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Database | Narrative | Archive

Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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Vernacular Database Narrativity

Sharing photos and videos with friends on Facebook is an act that combines database and narrative logics. Before social media, friends shared photo prints and videos, but they often did so as ritualistic forms of linear storytelling: narrators addressing an attentive audience. Now, online friends post tagged sets of travel photos to social networks, often as events happen, and hope for conversations to start. While both methods speak of the desire to shape and communicate experience, the former uses media as illustration (and mnemonic device) for linear storytelling and the latter presents media as an interface to the unfolding “story” of experience itself. As Katherine Hayles proclaimed, database and narrative live together as “natural symbionts” in a complex ecosystem. A blog post, for example, is an interface to a database of objects (the web) that is then distributed back into that same database as a new narrative object. Like all of language, the web is a complex adaptive system where narrative order emerges and then decomposes back into the system as modular units to be used again in other narratives or orderings.

If our communication technologies continue to impose a database logic on our everyday lives, what happens to narrative logic and plotting? There have been popular movies that attempt to narrate this cultural shift to the database. Movies like The Matrix, Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while fluid and “networked” across different time periods and spaces, they still work within classical plots for unifying dramatic action. In fact, it is their very linearity that allows these narratives to be so complex. Point of view is established, characters are sharply delineated, cause-and-effect chains attended to and closure at least partially defined. It seems plotted and mimetic narratives will adapt to database logic just fine.

The interface, however, does not offer a model or simulation of the world. The interface maps the ways we orient our minds and thought processes to the world. The narration of the database is through the interface; its design, entry points, absences, spatial complexity and simultaneity. A spatial understanding of time and event does not necessarily have to result in the clarity and lush accessibility of some of the best in current information design and data displays. For database narratives to find their natural "story" forms, authors and artists must look at how the database is lived in everyday life. There are no central conflicts, heroes and villains, winners and losers, in database logic. There are certainly competing narratives, but there is no center, no central character and no final moment of catharsis. There are only relational events and the narratives of moving through them.
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