Lev Manovich's words on the Database As Symbolic Form.
This is quite a fascinating subject, I really haven't come across this idea before. Manovich says that after the novel, cinema privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression (of the modern age). Today, a 'computer age' introduces the database; new media objects that do not tell stories nor contain beginnings or ends but exist as collections of individual items. Database as form. He asks:
What is the relationship between database and another form that has traditionally dominated human culture - narrative?
Manovich is talking about new media's affordances which appear as computerised collections of items on which users can view, navigate and search; popular multimedia encyclopedias, CD-ROMS as storage devices that have become cultural products and DVDs. The term database, originating out of the computer sciences, is dryly defined as a structured collection of data... Data is stored for fast search and retrieval by a computer, so a database ultimately becomes far more complex than a simple collection of items. Different of types databases (hierarchical, object-oriented etc.) use different models to organise data.
Anyways, the important point is that users of new media experience database-like engagement at a basic level. I'm thinking about how I love my Mac's nifty top-right magnifying glass that so easily let's me search my entire computer for random files: using only the keyword 'McLuhan' I can find in seconds an essay I wrote five years ago on Marshall McLuhan that doesn't even mention the word in the title of the document. Also, that document is buried so far down in the deep depths of my unorganised Documents folder, there's no way I'm finding that baby going the long way.
Other than my actual computer, Manovich focuses on newer media. CD-ROMS (digital storage media) - still kinda computery. Wikipedia (popular multimedia encyclopaedias) - also kinda computery. A non-computer-but-new-media example of database he mentions is the DVD. Maybe because they contain menus with subtitle / commentary options? Chapter selection? Well yeah, it is pretty freaking basic, and the only difference is that it can be read on a special computer called a DVD player.
I don't get what's special about databses if they are still requiring the use of computer. Doesn't that mean databases are the same ole' computer science gadget as always? Maybe they're being made more broadly engage-able and less IT Guy In The Basement through the employment by new media, like the Museum Tour CD-ROM Manovich goes on about.
Where does narrative come into all of this?
The Atlantic is a wicked resource that I like very much. While snooping, I came across a highly relevant article on the digital reference book, particularly the definitive history of surfing titled The Encyclopaedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw (2003).
“The difference between the book and the website is sort of like when Dorothy first gets to Oz,” Warshaw explained to me with obvious glee. “Her black and white world is all of the sudden in bright technicolor.”
The article's author, Mark Lukach describes the practical extinction of ye ole paper encyclopedia:
Reference books, if not fully extinct, are certainly on their last, choked gasps of breath. After a 244 year run, Encyclopedia Britannica stopped printing in 2010, and now focuses solely on its digital encyclopedia, in an effort to compete with Wikipedia.