New media and cultural form: narrative versus database
To appear in 2004 in: A. Adams & S. Brindley (eds), Teaching English with ICT. London: Open University Press & McGraw Hill.
Why narrative and database
Stories define how we think, how we play, even how we dream: they represent a basic way of organising human experience. We understand our lives through stories. Barbara Hardy has argued famously that narrative is ‘a primary act of mind transferred to art from life’ (Hardy 1977: 12). The act of the storyteller, the author, the novelist, says Hardy, arises from what we do all the time, in remembering, dreaming, planning.
Narrative is so deeply ingrained as a cultural form that we take for granted the ways in which storytelling engages our interest, curiosity, fear, tensions, expectations, and sense of order:
For we dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative. In order really to live, we make up stories about ourselves and others, about the personal as well as the social, past and future. (Hardy 1977: 13)
Indeed, narrative is so familiar that it has become naturalised: we are no longer conscious of its significance for the ways in which we live our lives.
There is an important explanation for why this has come to be: the novel and cinema, with their pervasive influence, have privileged the narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age. However, we are now in the computer age, which, proclaims Lev Manovich (2001), has introduced narrative’s correlate – the computer database. As Manovich explains:
Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organise their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other. (Manovich 2001: 218)
So what is a database? Like narrative, it also represents a basic way of organising human experience. A database can be a library, a museum, in fact, any large collection of cultural data. In the age of the Internet, a database is a structured collection of data organised to maximise fast search and retrieval by a computer. It represents a potentially powerful categorisation system as it provides a range of options for sorting and viewing sets of data. Somewhat loosely, but also generatively, Manovich (2001) uses the word as a metaphor to denote how a collection of digital data can be searched, navigated and viewed in a variety of ways (Walton in press). Unlike a narrative, which creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items or events, a database appears to users as a collection of items to view, navigate and search, no matter how it is organised. As a cultural form – a general way used by the culture to represent human experience, the world and human existence in the world – the database represents life as a list of items and does not presume to order the list. This explains why the experience of using such a collection of information is different from reading a story or watching a film. According to Manovich (2001), these two contrasting cultural forms now dominate the landscape of new media.
In this chapter, I examine how narrative and database manifest themselves, interconnect, perhaps compete, in the context of new media, most often conceived as the Internet, websites, computer multimedia, computer games, CD-ROMs and DVD, and virtual reality. The focus here, however, is on just two of these manifestations: games and websites. Although in education, and in the social sciences more broadly, the terms ‘information and communication technologies’ (ICTs) or simply ‘new technologies’ are more commonly used, I prefer new media as it accommodates a greater range of technologies. It also informs the notion of a new media revolution – the shift of culture to computer-mediated forms of production, distribution and communication.
As is often the case when a new technology or a new way of organising and making sense of the world comes along, we have the opportunity to ‘make the familiar strange’: to re-appraise what we think we know about our world and how we do things within it. The birth of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, together with the extraordinary speed of its uptake and expanding influence, at least in the developed world, is one such instance. If the database form is becoming increasingly important as a way of organising information and data, perhaps at the expense of narrative, then we need to make sure that we understand the nature of the new form, how it differs from narrative and also, importantly, how the two interrelate. We also need to consider if indeed there has been a cultural shift of the magnitude alleged by Manovich (2001) and, if so, its implications for literacy education.
Integral to my discussion is the belief that providing opportunities for students to deepen and refine their capacity for informed and critical response to the significant cultural forms associated with the use of new media needs to be recognised as an important goal of literacy education. This outcome is more likely to be achieved if teachers understand for themselves the nature of these cultural forms in the context of the use of new media, share, even if imperfectly, the language with which to talk about them and have real opportunities to consider how best to reorganise their classrooms and their approaches to teaching and learning in creative ways when they are used. The questions posed in this chapter about the relationship between narrative and database are critical as they have profound implications for the effective design of curriculum frameworks and teachers’ inservice and preservice programs that take account of new media.
