Lev Manovich on Tue, 15 Dec 1998 19:27:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Database as a Symbolic Form 1/3

Lev Manovich


The Database Logic

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 - 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. At the same time,
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? 
        Commercial producers have experimented with ways to explore the
database form inherent to new media, with offerings ranging from
multimedia encyclopedias, to collections of software, to collections of
pornographic images. In contrast, many artists working with new media
uncritically accepted the database form as a given. Thus they became blind
victims of database logic. Numerous artists' Web sites are collections of
multimedia elements documenting their works in other media. In the case of
many early artists' CD-ROM's as well, the tendency was to fill all the
available storage space with different material: the main work,
documentation, related texts, previous works and so on. 
        A few artists' projects, however, approach database more
critically, investigating its politics and possible aesthetics. The
examples are Chris Marker's "IMMEMORY," Olga Lialina's "Anna Karenina Goes
to Paradise,"4 Stephen Mamber's "Digital Hitchcock," and Fabian
Wagmister's "...two, three, many Guevaras." The artist who have explored
possibilities of a database most systematically is George Legrady. In a
series of interactive multimedia works ("The Anecdoted Archive," 1994;
"[the clearning]," 1994; "Slippery Traces, 1996; "Tracing," 1998) he used
diffirent types of databases to create "an information structure where
stories/things are organized according to mutiple thematic connections."5

Data and Algorithm

Of course not all new media objects are explicitly databases. Computer
games, for instance, are experienced by their players as narratives. In a
game, the player is given a well-defined task - winning the match, being
first in a race, reaching the last level, or reaching the highest score.
It is this task which makes the player experience the game as a narrative.
Everything which happens to her in a game, all the characters and objects
she encounters either take her closer to achieving the goal or further
away from it. Thus, in contrast to the CD- ROM and Web databases, which
always appear arbitrary since the user knows that additional material
could have been added without in any way modifying the logic of the
database, in a game, from a user's point of view, all the elements are
motivated ( i.e., their presence is justified).6
        Often the narrative shell of a game ("you are the specially
trained commando who has just landed on a Lunar base; your task is to make
your way to the headquarters occupied by the mutant base personnel...")
masks a simple algorithm well-familiar to the player: kill all the enemies
on the current level, while collecting all treasures it contains; go to
the next level and so on until you reach the last level. Other games have
different algorithms. Here is an algorithm of the legendary "Tetris": when
a new block appears, rotate it in such a way so it will complete the top
layer of blocks on the bottom of the screen making this layer disappear.
The similarity between the actions expected from the player and computer
algorithms is too uncanny to be dismissed. While computer games do not
follow database logic, they appear to be ruled by another logic - that of
an algorithm. They demand that a player executes an algorithm in order to
        An algorithm is the key to the game experience in a different
sense as well. As the player proceeds through the game, she gradually
discovers the rules which operate in the universe constructed by this
game. She learns its hidden logic, in short its algorithm. Therefore, in
games where the game play departs from following an algorithm, the player
is still engaged with an algorithm, albeit in another way: she is
discovering the algorithm of the game itself. I mean this both
metaphorically and literally: for instance, in a first person shooter,
such as "Quake," the player may eventually notice that under such and such
condition the enemies will appear from the left, i.e. she will literally
reconstruct a part of the algorithm responsible for the game play. Or, in
a diffirent formulation of the legendary author of Sim games Will Wright,
"Playing the game is a continuos loop between the user (viewing the
outcomes and inputting decisions) and the computer (calculating outcomes
and displaying them back to the user). The user is trying to build a
mental model of the computer model."7
        What we encountered here is an example of the general principle of
new media: the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture
itself. If in physics the world is made of atoms and in genetics it is
made of genes, computer programming encapsulates the world according to
its own logic. The world is reduced to two kinds of software objects which
are complementary to each other: data structures and algorithms. Any
process or task is reduced to an algorithm, a final sequence of simple
operations which a computer can execute to accomplish a given task. And
any object in the world - be it the population of a city, or the weather
over the course of a century, a chair, a human brain - is modeled as a
data structure, i.e. data organized in a particular way for efficient
search and retrieval.8 Examples of data structures are arrays, linked
lists and graphs. Algorithms and data structures have a symbiotic
relationship. The more complex the data structure of a computer program,
the simpler the algorithm needs to be, and vice versa. Together, data
structures and algorithms are two halves of the ontology of the world
according to a computer. 
        The computerization of culture involves the projection of these
two fundamental parts of computer software - and of the computer's unique
ontology - onto the cultural sphere. If CD-ROMs and Web databases are
cultural manifestations of one half of this ontology - data structures,
then computer games are manifestations of the second half - algorithms.
Games (sports, chess, cards, etc.) are one cultural form which required
algorithm-like behavior from the players; consequently, many traditional
games were quickly simulated on computers. In parallel, new genres of
computer games came into existence such as a first person shooter ("Doom,"
"Quake"). Thus, as it was the case with database genres, computer games
both mimic already existing games and create new game genres. 
        It may appear at first sight that data is passive and algorithm is
active - another example of passive-active binary categories so loved by
human cultures. A program reads in data, executes an algorithm, and writes
out new data. We may recall that before "computer science" and "software
engineering" became established names for the computer field, it was
called "data processing." This name remained in use for a few decades
during which computers were mainly associated with performing calculations
over data. However, the passive/active distinction is not quite accurate
since data does not just exist - it has to be generated. Data creators
have to collect data and organize it, or create it from scratch. Texts
need to written, photographs need to be taken, video and audio need to be
recorded. Or they need to be digitized from already existing media. In the
1990's, when the new role of a computer as a Universal Media Machine
became apparent, already computerized societies went into a digitizing
craze. All existing books and video tapes, photographs and audio
recordings started to be fed into computers at an ever increasing rate.
Steven Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation which videotaped and then
digitized numerous interviews with Holocaust survivors; it would take one
person forty years to watch all the recorded material. The editors of
Mediamatic journal, who devoted a whole issue to the topic of "the storage
mania" (Summer 1994) wrote: "A growing number of organizations are
embarking on ambitious projects. Everything is being collected: culture,
asteroids, DNA patterns, credit records, telephone conversations; it
doesn't matter."9 Once it is digitized, the data has to be cleaned up,
organized, indexed. The computer age brought with it a new cultural
algorithm: reality-> media->data->database. The rise of the Web, this
gigantic and always changing data corpus, gave millions of people a new
hobby or profession: data indexing. There is hardly a Web site which does
not feature at least a dozen links to other sites, therefore every site is
a type of database. And, with the rise of Internet commerce, most
large-scale commercial sites have become real databases, or rather
front-ends to company databases. For instance, in the Fall of 1998,
Amazon.com, an online book store, had 3 million books in its database; and
the maker of leading commercial database Oracle has offered Oracle 8i,
fully intergrated with the Internet and featuring unlimited database size,
natural-langauge queries and support for all multimedia data types.10
Jorge Luis Borges's story about a map which was equal in size to the
territory it represented became re-written as the story about indexes and
the data they index. But now the map has become larger than the territory.
Sometimes, much larger. Porno Web sites exposed the logic of the Web to
its extreme by constantly re-using the same photographs from other porno
Web sites. Only rare sites featured the original content. On any given
date, the same few dozen images would appear on thousands of sites. Thus,
the same data would give rise to more indexes than the number of data
elements themselves. 

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