The Database and Narrative Form

See page 218 in The Language of New Media

“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 — the database.  Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence.  Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.”

In his efforts to distinguish new media from traditional media, Manovich posits a distinction between narrative and the database.  This distinction serves to illustrate a conception of art history that understands the prevailing mode of cultural expression primarily in terms of what technological capabilities are available for use.  Implicit in this conception of art history is a sequential progression of media forms, wherein the book leads to cinema, which in turn leads to the computer; the computer, being most recent, is therefore more advanced or complex than cinema or the novel.  Additionally, this distinction overtly connects the novel with linearity, to make the novel a representative of traditional media generally; simultaneously, the database is connected to non-linearity and taken as a representative form of the new media.  The manner in which this argument is constructed, however, creates a number of problems.

For example: the choice to oppose traditional forms to the database is in many respects arbitrary.  Manovich’s choice to associate the novel with linearity as a means to signify the properties of traditional media glosses over common traditional forms for which this association is meaningless.  It makes no sense to discuss a painting or a photograph in terms of the linearity Manovich attributes to narrative — even though a picture can tell a story worth a thousand words.  Neither does it make sense to discuss a single painting or photograph as a database — especially if the image is visually abstract, and therefore not amenable to description as a collection of distinct objects.  Even if Manovich’s account of literary works is taken at face value, novels such as Finnegan’s Wake can be understood as organizaed towards a depth of referentiality rather than anything linear or narrative; the same holds for poetry.

Furthermore, Manovich’s definition of the database is profoundly unclear.  After describing the database as a collection “of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other,” Manovich provides contradictory details further down the same page.  If, for example, a database can be “organized into hierarchical classes,” it follows that, if two elements are located at different levels of the hierarchy, they by definition possess a different sort of significance (even though an interface may render this hierarchy transparent to a user).

Finally, Manovich does not here take into account that a user of a database may well experience the database as a sequence of events — though the beginning and end points of that sequence may well be arbitrary.  When a user accesses an electronic encyclopedia, for example, he or she does not experience the whole collection at once: a user might begin with what seems like a reasonable starting point, and make numerous attempts to more narrowly focus his or her investigation of some subject matter.

Like any printed reference text, such as a dictionary or a thesaurus, an electronic encyclopedia may be experienced in an arbitrary order, and it is the careful tailoring of individual sentences into a logical sequence that gives the text its meaning — not whether those sentences are bound in an alphabetized book or stored on a CD-ROM.  A video game too may be stored as a database on disc, but may only have meaning in virtue of the sequence in which a user accesses different parts of that database.  The designer of a database often enough provides a means by which users can access the database in a structured, sequential, manner.

Omitting a discussion of this structuring of experience results in something like trying to describe a novel in terms of the properties of the alphabet.

Addressing The Myth of Random Access

See page 51 in The Language of New Media

After Manovich enumerates his Five Principles of New Media, he proceeds to address a number of “popularly held notions about the difference between new media and old media.”  He seeks to discredit these notions as insufficient to distinguish new media from traditional media insofar as they are “not unique to new media, but can be found in older media technologies as well.”

The third such notion that Manovich addresses is the ability of new media to support the “random access” of information.  Manovich formulates this popular notion as follows:

“New media allow for random access.  In contrast to film or videotape, which store data sequentially, computer storage devices make it possible to access any data element equally fast.”

The background of this claim involves an important technical concept in contemporary computer design.  When people talk about how much “memory” their computer has, they frequently refer to Random Access Memory (often called RAM), as opposed to hard disk space.  Hard disk space is where computer programs and user files are kept for long-term storage; RAM is like a scratch pad that a computer uses while manipulating data retrieved from a hard disk.  Although today, hard disks are quite fast, this distinction represents an important development in the history of computing, as data was once stored on magnetic tape.  Historically, for a computer to access a given file, it needed to fast-forward or rewind a large amount of tape in order to retrieve the data requested by a user.  As this could be a time-consuming process, solid state RAM technology was developed in part so that once the relevant data was located on the tape, that data could then be manipulated with less delay.  Cost was among the primary reasons that solid state RAM was not used for all storage.

Thus, distinctions between new media and old media based on the concept of “random access” would draw an analogy between film and the magnetic tape that computers once commonly used to store data.  To view a particular frame in a given film, one must feed the film through a projector and first view every preceding frame — even though one may not be interested in all those other frames.  Under this analogy, new media represent the invention of RAM, and therefore the ability to easily retrieve an arbitrary piece of information without having to review a mountain of unimportant data first.

This analogy is meant to draw attention to an important functional distinction between new media and old media.  The perceived relevance of this distinction is that new media facilitate a unique form of non-linear interaction which was impossible to achieve with previous media technologies such as film.  As Manovich here observes, “once a film is digitized and loaded into a computer’s memory, any frame can be accessed with equal ease.”  Thus, new media are purported to provide unique ways of fragmenting and re-ordering time and space.

Although Manovich (perhaps correctly) denies that “random access” is sufficient to create a unique identity for new media, his argument here fails to directly address why.  One of Manovich’s central objectives in The Language of New Media is to ground the emerging conventions of new media in an existing body of literature on film criticism; to this end, his argument against the relevance of “random access” relies on various precedents in the history of cinema — such as the Phenakistiscope and the Zoopraxiscope — that demonstrate a rudimentary form of “random access” in non-digital motion picture technology.  However, the ability to scan through time “mapped onto two-dimensional space” found in esoteric technologies such as the Phenakistiscope is not really present in cinema as we understand it today; thus, the critique which Manovich would here present is more an observation of a historical coincidence than it is an observation about how the development of cultural and artistic traditions contributed to certain ways of perceiving and ordering experience.