It might appear that the structure of this chapter pits narrative and database against each other, thus creating an artificial opposition, when in reality their relationship is something more complex and nuanced. However, as a self-conscious rhetorical device, discussing them separately serves to highlight the differences between them thereby providing a base upon which greater understanding of their interconnections may be built.
It might also seem that too much attention is given to defining and explaining key concepts. The concepts selected for explanation, however, are integral to understanding the cultural shifts which provide the focus of this chapter. Probably, because of their unfamiliarity, some of these words, such as ‘compositing’ and ‘interface’, may seem ugly, even alienating. Further, as Raymond Williams (1976) points out, there are difficulties in any kind of definition because the meanings of words – such as ‘narrative’ and ‘database’ – are embedded in relationships and in processes of social and historical change. No word ever finally stands on its own; it is always an element in the social process of language.
However, the words and their meanings that receive extended treatment are foundational to a potentially illuminating discussion of literacy in a world increasingly mediated by the use of new electronic technologies. Each word has somehow demanded my consideration because the problems of its meaning seem bound up with the problems I am using it to discuss. Of course, the complex issues surrounding teaching, learning and the use of new media cannot be understood simply by analysing the words used to discuss them. But, at the same time, the issues can’t really be thought through unless we’re conscious of the words as elements of the problems. Thus not only the argument central to this chapter but also the meanings of the key words used to drive it are given attention.
Finally, it could be construed that I have drawn heavily on the work of just one theorist in the area of new media – Lev Manovich – perhaps ignoring other important thinkers. I hope that readers will agree with me that Manovich’s (2001) book, The Language of New Media, raises a number of provocative, most likely unfamiliar, yet highly relevant ideas for literacy educators. Indeed, I have drawn on just one small element of the book when so much more could be usefully employed to inform the teaching of English in an electronic world.
Understanding narrative in the context of new media
Reconceiving narrative theory
In the context of new media, narrative manifested itself initially as electronic adventure games, then interactive fiction, followed soon after by hyperfiction. All these forms continue to exist, indeed, they are all flourishing in their present instantiations. Much has been written about the literary precursors to electronic narrative (see Snyder 1996). Suffice it to say here that since the beginning of modern fiction, authors have attempted to cajole readers out of passivity. Literary precursors of interactive fiction and hyperfiction include not only Tristram Shandy and Ulysses, but also more recent fiction such as Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1966) and Borges’ Labyrinths (1970). All work strenuously against the medium in which their books are produced. In attacking the convention that a novel is a coherent narrative of events, such texts simultaneously invite and confirm reader-interaction.
Because interactive fiction already existed in print and film (for example, Alain Resnais’ 1993 film version of Alan Ayckbourn’s play, Smoking/No Smoking), the technological challenge for creators of electronic interactive fiction was ‘to find a way of turning imaginary worlds lodged in the writer’s head into virtual worlds lodged in the computer’s memory’ (Woolley 1992: 155). The precedent was Adventure, a computerised version of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, developed in the 1960s at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
Adventure and its descendants continued to evolve through the late 1970s, when interactive text games migrated from academic and corporate mainframes to home computers. There the form was married with popular fiction and role-playing games to produce a second generation of text adventures that retained the problem-solving design of the original Adventure. In the main, these games were not networks of possibilities to be explored but arrangements of obstacles to be overcome in the progress to a determined goal. Later in the 1980s there emerged a third generation of interactive fiction in which the influence of game scenarios has been less noticeable – although, at the same time, the game scenario fictions have continued to thrive. The multiple fictions of the third generation are narrative networks capable of differing significantly on every reading. And with the advent of the Web, such fictions are able to exploit the new freedoms offered in terms of size, complexity and design.
The most effective techniques for achieving a strong story-line in the print medium are linearity, plot, characterisation, textual coherence, resolution and closure. The same techniques can be used in the context of new media, as with movies on DVD and e-books, although their effectiveness can also be diminished in varying degrees. Writers using the new media, however, have played with the electronic medium’s capacity to create open-ended stories with multiple narrative strands and have found alternative strategies and techniques for engaging readers’ attention (Snyder 1996).
