Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.
New media represents several striking departures from “old” media; one of the most noticeable (at least for those of us who love traditional texts) is the de-privileging of the narrative arc. We can identify this lack of narrative in the use of database as a method of structuring and representing the world. Manovich explains:
As a cultural form, the database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world. (225)
Narrative and database are enemies in that they force each other to redefine what each means and can be used for, represent. As Manovich explains, “just as a traditional cultural object can now be seen as a particular case of a new media object. . .traditional linear narrative can be seen as a particular case of hypernarrative” (227). The way that narrative plays out, comes into being, is challenged and formed by the database, thereby changing and redirecting our ideas about what narrative is and can be.
It is perhaps this overwriting and change that can become dangerous, since we lose ways of looking at the world and reconciling culture when methods of representation are lost. On the other hand, however, Manovich does note that
we should not expect that new media would completely replace narrative with database. 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. (229)
Forms, ideas, and methods all enter the forefront and then regress, so the notion of the complete loss of narrative is simply not adequate. To uphold this, Manovich gives the example of encyclopedias and Greek epics, both of which have been around since antiquity.
If we think of synonyms for enemies, then, we could see some of the sense of “adversary” or “foe,” but we can also understand the conception of enmity in a gentler manner as in “challengers,” with each vying for its particular place in mainstream culture. Manovich: “I prefer to think of them as two competing imaginations, two basic creative impulses, two essential responses to the world” (233). To paraphrase Hamlet, there’s nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so; both database and narrative are able to render different cultural ideas in their own ways, meaning that one doesn’t need to be seen as necessarily dominant (in the sense of better) over the other.
In fact, we might go one step further and suggest that the two can exist symbiotically. A database can provide the starting tools for a narrative, while a narrative can blossom into a database that enriches an experience. For instance, a user can choose stock footage from a database in order to create a photo narrative, adding effects to heighten the drama, while a fan of a particular universe (Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, etc.) can draw from its contained narratives to make experience-enhancing databases (as in a collage, below). The paradigm may be favored over the syntagm, but this does not automatically suggest an ironclad law of media.
In sum, as Manovich notes, “database and narrative do not have the same status in computer culture. . .it is not surprising, then, that databases occupy a significant, if not the largest, territory of the new media landscape” (228). The operative terms here are “computer culture” and “new media landscape.” Culture, transcoding, media forms, interfaces, screens—they’ve all impacted and changed our landscape and will continue to do so. While database is currently challenging narrative, it does not mean that the two are bitter rivals à la Sherlock and Moriarty—just that flux in media is possible. As cultural landscapes and capabilities change, it would perhaps not be surprising to see a flip in dominance (again) or even a new challenger enter the ring.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2002.