Databases in new media

Nearing the pointy end of the course I suppose it’s only to be expected that the readings begin to tackle more complex aspects of networked media. This half-week’s readings by Lev Manovich and Bill Seaman taken from a 2007 text on Database Aesthetics, approach databases in ways I’d probably never have considered without their prompting.

Manovich’s ‘Database As A Symbolic Form’ discusses the place of databases in new media, in juxtaposition with the role of narrative in cinema. Manovich writes that the user’s experience of new media databases is basic:

‘a collection of items on which the user can perform various operations: view navigate, and search’ p. 39

New media objects are a collection of individual items (or terms) of equal significance. Examples of database presentations in new media may take the form of multimedia encyclopaedias, collections of recipes, photos or quotes, or multimedia works of cultural content such as virtual museums where the user can access, browse and click through items under different categories such as works by a particular artist, from a designated country, or perhaps chronologically.

I found a pleasing link between this illustration of databases in new media, and the Pinterest niki project we’ve just completed. Pinterest is, in my understanding, a near perfect depiction of the new media database phenomenon. Choose a category, scroll through selected pins and re-pin those you choose into self-designated groups or themes.

Manovich confirms the database structure as being central to new media and the internet age:

‘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.’ p. 41

Fundamentally, what the database form presents the user with is choice. Websites are ever-growing, are continually open for editing with additions possible at any stage of its existence. Consider Wikipedia, for example. Even disregarding that it’s primary function is that of an encyclopaedia, it is one of the most accurate, up to date sources of factual information because it is so alive. As soon as one of its entrants is pronounced dead, Wikipedia will have it covered. Any major world event will be documented, checked, corrected and updated all in realtime. Manovich says this contributes to the ‘anti narrative logic of the Web’ (p. 41), because

‘If new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story.’ p. 41

Subsequently, new media generally don’t present with the narrative arc so central to more traditional media. Databases are disorderly, fragmented by design. In contrast, narratives are linear and have a cause and effect trajectory.

To extrapolate on this binary, consider the design of any website.

After typing in a URL or obtaining the address via the most basic database structure, a search engine, you arrive at a home page. Presented with categorical choices, you click on the link most likely to direct you to the content you seek. Alternately, if the website’s creator thinks their database is suitably large, you may have the option of conducting an internal search of the site, to locate your information without sifting through a plethora of categories with multiple branches, and sub-branches within. This function acts as an index does, essentially providing you with a ‘page number’ on which you’ll find the desired result.

I suspect the ways in which this functions differently to a traditional narrative structure requires no further explanation.

However, Manovich notes that ‘not all new media objects are explicitly databases’ (p. 41). Computer games are experienced as narratives, with cause and effect rhythms and usually a conclusive end point. Yet the way the game is designed is around ‘hidden logic[s]’ (p. 41) – algorithms – which the player then executes to win the game. Consequently, each decision the player makes opens up the subsequent layer of relative choices, and the next and the next, which suggests a database structure rather than that of a pre-constructed narrative.

Considering websites as databases enabled me to connect this half-week’s content to prior class symposiums and readings on hypertexts and networked science. Each idea reinforces we are all a sum of our parts and it is the ways in which we link these separates together that equips us to function as we are.

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