video workshop week.03

thoughts on this weeks reading from Database as a Genre of New Media by Lev Manovich

The Database Logic

Lev Manovich opens with a fairly agreeable series of statements that read as follows: “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.” There are two ways of looking at this statement. The first, is to agree: traditional narrative cannot live and grow contained within the structure of many new media objects. The second, is to take a realistic, albeit relative, approach and assert that this is presicely the place to where story telling has evolved (or devolved).

“They don’t have beginning or end.” The stories we tell today are sound bytes and youtube snippets, one-liners, here-say, and sensational headlines in the Post. The “story” today is precisely what Manovich will later go on to define as “database” — a random compiled assortment of non-related objects. That is how we live our lives now. Either the majority of culture no longer tells stories in the traditional sense, or we need to attend to just what constitutes a story in today’s media hyper-everythinged culture. Linear time in the era of the all-pervasive hyperlink is no more.

“…it is also appropriate that we would want to develops poetics, aesthetics, and ethics of this database.” This is what will usher us fully into the database as story era.

The web as an un-editable medium will assure that a story will never have to be complete, it will not (unfortunately) assure that we tell stories in any more engaging ways than they are already being told.

Data and Algoritm

We start to get a little more interesting here, but only a little. Manovich opens this section talking about games and narrative. Whether or not a game has a narrative structure doesn’t necessarily impact the engagement with the game, although more often than not, this could be the case. Which is more engaging, Monopoly or Chess? Both call for algorithmic play within the structure of the game, and this is what makes it engaging. Manovich writes, “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.” What can this tell us about the success of engagement that is possible with interactive video? What about narrative interactive video? Here we are back to the fundamental question of whether video can be engaging without a narrative, and whether a narrative can provide any sort of real interactivity. I am still rather pessamistic about both of these queries outside of the artistic community.

“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.” I believe this wholeheartedly. The tools we use to hold conversation change the way in which we hold that conversation and are influential enough to even change the content of that conversation.

“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.” I often wonder as we fully enter the “authorship” era whether any of us is listening, simply waiting for our turn to talk, or just focusing on putting out our own stuff. This very writing will be “published” to a blog that I am keeping for my Interactive Video Workshop class at ITP. It may never be read by another person for the rest of time. It is doubtful that even I will read it again. Manovich continues, “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.” When I first started my studies here I worried about adding to the “trash heap of history” by writing things that would never be read, producing projects that would never be seen, but as all of my work is archived on-line, and my website maps out the contents on my small partition of the server, at least I can be confident that even if no one ever sees another thing I produce, there is the possibility, however slight, that…i still feel that way.

Database and Narrative

“With new media, the content of the work and the interface become separate. It is therefore possible to create different interfaces to the same material.” This is true and may hold some interesting possibilities for future work. It also goes hand in hand with the notion of the never-done piece of art. “New-media objects” as Manovich calls them, are more often than not, infinitely editable.

It may be an interesting project to create some kind of “new-media object” that is not necessarily stagnant, but one which can never be rethought, or changed in any way once it is “completed.” A closed loop. An ever *present* time capsule.

“…traditional linear narrative can be seen as a particular case of a hyper-narrative.” I agree with Manovich here, however this statement shouldn’t be anything new. Hyper-narrative (analogous to hyper-text, as Manovich defines it) will *always* play out into traditional linear narrative. Interactive narrative can rarely rise above the level of a souped-up “choose your own adventure” story. In fact I am hard pressed to think of any examples as of this writing. If we think of a narrative as hypertext and halfway through the second chapter we link off tangentially to find our just what the historical lay-out of Narnia is, the narrative degrades into either exposition or database.

Manovich delves into some fairly subjective territory when he asserts what does and what does not constitute narrative, “Another erroneous assumption frequently made is that by creating her own path (i.e., choosing the records from a database in a particular order) the user constructs her own unique narrative. However, if the user simply accesses different elements, one after another, in a usually random order, there is no reason to assume that these elements will form a narrative at all.” I suppose there is also no reason to assume that these elements will not form a narrative then. Manovich goes on to give the confused impression that a database is always a database and sometimes a narrative, which would be obviously more engaging than choosing “different elements, one after another, in a usually random order,” which constitutes nothing more than just a database. He is then startled that “narratives – still exist in new media.” Of course we are trying to squeeze these old forms into new media. It is what engages us. Too bad it doesn’t seem to work.