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Database obesity

Author: joe

Friday, 08 June, 2012 - 21:20

Specifying the nature of narrative - that is, the connecting of otherwise unconnected things into a coherent trajectory - is also to thereby define its antithesis - the anti-narrative. For Manovich, this is the database, which refuses to participate in the articulation of one item to another. They have no beginnings or endings, argues Manovich, nor formal or thematic development, no organisation. These items are flat: "every item has the same significance as any other". Of course there are different kinds of database which may well have structures and forms, hierarchical, arborescent or otherwise, such that users may operate on them and traverse those elements. In such traversals narratives may emerge as the members of collections are briefly brought together as the answer to a query - but in this action the distinction is confirmed: what was non-narrative became narrative, in the retrieval against some operation: "the narrative becomes just one method of accessing data among others".

The narrative act is thus one of selection, and in the example of the database as source of the given materials of narrative, quite literally we issue the command to "SELECT" data from stores according to given criteria. The symbolic form of the database is precisely not selecting: its logic is one of indiscriminately gathering and cataloguing, rather than picking out and assigning significance. Manovich notes the "storage mania" that characterises the digital world, in which everything is collected, from biological molecular structures to communication records to household shopping. A form of cultural sousveillance is at work and its production piece is the database. If we have left an age of myth in which stories provided the symbolic resources for scrying life, then we have entered an age of endless acquisition in which the symbolic imperative is to complete the record of everything. It is perhaps ironic that in a milieux that is claimed to be a "therapy culture" we should have become a collective case of compulsive hoarding.

The end point of such an undertaking is an absolute mirror, a digital record of every act, every cultural object, every distinct thing that makes a distinction, such that it be recordable. An archive of everything, a mirror of the world - not merely to have replaced the territory with the map, but to overflow the territory, such that the map outgrows the world it represents, filled as it is with endless possible repetitions of its own contents, infinitely reproducible. The archive is larger than the world it represents. Hence we see another anti-narrative characteristic emerge: where the collection expands arbitrarily, happy to accept all data and heedlessly insert the new or reproduce endless copies of the old, the narrative conversely simplifies by selection, reduces abundant and chaotic elements into something more manageable, digestible - indeed narrative is a kind of digesting of materials into meanings we can absorb, while the database is inflationary and inflammatory. It is unsurprising that contemporary challenges include replication and scaling, information giganticism and overload. We are obese with our refusal of narrative.

Categories: narrative, connection, database, Lev-Manovich, anti-narrative, sousveillance, hoarding,
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