bucket.

This is still true today even when we have “electronic documents” that were born digital. Even though there’s no real reason for an electronic document to be 8 ½ x 11, many of them are still limited to that proportion, whether it’s in case someone wants to print it out or simply because that’s what people are used to,

Aside from limiting us in size, clinging to the notion of “document” also ends up limiting us in the context of accessing and re-using the data on the document. How often have you had to fill out more than one medical history at the doctor’s, because the two forms — even though they asked for the same data — were laid out differently? With electronic forms, how many are straight copies of paper ones, even if that layout is inefficient, irrelevant, or duplicative?

One of the neat aspects of a relational database, when it was first conceptualized, is that there was no longer “a” database and one wasn’t required to define an entire record that would always be the same for everyone. Instead, you could create an infinite number of databases by taking some information from one database and some information from another one, linked by a field they held in common called a primary key. This had the effect of essentially deconstructing the database.

We already have the concept of the DIKW hierarchy, which tries to explain the relationship between Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom: “Data is assembled to form information elements, and information is combined to create captured knowledge,” and then context is applied to the knowledge to provide wisdom (or insight, according to some authors).

Consequently, we can look at different ways to assemble data and information elements to form new knowledge. Instead of having data and information such as name, address, or Social Security number duplicated across multiple documents – taking up space, presenting a security risk, and introducing the possibility of errors if the information doesn’t match between documents – we could put together an infinite amount of knowledge by combining these elements, along with others.

But we can only do that if we can let go of the idea of the “document.”

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