If we abandon Manovich’s assumption that the history of cinema provides the most appropriate way to interpret the emergence of new media aesthetics, we can then see that other, less esoteric examples of “random access” in pre-existing media forms not only make themselves apparent, but also provide more compelling evidence to substantiate claims against the purported importance of “random access.”

Most obviously, the printed book is a traditional media form that readily supports “random access.”  The ability to access arbitrary information in a printed book is what gives reference texts such as dictionaries and encyclopedias their utility.  Moreover, the liturgical function of the Bible relies on the ability to retrieve specific passages — and those passages only — on different occasions.  If we consider that printed books can contain material other than text, we are obliged to acknowledge that books of art reproductions and magazines are frequently browsed in highly non-linear ways.  The “choose-your-own-adventure” book is just one example of the ways in which the non-linear, “random access” features of print can be exploited for aesthetic ends.

In “old media” such as painting and photography, analyses which oppose the purported linearity of traditional media forms to the non-linearity of new media break down.  It makes little sense to speak of an individual painting or a photograph as sequential, since any part of the image can be viewed at any time without first having to review large amounts of irrelevant information.  The cultural values that give rise to different modes of expression or the widespread acceptance of certain modes of expression are more nuanced than presented by Manovich.  While recent history may present researchers with an entertaining menagerie of technological oddities and curious names, there are broader cultural trends that in many cases do better to illustrate the social and cultural dynamics influencing the development of different media.

Art and Interface

See page 227 in The Language of New Media

“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 are separated.”

The larger context for this claim relates to an application of Manovich’s Principle of Variability: a particular new media object can be viewed in many different ways.  As Manovich observes, new media make it possible to “create different interfaces to the same material.”  This is, however, more of a linguistic illusion resulting from the terms of Manovich’s reductionist analysis than it is an observation about how new media function (either as cultural traditions or as computer programs).

Manovich is here using the word “interface” in an expansive sense, wherein text and cinema, for example, are understood as “interfaces” to shared bodies of cultural knowledge and traditions.  It is somewhat unclear what, exactly, it might mean for Manovich to suggest that a new media object exists in multiple mediums in a way that is substantively distinct from traditional cultural productions.  A CD-ROM, for example, won’t fit into a radio; and while the audio contained on a CD-ROM can be played back over the radio, a painting can just as readily be reproduced in a book.  And while it is true that a particular image might be retrieved from a DVD Player as readily as from a web browser — thus providing an example of multiple interfaces to the same work — it is still unclear how this is substantively distinct from how one might appreciate the literary content of a traditional drama either on stage or in print.

The history of art is filled with countless variations on the themes of the creation myth of Judaism, the narrative of Christ, Greek folk heroes, and the like.  And while these mythologies are not themselves the creations of a single artist, distinct artworks which portray these myths are different “interfaces” to specific cultural productions.

Moreover, an artist who makes use of allegory and symbolism provides an audience multiple ways of “interfacing” with a given artwork.  Iconography and symbolism are frequently used in religious or philosophical art to indicate a transcendent reality distinct from the material world of the senses.  Likewise, allegory is used to implicate general truths distinct from the particular facts of a given narrative.  In a given painting, we may find symbolic uses of color, gesture, geometric composition strategies, and culturally significant objects used to generate different sorts of meaning.  One might appreciate the aesthetics of a painting’s colors or forms in a way quite distinct from what those colors and forms are being used to say about historical, philosophical, or mythological ideas.

It might be illustrative here to mention Dante’s notion of a “polysemous” artwork — that is, an artwork “endowed with many meanings.”  A polysemous artwork involves four distinct types of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  One literary statement might be at once appreciated for the economy and the skill of its construction, for the useful information it conveys, for the transcendent truths which it indicates, and for the moral teachings the statement imply.  A given reader need not be aware of each of these levels of meaning, nor be attentive to each to appreciate the others. Here we have a Mediaeval formulation of what multiple “interfaces” to a single artwork can look like.

Painting is more than pigments on canvas, just as a book is more than “a rectangular page containing one or more columns of text, illustrations or other graphics… pages that follow each other sequentially, a table of contents, and an index” (see page 71).  A book is also a cultural tradition; the obstacles an author (such as James Joyce) must overcome while trying to get a book published confer upon the book a type of authority.  That perception of authority contributes to how a reader might cognitively orient his- or herself to the text.  As more people read texts online, more people come to the realization that there is something emotionally satisfying about holding a bound book in their hands while they read — something quite apart from the content of the text, or what is required of one attempting to “interface” with the text.

While it may be argued at this point that what new media brings to art is the ability to make these multiple modes of “interfacing” somehow more explicit than what is found in traditional art forms, there is little reason to attribute this change to anything about how new media is structured.  The ability to “interface” with a work of art in multiple ways existed before the development of new media, and social practices designed to foreground this multiplicity likewise existed before the development of new media (the museum being an obvious example).  And while it may then be suggested that new media places this multiplicity “within” the artwork in a way distinct from that found in traditional media, Manovich’s argument would seem to preclude this line of reasoning, as he suggests that there is a distinct way in which “the content of the work and the interface are separated” in new media.

Moreover, the best interfaces are those which are most transparent: if, when a person sits at a computer, he or she spends too much time trying to figure out how to operate the computer, the interface is not a useful tool for getting actual work done.  Successful interfaces rely on common cultural signifiers, the consistent implementation of functional components, and a degree of unobtrusiveness.  If an industrial designer tries to be too innovative with the design of a light switch or a doorknob, users will become frustrated when they can’t figure out how to make it work.  And while there may be an aesthetic argument for new media artists addressing the conventions of the interface itself — of directly addressing the complexity of multiple interface possibilities — to identify this possibility as somehow inherent to new media practice misses the point of what an interface actually does.