DATABASE AS A SYMBOLIC FORM
The Database Logic
After the novel, and subsequently cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate — database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they don't have beginning or end; in fact, they don't have any development, thematically, formally or otherwise which would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, where every item has the same significance as any other.
Why does new media favor database form over others? Can we explain its popularity by analyzing the specificity of the digital medium and of computer programming? What is the relationship between database and another form, which has traditionally dominated human culture — narrative? These are the questions I will address in this article.
Before proceeding I need to comment on my use of the word database. 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. Different types of databases — hierarchical, network, relational and object-oriented — use different models to organize data. For instance, the records in hierarchical databases are organized in a treelike structure. Object-oriented databases store complex data structures, called "objects," which are organized into hierarchical classes that may inherit properties from classes higher in the chain. New media objects may or may not employ these highly structured database models; however, from the point of view of user's experience a large proportion of them are databases in a more basic sense. They appear as a collections of items on which the user can perform various operations: view, navigate, search. The user experience of such computerized collections is therefore quite distinct from reading a narrative or watching a film or navigating an architectural site. Similarly, literary or cinematic narrative, an architectural plan and database each present a different model of what a world is like. It is this sense of database as a cultural form of its own which I want to address here. Following art historian Ervin Panofsky's analysis of linear perspective as a "symbolic form" of the modern age, we may even call database a new symbolic form of a computer age (or, as philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard called it in his famous 1979 book Postmodern Condition, "computerized society"), a new way to structure our experience of ourselves and of the world. Indeed, if after the death of God (Nietzche), the end of grand Narratives of Enlightenment (Lyotard) and the arrival of the Web (Tim Berners-Lee) the world appears to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records, it is only appropriate that we will be moved to model it as a database. But it is also appropriate that we would want to develops poetics, aesthetics, and ethics of this database.
Let us begin by documenting the dominance of database form in new media. The most obvious examples of this are popular multimedia encyclopedias, which are collections by their very definition; as well as other commercial CD-ROM titles whichare collections as well — of recipes, quotations, photographs, and so on. The identity of a CD-ROM as a storage media is projected onto another plane, becoming a cultural form of its own. Multimedia works which have "cultural" content appear to particularly favor the database form. Consider, for instance, the "virtual museums" genre — CD-ROMs which take the user on a "tour" through a museum collection. A museum becomes a database of images representing its holdings, which can be accessed in different ways: chronologically, by country, or by artist. Although such CD-ROMs often simulate the traditional museum experience of moving from room to room in a continuous trajectory, this "narrative" method of access does not have any special status in comparison to other access methods offered by a CD-ROM. Thus the narrative becomes just one method of accessing data among others. Another example of a database form is a multimedia genre which does not has an equivalent in traditional media — CD-ROMs devoted to a single cultural figure such as a famous architect, film director or writer. Instead of a narrative biography we are presented with a database of images, sound recordings, video clips and/or texts which can be navigated in a variety of ways.
CD-ROMs and other digital storage media (floppies, andDVD-ROMs) proved to be particularly receptive to traditional genres which already had a database-like structure,such as a photo-album; they also inspired new database genres, like a database biography. Where the database form really flourished, however, is on the Internet. As defined by original HTML, a Web page is a sequential list of separate elements: text blocks, images, digital video clips, andlinks to other pages. It is always possible to add a new element to the list — all you have to do is to open a file and add a new line. As a result, most Web pages are collections of separate elements: texts, images, links to other pages or sites. A home page is a collection of personal photographs. A site of a major search engine is a collection of numerous links to other sites (along with a search function, of course). A site of a Web-based TV or radio station offers a collections of video or audio programs along with the option to listen to the current broadcast; but this current program is just one choice among many other programs stored on the site. Thus thetraditional broadcasting experience, which consistedsolely of a real-time transmission, becomes just one element in a collectionof options. Similar to the CD-ROM medium, the Web offered fertile ground to already existing database genres (for instance, bibliography) and also inspired the creation of new ones such as the sites devoted to a person or a phenomenon (Madonna, Civil War, new media theory, etc.) which, even if they contain original material, inevitably center around the list of links to other Web pages on the same person or phenomenon.
The open nature of the Web as medium (Web pages are computer files which can always be edited) means that the Web sites never have to be complete; and they rarely are. The sites always grow. New links are being added to what is already there. It is as easy to add new elements to the end of list as it is to insert them anywhere in it. All this further contributes to the anti-narrative logic of the Web. If new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story. Indeed, how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?
Data and Algorithm
Of course not all new media objects are explicitly databases. Computer games, for instance, are experienced by their players as narratives. In a game, the player is given a well-defined task — winning the match, being first in a race, reaching the last level, or reaching the highest score. It is this task which makes the player experience the game as a narrative. Everything which happens to her in a game, all the characters and objects she encounters either take her closer to achieving the goal or further away from it. Thus, in contrast to the CD-ROM and Web databases, which always appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material could have been added without in any way modifying the logic of the database, in a game, from a user's point of view, all the elements are motivated ( i.e., their presence is justified).
Often the narrative shell of a game ("you are the specially trained commando who has justlanded on a Lunar base; your task is to make your way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel...") masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary "Tetris": when a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear. The similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer games do not follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic — that of an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to win.
