May 10, 2007

The Database

Administrator’s Note: This week’s post, the last of this semester, is by Randolph Williams and it focuses our attention on theories of the narrative as related to New Media.

“In computer science, database is defined as a structured collection of data. The data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval by a computer and therefore it is anything but a simple collection of items.”


Lev Manovich, believes that the database form has replaced the narrative as new media favors this form over others. New media is defined through objects borne from the computer age. This database form is problematic because it creates a rift in the way human culture has previously stored information. Previously, humans have constructed ways to store and display information that allow a viewer to gauge its significance within its context. The new media database not only allows for information to be pulled out of context, but also allows for information to be altered at any given moment. A continuous alteration of a database destroys the idea of a beginning, middle and end. The organization of the information is rendered arbitrary, because the user is aware that it is always being altered, and never truly complete.

“To qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy a number of criteria, which literary scholar Mieke Bal defines as follows: it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it also should contain three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story, and the fabula; and its ‘contents’ should be a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors.”

Manovich then describes the reinvention of the narrative through computer games. These games rely on algorithms to guide the user through the beginning, middle and end. Through Manovich’s description an algorithm is one’s objective, this objective is pre-programmed and is not altered. This is the predominant existence of the narrative in new media, and in a way bridges the gap between old and new society.

I believe that Manovich’s assessment of the way humans store information is an apt one, however, it seems that he believes that mankind doesn’t have the capacity to describe and adapt to the database. Although the digital age has in some ways rendered the hard copy obsolete, and has allowed for a flood of half truths to be given significance through the Internet, I believe that too much information is better than none. As literates, it is our responsibility to assess all information to find our truth.

4 comments:

Nicholas said...

I disagree with the notion that new media has destroyed the narrative. Through the database you create your own narrative that is ultimately guided by the information presented in the database. The narrative is undergoing an evolution of sorts that is allowing it to be more flexible and build on choices of the protaganist. The definition of a narrative in the database sense should probably be reworked but at its heart there is still a narrative being built through interaction; ultimately the narrative in the traditional sense will coexist with its evolved counterpart that has yet to be named.

patrickjdonovan said...

I would question whether the database is at this point a new aesthetic or that it has replaced the narrative. A database does not necessarily present information in a narrative format. However, it could be used to construct a narrative, as Manovich's discussion of video games suggests. Moreover, random or non-sequential presentations in art work are not new, such as John Cage's musical compositions and various plotless literature, examples of which I can't recall at the moment.

PS: FYI, there is a long article on Banksy the British graffiti artist, and a separate article on Chris Burden, in the May 14 edition of The New Yorker.

Also, you may have seen that on May 9, DCist described the CCAD as an art powerhouse.

Liana said...

I think that narrative has been changed by new media and technology. a lot of history is being lost and erased as non-important through email etc. history that would otherwise have helped future societies know more about our ways of life. I feel that a lot of new medis is changeable and not as reliable as hard copies, but that may just be my perception.

I also think that a lot of new media, for instance many video games etc. do not have a narrative because the point of them is to play them and try to change the narrative to your advantage, wheras if you were reading a book, the narrative is already laid out for you and you would read the narrative.

(from what I've seen so far, gender and age seem to play a role in this argument too b/c when i read my statement to some of my friends that are guys my age, they strongly disagreed with me that video games don't necessarily have a narrative)

Emma said...

new media has not replaced the narrative. we do, after all, still live and work in the world of painting where narrative will never die. however, this does not mean new media lacks narrative, this point is only subjective. while i do agree with liana's point about the erasure of emails we also know that most history is pieced together through other things not just letters. i don't think anyone could save/ print out every email ever written. it would be impossible.