Lev Manovich is an accomplished thinker in the field of new media. In his short piece, “Database as a Genre of New Media,” he makes the case that databases represent a fundamental paradigm shift in the way that people think about the organization and presentation of information. Databases as a non-narrative, not necessarily linear way of organizing data did not originate with the digital age – they were found previously in, say, encyclopedias or photo archives – but they have experienced a renaissance in that time. Video games, your hard drive, and the Internet are all databases, and they all represent a way to present data free of the constraints of logic and coherence imposed by the narrative form.
As Manovich puts it, “As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies.” He argues that the very term “narrative” is abused in the interactive databases of the Internet and video games, where users may respond to preprogrammed variables, whether they are hyperlinks or Koopa Troopas. A narrative is something carefully constructed by its author constituting “a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors.” It is careless to assume that a user will automatically derive this experience from a database without considered input from its author – narrative is “used as all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that we have not yet developed a language to describe these new strange objects.”
Manovich argues that since databases are free of the “cause-and-effect trajectory” of the narrative form, they can, through ever-increasingly complex organizational forms come to represent a more complete simulacrum of reality. The implication of his vision seems to be that databases will mimic real-life systems in incredible detail – a city, a historical figure, or even a whole historical society – and users will be able to interact with these simulacrums in apparently natural, non-narrative ways.
Imagine – if, instead of writing an exhaustive three volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris had programmed the entirety of his research into an algorithm which imitated Teddy himself. Students of history wouldn’t need to read about Teddy – they could go bear hunting with a database that simulates his appearance, his behavior, his patterns of speech in virtual reality. In this way, they could experience the man as he was – Teddy 2.0 would not shoot that simulated bear cub either. Am I getting this right?
Each method – narrative and database – has its own merits to recommend it, but as the genre of database evolves into ever more sophisticated forms, narrative as a construct is likely to fall more and more by the wayside in favor of organizational techniques better suited to their unique matter.
A little help – am I overstating his argument? Missing it completely?