An algorithm is the key to the game experience in a different sense as well. As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually discovers the rules which operate in the universe constructed by this game. She learns its hidden logic, in short its algorithm. Therefore, in games where the game play departs from following an algorithm,the player is still engaged with an algorithm, albeit in another way: she is discovering the algorithm of the game itself. I mean this both metaphorically and literally: for instance, in a first person shooter, such as "Quake,"the player may eventually notice that under such and such condition the enemies will appear from the left, i.e. she will literally reconstruct a part of thealgorithm responsible for the game play. Or, in a diffirent formulation of the legendary author of Sim games Will Wright, "Playing the game is a continuos loop between the user (viewing the outcomes and inputting decisions) and the computer (calculating outcomes and displaying them back to the user). The user is trying to build a mental model of the computer model."
What we encountered here is an example of the general principle of new media: theprojection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself. If in physics the world is made of atoms and in genetics it is made of genes, computer programming encapsulates the world according to its own logic. The world is reduced to two kinds of software objects which are complementary to each other: data structures and algorithms. Any process or task is reduced to an algorithm, a final sequence of simple operations which a computer can execute to accomplish a given task. And any object in the world — be it thepopulation of a city, or theweather over the course of a century, a chair, a human brain — is modeled as a data structure, i.e. data organized in a particular way for efficient search and retrieval. Examples of data structures are arrays, linked lists and graphs. Algorithms and data structures have a symbiotic relationship. The more complex the data structure of a computer program, the simpler the algorithm needs to be, and vice versa. Together, data structures and algorithms are two halves of the ontology of the world according to a computer.
The computerization of culture involves theprojection of these two fundamental parts of computer software — and of thecomputer's unique ontology — onto thecultural sphere. If CD-ROMs and Web databases are cultural manifestations of one half of this ontology — data structures, thencomputer games are manifestations of the second half — algorithms. Games (sports, chess, cards, etc.) are one cultural form which required algorithm-like behavior from the players; consequently, many traditional games were quickly simulated on computers. In parallel, new genres of computer games came into existence such as a first person shooter ("Doom," "Quake"). Thus, as it was the case with database genres, computer games both mimic already existing games and create new game genres.
It may appear at first sight that data is passive and algorithm is active — another example of passive-active binary categories so loved by human cultures. A program reads in data, executes an algorithm, and writes out new data. We may recall that before "computer science" and "software engineering" became established names for thecomputer field, it was called "data processing." This name remained in use for a few decades during which computers were mainly associated with performing calculations over data. However, the passive/active distinction is not quite accurate since data does not just exist — it has to be generated. Data creators have to collect data and organize it, or create it from scratch. Texts need to written, photographs need to be taken, video and audio need to be recorded. Or they need to be digitized from already existing media. In the 1990’s, when the new role of a computer as a Universal Media Machine became apparent, already computerized societies went into adigitizing craze. All existing books and video tapes, photographs and audio recordings started to be fed into computers at an ever increasing rate. Steven Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation which videotaped and then digitized numerous interviews with Holocaust survivors; it would take one person forty years to watch all the recorded material. The editors of Mediamatic journal, who devoted a whole issueto the topic of "the storage mania" (Summer 1994) wrote: "A growing number of organizations are embarking on ambitious projects. Everything is being collected: culture, asteroids, DNA patterns, credit records, telephone conversations; it doesn't matter." Once it is digitized, the data has to be cleaned up, organized, indexed. The computer age brought with it a new cultural algorithm: reality-> media->data->database. The rise of the Web, this gigantic and always changing data corpus, gave millions of people a new hobby or profession: data indexing. There is hardly a Web site which does not feature at least a dozen links to other sites, therefore every site is a type of database. And, with the rise of Internet commerce, most large-scale commercial sites have become real databases, or rather front-ends to company databases. For instance, in the Fall of 1998, Amazon.com, an online book store, had 3 million books in its database; and the maker of leading commercial database Oracle has offered Oracle 8i, fully intergrated with the Internet and featuring unlimited database size, natural-langauge queries and support for all multimedia data types. Jorge Luis Borges's story about a map which was equal in size to the territory it representedbecame re-written as the story about indexes and the data they index. But now the map has become larger than the territory. Sometimes, much larger. Porno Web sites exposed the logic of the Web to its extreme by constantly re-using the same photographs from other porno Web sites. Only rare sites featured the original content. On any given date, the same few dozen images would appear on thousands of sites. Thus, the same data would give rise to more indexes than the number of data elements themselves.
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 anexclusive 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, andthe events. From this perspective, I can re-write my earlier equations between the two parts of thecomputer'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; butbehind 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 ofits 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." 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.") 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.") Although each of these works engages the user in a set of behaviors and cognitive activities which arequite 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. Or they may be radically different from each other, as in Moscow WWWArt Centre. 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 beunderstood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. A traditionallinear narrative is one, among many other possibletrajectories; i.e. a particular choice made within a hyper-narrative. Just as a traditional cultural object can nowbe 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 caseof 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." 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 justcreate 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 erroneousassumption 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. 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 areall 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.