In one sense, each reading of an electronic narrative is a linear experience: confronted with one frame after another, readers are still aware of a narrative, however confused it may be. At the same time, the narrative seems to contain more than one voice and to change direction abruptly. Each electronic narrative handles in its own way the tension between the linearity of the reading experience and the multiplicity of electronic narrative.
According to Aristotle (1959), a narrative must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Electronic narratives, however, interrogate not only Aristotelian notions of beginning and end, but also his assumptions about the sequence of parts and the unity of the finished work. Electronic narrative calls into question some of the most basic points about plot and story in the Aristotelian tradition. By apparently dispensing with linear organisation, linearity becomes a quality of readers’ experience within single chunks of text and their experience of following particular paths. Although the experience of linearity does not disappear altogether, narrative chunks do not follow one another in a page-turning, forward direction. In electronic narratives, space is multi-dimensional and theoretically infinite.
Electronic narratives also pose problems for traditional understandings of beginnings and endings. In traditional print narratives, beginnings imply endings and endings require some sort of formal and thematic closure. Literary convention decrees that endings must either satisfy or in some way respond to expectations raised during the reading of the narrative. Electronic narratives have taken a cautious approach to the problem of beginnings by offering readers a block of text labelled with something like ‘start here’, that combines the functions of title page, introduction and opening paragraph, perhaps reflecting the reluctance of some writers to disorient readers at the point of their first contact with the narrative.
By avoiding the corresponding devices for achieving closure, however, such electronic narratives may challenge readers. It is up to readers to decide how, when and why the narrative finishes. Of course, we are not naive about unresolved texts. Print and cinematic narratives provide instances of multiple closure and also a combination of closure linked to new beginnings. The fact that twentieth-century writers and film-makers frequently offer their audiences little in the way of closure indicates that as readers and writers we have long learned to live and read more open-endedly than discussions of narrative form may lead us to believe. However, culturally familiar though we are with the absence or denial of closure, we may still find the consequences disturbing.
Creating electronic narratives
There are several ways of thinking about how writers create electronic narratives. The first is to conceive of it as a hypertext. Hypertext provides a means of arranging information in a non-sequential manner with the computer automating the process of connecting one piece of information to another. Within a hypertext system, individual media objects (sound, photos, film, animation, graphics etc) are wired together by hyperlinking. A hyperlink creates a connection between two elements. Elements connected through hyperlinks can exist on the same computer or on different computers connected on a network such as the Web.
Hypertext users get their own versions of the compete text by selecting pathways through the structure. They can create, manipulate and examine a network of nodes connected by relational links. Hypertext differs from printed text by offering users multiple paths through a body of information: it allows users to make their own connections and to produce their own meanings.
Manovich (2001) explains the processes of creating electronic narratives somewhat differently. For him, creating a narrative work in new media can be understood as ‘the construction of an interface to a database’ (Manovich 2001: 226). The user of the narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records as established by the database’s creator. Using this logic, an interactive narrative can be understood ‘as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database’ (Manovich 2001: 227).
However, Manovich (2001) is also quick to point out that to qualify as a narrative, a cultural object has to satisfy a number of criteria: it should contain both an actor and a narrator; it should have three distinct levels consisting of the text, the story and the fabula; and its content should be a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors (Bal 1985). Thus not all cultural objects are narratives. Just creating trajectories is not enough – the creator also has to control the semantics of the elements and the logic of their connections so that the resulting object will meet the criteria of narrative as outlined above. It also cannot be assumed that by creating their own paths, users construct their own unique narratives.
The computer game that uses 3-D navigable space to visualise any kind of data – molecules, historical records, files in a computer, the Internet as a whole, the semantics of language – qualifies as a narrative. As with many computer games, the human experience of being in the world and the narrative itself are represented as continuous navigation through space.
Understanding the computerised database
From on the screen to behind the screen
When we think about the Web, it is most often in terms of what we see – on the screen. The notion of digital ‘compositing’ represents one way of explaining what we see when we look at the screen: the ‘assembling together [of] a number of elements to create a single seamless object’ (Manovich 2001: 139). As Walton (in press) explains: ‘Like other new media, the Web is meant to be experienced as a seamless visual artefact, even though it is, in fact, assembled from a collection of files. In reality, the Web is only partially composited, with the seams of its construction more visible to users than is the case in many other new media’. But for the purposes of Manovich’s argument it provides a useful way of thinking about what we see when we look at a computer screen.
