Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Databases don't need narratives

Manovich's The Database seems to be critical of the fact that "many new media objects do not tell stories," in contrast to the novel and cinema, which were completely based on narratives. Though this is true, it seems to be a little too obvious, and seemingly irrelevent. The two forms of new media that this article explores are CD-Roms (more often educational CDs; for example, those that give museum tours or bibliographies) and the Internet. These have completely different purposes than novels or movies.

Yes, it might be valid to consider narrative "as the key form of cultural expression," but this is only because humans are entertained by stories. Even for nonfiction stories or filmatic bibliographies, narrative structures make the texts more entertaining (in some cases, just bearable). But this is kind of a tangent from my main point: to explain it in cliche terms, comparing novels and the Internet is comparing apples and oranges.

The Internet does not give narrative because it offers so much information (which is constantly changing and being extended) that the only way it can stay organized is by keeping every piece of information -- every link, every dictionary definition, every historical period -- as a separate entity. When a user logs on to Google, he is not looking for an entertaining story, he is looking for a quick answer. Having the Internet organized enough so that search engines can sort through ALL of the web's information in a second or so involves sacrificing a more permanent order or narrative.

Unfortunately, this article seems to consider this as a bad thing. Manovich argues that in new media, "the world appears to us as an endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other data records." Yes, the Internet structures the world as a database. But there is nothing wrong with the world being organized in those terms. It seems to me that the world is more an unstructured collection of people, ideas, and statistics than it is one traceable storyline, so why shouldn't it be outlined as such. The Internet helps us navigate this huge web of information.

Manovich also seems critical of the database's refusal to order its list of information. That, to me, is one of the beauties of the Internet: we don't need to browse through subject name or alphabetical lists to find information. The Internet can search through itself.

In short, this entire book seems to be focused on explaining why the Internet and CD-roms are databases, and that they don't have narratives. Nowhere does it explain why this is a problem, only that it is so. While I completely agree that this argument is correct, I don't see why it's an important one. In the same way, he explains that video games and film both have narratives. Again: so what? Though this idea might have been further developed in other chapters of this book, I think that the argument being made is hardly an argument at all, and could definately use some more explanation for, as Josh and Irene would say, "why it's telling."



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