Database as a symbolic form the Database Logic



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Database and Narrative


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. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.

In contrast to most games, most narratives do not require algorithm-like behavior from their readers. However, narratives and games are similar in that the user, while proceeding through them, must uncover its underlying logic — its algorithm. Just like a game player, a reader of a novel gradually reconstructs an algorithm (here I use it metaphorically) which the writer used to create the settings, the characters, and the events. From this perspective, I can re-write my earlier equations between the two parts of the computer's ontology and its corresponding cultural forms. Data structures and algorithms drive different forms of computer culture. CD-ROM’s, Web sites and other new media objects which are organized as databases correspond to the data structure; while narratives, including computer games, correspond to the algorithms.

In computer programming, data structures and algorithms need each other; they are equally important for a program to work. What happens in a cultural sphere? Do databases and narratives have the same status in computer culture?

Some media objects explicitly follow database logic in their structure while others do not; but behind the surface practically all of them are databases. In general, creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database. In the simplest case, the interface simply provides the access to the underlying database. For instance, an image database can be represented as a page of miniature images; clicking on a miniature will retrieve the corresponding record. If a database is too large to display all of its records at once, a search engine can be provided to allow the user to search for particular records. But the interface can also translate the underlying database into a very different user experience. The user may be navigating a virtual three-dimensional city composed from letters, as in Jeffrew Shaw's interactive installation "Legible City."10 Or she may be traversing a black and white image of a naked body, activating pieces of text, audio and video embedded in its skin (Harwood's CD-ROM "Rehearsal of Memory.")11 Or she may be playing with virtual animals which come closer or run away depending upon her movements (Scott Fisher et al, VR installation, "Menagerie.")12 Although each of these works engages the user in a set of behaviors and cognitive activities which are quite distinct from going through the records of a database, all of them are databases. "Legible City" is a database of three-dimensional letters which make up the city. "Rehearsal of Memory" is a database of texts and audio and video clips which are accessed through the interface of a body. And "Menagerie" is a database of virtual animals, including their shapes, movements and behaviors.

Database becomes the center of the creative process in the computer age. Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium. Therefore the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist. With new media, the content of the work and the interface become separate. It is therefore possible to create different interfaces to the same material. These interfaces may present different versions of the same work, as in David Blair's WaxWeb.13 Or they may be radically different from each other, as in Moscow WWWArt Centre.14 This is one of the ways in which the already discussed principle of variability of new media manifests itself. But now we can give this principle a new formulation. The new media object consists of one or more interfaces to a database of multimedia material. If only one interface is constructed, the result will be similar to a traditional art object; but this is an exception rather than the norm.

This formulation places the opposition between database and narrative in a new light, thus redefining our concept of narrative. The "user" of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records as established by the database's creator. An interactive narrative (which can be also called "hyper-narrative" in an analogy with hypertext) can then be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. A traditional linear narrative is one, among many other possible trajectories; i.e. a particular choice made within a hyper-narrative. Just as a traditional cultural object can now be seen as a particular case of a new media object (i.e., a new media object which only has one interface), traditional linear narrative can be seen as a particular case of a hyper-narrative.

This "technical," or "material" change in the definition of narrative does not mean that an arbitrary sequence of database records is a narrative. 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."15 Obviously, not all cultural objects are narratives. However, in the world of new media, the word “narrative” is often used as all-inclusive term, to cover up the fact that we have not yet developed a language to describe these new strange objects. It is usually paired with another over-used word — interactive. Thus, a number of database records linked together so that more than one trajectory is possible, is assumed to be constitute "interactive narrative." But to just create these trajectories is of course not sufficient; the author also has to control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connection so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative as outlined above. Another erroneous assumption frequently made is that by creating her own path (i.e., choosing the records from a database in a particular order) the user constructs her own unique narrative. However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all. Indeed, why should an arbitrary sequence of database records, constructed by the user, result in "a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors"?

In summary, database and narrative do not have the same status in computer culture. In the database / narrative pair, database is the unmarked term.16 Regardless of whether new media objects present themselves as linear narratives, interactive narratives, databases, or something else, underneath, on the level of material organization, they are all databases. In new media, the database supports a range of cultural forms which range from direct translation (i.e., a database stays a database) to a form whose logic is the opposite of the logic of the material form itself — a narrative. More precisely, a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the medium itself which would foster its generation. It is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape. What is more surprising is why the other end of the spectrum — narratives — still exist in new media.





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