We also need to know that what we see on the screen – those assemblages of different elements – is mediated by the visual interface. The Web human-computer interface describes the ways in which users interact with a computer. The interface includes physical input and output devices such as the monitor, the keyboard and the mouse. It also includes the metaphors used to conceptualise the organisation of computer data. For example, the Macintosh interface, which uses the metaphor of files and folders arranged on a desktop, has won the day, so to speak, as Microsoft has adopted the same icon-driven interface. As a result, the Macintosh office metaphor has become more or less ubiquitous.
Further, the visual interface includes ways of manipulating data: copy, rename and delete a file; list the contents of a directory; start and stop a program; set the computer’s date and time (Manovich 2001). As more and more forms of culture become digitised, computer interfaces allow more interaction with cultural data: hence Manovich’s notion of cultural interface. And the language of cultural interfaces largely comprises elements of other, already familiar cultural forms such as painting, photography and film.
As well as taking note of what is seen on the screen – the digital compositing and the visual interface – it is also salutary, argues Marion Walton (in press), to consider some of the less visible aspects of the new Web texts. If we look ‘behind the screen’ of visual interfaces, ‘we find the fundamental structures and architectures which underlie and accommodate the visual designs of the Web’. These structures may be less mesmerising than the multimedia assemblages visible on the screen, but they are no less influential in determining what is communicated. For Walton, what goes on behind the screen is just as important as what is visible on it. When we look beyond the computer’s visual surface and consider the assumptions embedded in the Web’s underlying codes and conventions, we recognise that while the Web is a composited visual artefact, it is, using Manovich’s (2001) definition, also a huge, chaotic database.
Putting aside for the moment Manovich’s (2001) claim that the database is not only a new cultural form, but also the essence of new media in general, and of the Web in particular, a database represents an abstract process of organising information. There are different types of databases – hierarchical, network, relational and object-oriented – and each uses a different model to organise data. But no matter how they are organised, databases appear to users as collections of items to view, navigate and search in a variety of ways. As such, the Web is structured according to what Manovich (2001: 215) calls ‘database logic’.
The database logic of the Web provides us with ways of modelling the world through classifications and categorisations – perennially powerful ways of organising knowledge, whether in electronic form or not. Walton (in press) points out that although classification and categorisation may not be as immediately engaging as other communicative forms such as narrative, they are enabling systems which structure today’s world in significant ways. As the logic of a classification is usually implicit, identifying that logic and learning to articulate its underlying assumptions represent key skills for the current era. But, at the same time, Walton (in press) reminds us that the database ‘provides users with reduced and simplified models of reality, which tend to homogenise and classify what they represent’.
The database as cultural form
The most familiar examples of the database form in new media are multimedia encyclopedias and other commercial CD-ROMs or DVDs that feature collections of things – recipes and photographs, for example. Multimedia works that have cultural content, such as the CD-ROM virtual tour through a museum collection, favour the database form. Instead of a constructed narrative, the user is presented with a database of texts that can be navigated in a variety of ways. Another example is the CD-ROM devoted to a single cultural figure. Instead of a narrative biography, the user is presented with a database of images, video clips and texts that can be navigated in a variety of ways (Manovich 2001).
Where the form has really developed is in the context of the Internet. A Web page is a sequential list of separate elements: text blocks, images, video clips and links to other pages. It is always possible to add a new element to the list. In this sense, Web pages are collections of separate elements that are never complete: they can always grow. New elements can be added to the end of a list or they can be inserted anywhere in it: ‘All this 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’ (Manovich 2001: 221).
