Database as a Genre of New Media

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?


5 Replies to “Database as a Genre of New Media”

  1. I think you got his argument spot on. The database as new media is an interesting concept. Thinking of the whole internet as a database is something I hadn't thought of, but is completely accurate. It just holds information, waiting for the magic words or links to bring you what you want. What surprised me about this article is his lack of discussion of wikis. How many articles does wikipedia have now? Another example is TV Tropes, which is all about the tropes you see in narrative media, such as TV and literature. There is hardly any narrative to these sites, all just designed to give you information. These sites are truly where his argument shine.

  2. Intensedebate is making me split this comment into 3 parts….


    I found this to be a refreshingly concise and interesting dialectic… albeit about computer science. Rather than give some ambiguous opinion about the message at large, I wanted to comment on a specific point that Manovich makes in the second to last paragraph of the piece.

    Manovich, on page 5, contrasts 2D traditional art with 'new media objects' because "it is possible to create different interfaces to the same material" with these new 'objects. In my reading of the article, this metaphor of the 'new media object' as pieces of art recurred in the second to last paragraph. He discusses the traditional standards of what makes up a narrative and supports why the navigation of a database is, in its essence, a narrative… and why sometimes it is not. To quote:

    1. P.2

      This passage struck me as a challenge to what ubiquitously makes a viewer's, or 'user's', experience with a piece of art or 'object' a valid narrative. The query also reminds me of my post on the graphic essay and the battle between the subjectivity of something's creation and the objectivity of its viewership. Manovich poses that "an arbitrary sequence of database records, constructed by the user" does not necessarily serve as a uniquely user generated narrative. And I think what his argument is getting at is that there really is no such thing.
      In an 'interactive narrative', users can string together seemingly arbitrary sequences. Yet these sequences might (…probably) follow an anticipated, predetermined, and preprogrammed series of algorithms that will result in a seemingly unique narrative… for the sheer pleasure and entertainment of the user. And if the user manages to string together a completely arbitrary sequence of morcels from a database and there no algorithm exists to make sense of them, then there is no narrative at all. It is completely random, nonsensical and that's that.

      1. P.3

        What got me thinking is that if a 'new media object' is compared to a piece of abstract art… and a viewer of that piece of art walks up to it and lists off twenty arbitrary, subjective words to describe their reaction to it, and none of them are aligned with the artist's original intention/meaning… has the viewer outright failed to create a narrative? Does he/she lose the game if he doesn't get it right? If my or your narrative does not align with an algorithm in the computer world, are we locked out and written off? I don't know, maybe I'm taking this too far. But obviously Manovich's proposal has gotten through to my brain's algorithms.

  3. Very interesting and strikes a chord and resonance for me to Data Journalism. The ability for the audience to be able to analyse and derive their own perspective from the way they interact and select from that data makes it if anything a more creative resource and likely to lead to more potential patterns and abstractions from that data.

    For instance, with reference to Roosevelt biography, I recently conducted a text mining exercise on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebooks, using the source as data rather than narrative text. It proved a very interesting process. Maybe the ability to integrate straight data with text mining and images, video etc as a toolkit would be even more powerful.

    Your post is thought provoking thank you and apologies for the digression.

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