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Database | Narrative | Archive

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

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Missing Data

Story is generally organized through absence. Put another way, absence is presence. That seems very much at odds with computer data. But think of the problem this way: absence is a kind of aperture.
           – Norman M. Klein
We experience story in the brain as a neural network – a field of semantic and sensory effects, of which plot may be one unifying element. The storyteller starts with charged mental data – voices, images, sensations, abstractions – and then arranges selections of data into a material presentation (a temporal or spatial narration) so that it can be delivered to an attentive mind. The material form of a story is always the compressed version of a living network designed for activation inside other living networks. While plot provides important tags (hero, villain), schemas (goals, obstacles) and navigation instructions (genre), it is ultimately the cognitive and emotional investment of the receiver of plot – the subjective associations, desires, visualizations, decodings and fast searches – that transforms a mere series of selected details into a story network that is always more than the sum of its parts.

Manovich writes that it is the relationship between narration and story-world, or syntagm and paradigm, that gets flipped in database logic. Paradigm, the multiple relational aspects of story elements, becomes visible in a database; and syntagm, narrative sequence, is suppressed. The network structure of a database may be paradigmatic, but interface design, like plotting in linear narrative, can withhold data, hide relations and structure absence. Empty space or "white space," a graphic device that gives visual structure to "content," might also be used as a narrative device to structure meaningful absences. A database fiction might benefit from a confusion about categories, selection processes and even the reliability of navigation tools. Data that is excluded might call attention to and form queries about its narrative importance. The limitations and constraints in the amount of data might make exploration more accessible and focus attention.

The database-like novel, "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry" is a love story in the form of an auction catalog. The long title helps frame the narrative, but the entry point orients the reader/user’s attention to certain narrative threads. The introduction to the catalog quotes from a note from Harold to Lenore:
It would be good to see you. I've written letters to you, but they are still here in my drawer.
With this scant information, the reader explores the collection with distributed attention, not really knowing what to look for, but aware that something pushed the lovers apart and the clue might be embedded in the object details and notes. The catalogued objects are numbered sequentially and presented for linear reading in book form, but a catalog is made for browsing, for fast search. Like a database, the pages act as a changing interface to story elements. Browsing though mini-narratives, a reader begins to find patterns and relations outside of linearity. The objects reveal what the couple valued together, what they valued separately and what they thought or desired their partner to value. Plot is there – the when, where and how of a love story – but these details are less important than the behavioral patterns around the material objects. The reader becomes an archeologist uncovering narrative from artifacts. A love story typically presents the lovers’ inability to get together as a set of obstacles to overcome. Narrative interest is in the struggle for union. In this "database love story," what is absent is the narration of the love plot itself. It is the material remains of the love plot that opens a reflective space for readers to navigate and narrate their own paths.

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