To users, databases appear as collections of items with which they can perform various operations – view, navigate, search. The experience of using such computerised collections of information is quite distinct from reading a novel or watching a film. But just as a literary or cinematic narrative presents a particular model of what a world is like, so too a database presents a particular model of what a particular world is like. In this sense, the database also represents an independent cultural form. It is what Manovich (2001: 219) calls ‘a new symbolic form a new way to structure our experience of ourselves and of the world’.
Regardless of whether new media objects present themselves as linear narratives, interactive narratives, databases or something else, underneath, on the level of material organisation, they are all databases (Manovich 2001). In new media, the database supports a variety of cultural forms that range from direct translation, that is, the database remains a database, to a form that is closer to a narrative. Overall, databases occupy a significant territory of the new media landscape.
Narrative and database: understanding the dynamics of their relationship
A number of questions posed by Manovich (2001) help to illuminate some key aspects of the dynamics of the relationship between narrative and database. First: Do databases and narratives have the same status in computer culture? Although some media objects follow a database logic in their structure while others do not, in general, ‘creating a work in new media can be understood as the construction of an interface to a database’ (Manovich 2001: 226). Manovich gives some examples. In the simplest case, the interface simply provides access to the underlying database. For instance, an image database can be represented as a page of miniature images; clicking on a miniature will retrieve the corresponding record. If a database is too large to display all its records, a search engine can allow the user to search for particular records. But the interface can also translate the underlying database into a very different experience. The example Manovich provides is Jeffrey Shaw’s (1996) interactive installation Legible City, where the user navigates a virtual three-dimensional city composed from letters.
Thus in new media, the database supports a variety of cultural forms that range from direct translation (ie a database remains a database) to a form whose logic is the opposite of the logic of the material form itself – narrative. More precisely, a database can support narrative, but there is nothing in the logic of the form itself that would foster the generation of narrative.
In the computer age, the database becomes the centre of the creative process. ‘The new media object consists of one or more interfaces to a database of multimedia material’ (Manovich 2001: 227). He continues:
If understood in this way, the user of a narrative is traversing a database, following links between its records as established by the database’s creator. An interactive narrative can be understood as the sum of multiple trajectories through a database. (Manovich 2001: 227)
Second: In the context of new media, are these two cultural forms necessarily competing or oppositional? Manovich (2001: 233) says that he likes to think of them as ‘two competing imaginations, two basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world’. As he points out, the ancient Greeks produced long narratives but they also produced encyclopaedias. The result of this competition to make meaning of the world is the production of hybrid forms. For example, it would be difficult to find an encyclopedia without a trace of narrative and vice versa.
Even if we resist naming it a competition, there exists a complex interplay and exchange between the two forms. For example, when users access a museum database, the objects in themselves are meaningless: they have to be framed in narrative terms to become meaningful. This might be achieved by a Web developer or by the users, who create their own narratives as they choose which links to activate and thus which elements to juxtapose and connect.
Another example is located in new media design which can be reduced to two basic approaches: constructing the right interface to a multimedia database or as defining navigation methods through spatialised representations. The first approach is used in a website where the objective is to provide an interface to data and to give the user efficient access to information. The second is used in most computer games and virtual worlds where the aim is to psychologically immerse the user in an imaginary universe.
In general, these two goals represent the extremes of a continuum. Often, the two goals of information access and psychological engagement compete within the same new media object. A search engine tries to immerse the user in a universe in which the goal is to define, with increasing accuracy, the parameters of the quest. And in a game, there’s a strong information processing dimension. Gathering clues and treasures, updating a mental map of the universe of the game – aligns playing a computer game with other information processing tasks typical of computer culture like searching the Internet, scanning news groups, pulling records from a database, using a spreadsheet, or data mining large data stores (Manovich 2001).
The third question is to do with the history of culture: Does the pre-eminence of the database form represent a break with the past so monumental that the new media will completely replace narrative with database? As Manovich (2001: 229) argues: ‘New media does not radically break with the past; rather, it distributes weight differently between the categories that hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice versa’. Radical breaks do not generally involve complete change, but a restructuration.
