Database and Narrative

Lev Manovich notes that traditional GUI use elements of the “real” work place to make its interface more readily understandable–files for storing, a trash can for deleting, etc.  However, he notes that if elements from our physical environment first migrated into the computational sphere, now the conventions of computation are migrating back into our physical reality.  It is an essentially bidirectional movement: just as we first used elements from the physical world to understand and represent computerized space, elements from computerized space are now being used to understand and represent the physical world.  The “database” is one such conception–it is, as Manovich describes it, the “symbolic form” of the computer age, a particular way of making meaning out of the world that fundamentally opposes traditional forms of meaning-making (in particular, narrative).  In short, the fundamental idea seems to be that changes in ways of thinking are the direct result of changes in the technology we design and use.

Manovich suggests that database and narrative are “natural enemies.”  In his view, databases are non-linear while narratives are linear, and narratives focus on rigid processes of selection while at the heart of database logic lies unlimited combination and juxtaposition.  Yet the very issue of order here demonstrates how messy such distinctions can get. While an impetus to cause-effect principles may lurk in the background of any narrative, it must be said that narrative form often complicates or calls into question such chronological or teleological order. And while databases always offer the possibility of re-ordering or relocating their records, any given representation of a database must, finally, present its contents in some order.   A database needs to be able to both collect and store new data and yet retain a certain (relatively) changeless underlying structure for organizing and presenting that data.

Katherine Hayles, I think more correctly, describes these two modes (database/narrative) as symbiotic and not antagonistic. As the various authors we read point out, the human impetus to “collect data” has always been present.  We see this, for instance, in the case of Whitman and his many catalogues. But typically, the mere collection of data is only the means to an end–to a certain interpretation of that data.  And in the fundamental logic of database design itself, the selection, collection, description, organization, and presentation of a database’s contents almost always involves narrative structures, including assumptions about how the information will be manipulated and used through the interface. Narrative and database, it seems, cannot easily be disentangled.  But I do think Manovich is on to something interesting when he considers the need for an “info-aesthetic” understanding of the database itself: what happens when a database becomes not merely the means to an end but an end in itself?

Drawing upon his experience as co-editor of The Walt Whitman Archive (headquarted in my hometown of Lincoln, NE) Folsom observes that traditional notions of genre are too rigid—or have been deployed too rigidly—to do justice to the “rhizomorphous” nature of many authors, Whitman in particular. Folsom happily argues that the database resists this rigidity of traditional notions of genre; and indeed, declares that database is itself a “new genre, the genre of the twenty-first century” (1576), one that fundamentally challenges two traditional cultural forms, narrative and archive. Yet if we consider the database as a concrete form of cultural expression, I wonder if conceptually pairing it with narrative only serves to efface its own idiosyncracies.  For undoubtedly, our way of accessing narratives (e.g., reading, listening, watching) is strikingly different than our way of accessing databases.  You may browse or search information contained within a database (i.e., the metadata), but you certainly don’t read that information in the very important sense of the word in which we read (or view or listen to) more traditional literary narratives.  It seems to me that the difference is not really one of genre, but of access or engagement, and the very different positional attitudes each mode asks us to assume. Folsom does indeed point out that “Leaves of Grass as a database is a text very different from Leaves of Grass contained within covers” (1578); however, what is key is not the different ontologies of the two texts, but rather the fundamentally different experiences of engaging with them (and this is perhaps the point, for if database is to be an entirely new form of aesthetics, it cannot, and should not, simply digitally replicate the experience of reading a printed book).


Roy Rosenzweig, History of the Internet

Rosenzweig’s essay concerns itself with a singular issue facing today’s historians and historiographers: namely, how might the history of the Internet be written?  As a “review essay,” most of the article’s pages are spent providing summaries and critical evaluations of recent works that try to write this history.  Each work is shown to describe their subject in markedly different ways, and none of the variations seem to fully please Rosenzweig; however, he does voice his appreciation of these authors’ efforts every now and again. It is to my mind noteworthy that this history is such a thorny problem to begin with, for it is perhaps indicative of the nature of historiography itself–considering most historical works focus on the all-too-human aspects of the events of the world (although not all, Braudel’s geological history of the Mediterranean comes to mind), historians, once they come face to face with computers, the very epitome of the artificial, do not quite know how or where to begin.

I have not read any of the authors Rosenzweig mentions; however, there are a number of conclusions from his evaluations I think we can draw. I will detail just three interconnected points:

  1. The history of the internet cannot not be divorced from broader historical developments. The internet is not (although it can sometimes appear to be) a world apart from the one in which we daily toil; subsequently, a history of the internet cannot avoid the cultural and social underpinnings that influenced its development.
  2. Taking cue from 1, we should always be cognizant of the internet’s origins in military spending (e.g., ARPA’s contracts with the Defense Dept.), and the constant possibility, in various permutations, of its potential for weaponization (useful to remember considering today’s political situations).
  3. The theory underlying the development of network systems and the internet must itself must be framed by two opposing tendencies:  the ideal of a “closed” world, built on the slag of Cold War paranoia, and the ideal of an “open” world, inspired by proponents of the 60’s dream of freedom and human connection.

Going a little beyond Rosenzweig’s essay, I cannot help but feel Benjamin’s essay looms large when considering these issues, especially when it comes to historical preservation.  Historians usually like to work with original source documents; since this is not always feasible, reproductions may do.  Historians have almost always (until now) worked with physical reproductions (like copies on microforms).  The arrival of computers and the internet, however, has opened up the vast realm of digital reproductions.  Thus, even while historians are busying themselves with how to actually write a history of the internet, the internet is all the while shaping and influencing the way historians think and do their work.  Any “history of the internet” thus needs to be conscious of how the internet has changed history.  Furthermore, if there is ever a time or place for Friedrich Schlegel’s dictum of the historian as a “retrospective prophet” to be taken under advisement, it is here and now–because the internet is very much alive and well today, and ever-evolving, historians, even as they look to its past, should also be considering its futural prospects.  Perhaps the source code contains the portents, as it were, of where its technology will lead us next.