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  Database as a symbolic form

  [ Lev Manovich ] *

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  The Database Logic

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> The Database Logic

> Data and algorithm

> Database and Narrative

> The semiotics of database

> A database complex

> Database cinema:
  Greenaway and Vertov

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.(1) 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»),(2) 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 which are collections as well — of recipes, quotations, photographs, and so on.(3) 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, and DVD-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, and links 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 the traditional broadcasting experience, which consisted solely of a real-time transmission, becomes just one element in a collection of 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?

(1) «database» Britannica Online.
[Accessed 27 November 1998].

(2) Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984),3.

(3) As early as 1985 Grolier, Inc. issued text-only «Academic American Encyclopedia» on CD-ROM. First multimedia encyclopedia was «Compton's MultiMedia Encyclopedia» published in 1989.