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BAWRT 2004

Week 2 – Databaase is the New Black

Outside my window today the ol’ Polistes humilis are moving around slowly, not doing much, not chewing wood into paper, not building nests, seemingly living a carefree but passing slow vespid life. But how can that be? Only a week ago I Morteined them back to the Stone Age—now they appear to be enjoying a mid-Roman period of refinement without industry. Also, without conflict. If they are progressing this fast, how long before they invent the printing press? They already have the paper.

They appear sluggish and lackadaisical, though. Really sluggish. Minutes go by with barely the wriggle of an antenna. They move, but are they alive? Have I, spurred on by one crazy article from last year and the easy availability of insect spray, unwittingly created a wasp zombie apocalypse?

Well, if I have, it’s small and local. That gives me (and you) time to focus on database as a symbol for changes in fiction during the inter-millennial transition we’ve all been going through during the last twenty-five years.

And so we come, by what might at first seem like a towering irrelevancy, to the work of Lev Manovich. In “Database as a Symbolic Form” (Manovich, 1998) he proposes that the method of representing the real world in fictional form is no longer narrative, but the database. He explaind ‘database’ thusly: 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 (p 2). He goes on to point out that the Internet, or at least the World Wide Web (as opposed to email, chat, Skype and so on) is a collection of separate parts with no intrinsic narrative structure. The narrative, if there is one, is imposed on the page by the page’s user.

Manovich calls the method the users use to turn the database into a narrative the algorithm. In computer games, for example, an algorithm is coded into the game for the user to use, but it still takes motivation from the user, in the form of playing the game, to make the algorithm act on the database. But unlike a narrative, the writer or compiler of the database can’t control what the users’ experience will be once they use the algorithm, or it wouldn’t be a game.

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 win (p 5)

The important thing, therefore, is thet the writer of the page, or of any database, doesn’t control how the database can form a narrative.

Therefore, I think, if the author of the database cannot control how the user, or reader, derives a narrative from it, they’re under no obligation to make a narrative themselves. They can’t be obliged to control something which is intrinsically out of their control.

…the general principle of new media: the projection of the ontology of a computer onto culture itself. …computer programming encapsulates the world according to its own logic (p 5).

Unfortunately, he doesn’t give any examples of this actually happening.

The possibilities for self-expressionindulgence were staggering.

Somehow, for some reason he presumably considers to be adequately explored, Manovich contrives to introduce Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books as a film that eschews narrative in favour of a database:

Many of [Greenaway’s] films progress forward by recounting a list of items, a catalog which does not have any inherent order (for example, different books in Prospero’s Books) (p 20).

My ex and I sat through all 372 hours of this prurient dolly shot one night at a friend’s house, while they dropped in from time to time to address the phsycailtiy of the various nudes that ‘played’ each of the books of the enterprising magician (who, it must be noted, resembles the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island” in that he has great magical powers but can’t get himself and his daughter off the island) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Greenaway may very well embody the databasic zeitgeist but the movie was boring even on two bottles of merlot. That second bottle is the ritical sieve. If the movie still has no story or narrative after I’ve fuelled the synapses and silenced the critic, then it never will have while I’m conscious.

it follows that if database is the new symbol for culture in the third millennium, no creator is under any obligation to do anything for the ‘user’. Never one to fulfil an obligation I can shy away from, I have still taken this whole concept on board, because I’ve found a twenty-first century instance of database trumping narrative: the listicle.

13 Things They Didn’t Tell You About COVID19

  • It’s strawberry-flavoured
  • It was first reported in 1347, but was knocked off the charts by the bubonic plague the following year
  • Corona beer is not made from coronavirus
  • Neither is Guinness
  • COVID19 can’t be vaccinated against — yet — because vaccines don’t work — yet
  • There is NO point six!
  • I’m not saying it, because of copyright
  • It is not some form of Gypsy curse. (We’renot allowed to say what kind of curse it is.)
  • COVID19 is made from Viagara
  • It can’t survice below whatever the temperature is where you are right now. Thus, it is helped out by Climate Change
  • It is not — well, might not be — a prehistoric virus released by the metling polar ice caps
  • It spreas toother countries alphabetically. Afghanistan is covering this up. Zimbabwe isn’t worried
  • The average life expectancy of an infected person is less than the time it takes to type this sen—

Now, even while I was making that up, I had some narratives going through my brain. In the simplest example the line about Guinness comes after the line about Corona. It follows on logically from one sentence to the other, because ‘neither’ supports the thought in the previous sentence. It’s not a particularly brilliant joke—items six and seven are probably better—but it relies on the order of those items.

This is a mistake on my part. I wasn’t going to provide any narrative, and I had at first thought to write the items then sort them alphabetically just in case two or more itemsmight follow on narratively, but then I couldn’t resist the Corona-Guinness comparison and then I inserted items six and seven because some of you might get the reference. The human mind craves narrative, and I kind of feel I ought to give you some if you’re human and you’ve read this far.


Manovich, L. (1998). Database as a Symbolic Form. Retrieved from Manovich.net: http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/022-database-as-a-symbolic-form/19_article_1998.pdf

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