We require an education in literature in order to discover that what we assumed – with the complicity of our teachers – was nature is in fact culture, that what was given is no more than a way of taking. (Howard 1992: vii)
In her now classic article, ‘What no bedtime story means’, Shirley Brice Heath (1982) argues that the culture children learn as they grow up is, in fact, ways of taking meaning from the environment around them. Even though making sense from books and relating their content to knowledge about the real world is only one way of taking meaning, it is often interpreted as ‘natural’ rather than learned. However, taking meaning from books, says Heath, is as much a part of learned behaviour as are ways of eating, sitting, playing games and building houses.
Twenty or so years later, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can apply the same logic, albeit to a different set of circumstances and for a different purpose. Today, just as in the 1980s, the culture young people learn as they grow up is embodied in ways of taking meaning from the environment in which they are immersed. What has changed, however, is the nature of the environment. Young people continue to take meaning from stories printed in books which, of course, represents just one way of taking meaning. But they also have to make sense of screen-based, digital texts, located on the Web, and relate their form and content to knowledge about the real world. This represents another way of taking meaning.
However, as argued in this chapter, the form and content of these screen-based texts are different to their print counterparts: most are not based on the familiar narrative structure that has become both privileged and naturalised in our book-oriented culture. The dominant structure, indeed cultural form, in the context of the Web, is the database. Unlike narrative, it is in no danger of becoming naturalised: strangely, the cultural significance of the database has been largely overlooked.
As book-oriented teachers and their students interact in classrooms, the adults provide their students, through modelling and specific instruction, ways of taking from books, which seem natural in school and in numerous other social and institutional settings. These mainstream ways persist in formal education systems designed to prepare students for participation in settings involving book literacy. But book literacy, with its deep attachment to narrative as a hallowed cultural form, is now just one of the many literacies that students require to participate effectively in post-school settings. In particular, as this chapter has argued, students need opportunities in their classrooms to learn how to take meaning, not just from the most familiar cultural forms, but also from other increasingly significant ones, such as the computerised database.
If the modern age provided people with robust narratives and modest amounts of information, today we have too much information and too few narratives that can make sense of it all. Whether we like it or not, information access has become a central activity of the computer age. Information access is no longer just integral to the world of work; it is also a key category of culture. As such, it demands that we deal with it theoretically, pedagogically and aesthetically.
Note The author thanks Marion Walton, University of Cape Town, for her generative response to an earlier version of this chapter.
Aristotle (1959) The Poetics, trans. L.J. Potts, Aristotle on the art of fiction: An English translation of Aristotle’s Poetics with an introductory essay and explanatory notes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bal, M. (1985) Narratology: Introduction to the theory of narrative. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Borges, J. L. (1970) Labyrinths. In D. A. Yates & J. E. Irby (eds), Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Cortazar, J. (1966) Hopscotch, trans. G. Rabassa. London: Collins Harvill.
Hardy, B. (1977) Narrative as a primary act of mind. In M. Meek, A. Warlow & G. Barton (eds), The cool web: The patterns of children’s reading (pp. 12-23). London: The Bodley Head.
Heath, S. H. (1982) What no bedtime story means: narrative skill at home and school. Language and Society 11, 49-76.
Howard, R. (1992) A note on S/Z. Preface to R. Barthes, S/Z, trans. R. Miller (vii-x). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Manovich, L. (2001) The language of new media. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Shaw, J. (1996) Legible City. Online. Available HTTP: http://artnetweb.com/guggenheim/mediascape/shaw.html (22 February 2003).
Snyder, I. (1996) Hypertext: The electronic labyrinth. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press & New York: New York University Press.
Walton, M. (in press) Behind the screen: The language of Web design. In I. Snyder & C. Beavis (eds), Doing literacy online: Teaching, learning and playing in an electronic world. New Jersey: Hampton Press.
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. London: Fontana Press.
Woolley, B. (1992) Virtual worlds: A journey in hype and hyperreality. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books.
Ilana Snyder is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. Hypertext (Melbourne University Press 1996), Page to Screen (Routledge 1998), Teachers and Technoliteracy, co-authored with Colin Lankshear (Allen & Unwin 2000), and Silicon Literacies (Routledge 2002) explore changes to cultural practices associated with the use of new media.