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