Written by Lola Vos, Iris Dumoulin, Imke Spapens, Philip van Vuuren and Juliette Berndsen
In our current society, we are constantly surrounded by a multitude of simultaneous images that convey information to us, no matter where we are. Think, for example, of the thousands of images we encounter in airports, shopping centers, and gyms, but also on our computers and television sets. Beatriz Colomina claims that we can no longer focus our full attention on one single image, but that we need to be distracted in order to concentrate (Colomina, 2002). In addition to this, the amount of information we encounter daily has increased over the past century, in particular as a result of the technological developments that changed the way in which we interact with information. The database is the dominant means at our disposal for restoring order and countering information overload (van de Ven, 2019). According to Kristin Veel, contemporary conditions of attention can be translated into database aesthetics in narrative fiction (Veel, 2011).
Simultaneity vs. selection
Throughout history, several approaches to the organization of information were put into practice, such as data-organizing based on provenance or pertinence. In the second half of the twentieth century, however, digital databases increased the number of possible combinations of data. Nowadays, the organization of information in an archive is invariably linked to issues of information overload. Information overload refers to the state in which the organizing system breaks down or a state in which this system simply does not exist. According to Veel, this lack of system occurs because “the information to be processed is so unfamiliar to us that we do not yet have categories available to process it”. The concept of attention as we know it now takes form as a result of modern digital information technology. In our current concept of attention, we are able to focus on more than one thing at the same time. This has become so habitual that it can be regarded as a necessity of concentration rather than its opposite.
We can thus see a shared preference in contemporary society for simultaneity over selection. In the cultural realm, this preference takes the form of what has been called “database aesthetics” in films, literature, and art. We speak of database aesthetics when feedback from the database informs and transforms narrative strategies and different artistic practices. Artists can create this type of aesthetics by for example telling a story through the shuffling of fragments rather than through a linear progression, or by creating what Alexis Grohmann calls “wild realism” in which there is an overload of details or plots. Kristin Veel argues that this type of storytelling turns to a certain kind of inventory, such as a database, which prefers simultaneity over selection and challenges our current conditions of attention.
Database vs. narrative
Lev Manovich claims that, in the modern age, a narrative was the key form of cultural expression. In the computer age, however, the database has taken over this title. According to him, narratives and databases are natural competitors due to the tension between selection vs. inclusion. A narrative presents the world in a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items, while a database presents the world as a list of items that it refuses to order (Manovich, 2001). When creating a narrative, we select certain items that are deemed to be important to include, and leave out the details. But a database can include everything from the overarching events to the details of everyday life and is therefore more inclusive than a narrative. Databases also have the ability to strip information of the context they were created in, so we can access the information in multiple contexts at the same time (van de Ven, 2019).
Katherine Hayles points out that a database is not simply randomly collected data. Data may cause an overload of information, while a database should not (Hayles, 2005). In a database, however, the data that has not been selected and highlighted is closer to the surface than in the traditional narrative, in which data must be causally or temporally linked. It thus makes sense that the database fits in with our contemporary society and its conception of attention, in which overload and distraction are seen as a precondition for attention.
Digital technology has the ability to erase established categories by enabling us to store objects that were initially separated by media or the form they were in, as a continuous stream of data. Friedrich Kittler writes of a ‘leveling effect’ among different but interconnected media. Digitization has the ability to erase differences between media and so the organization of data becomes a “mutable, multi-linear process” (van de Ven, 2019). Van Alphen discusses “archival artworks,” a type of visual art which consists of incorporating principles of archival organization such as lists, inventories, and storages (van de Ven, 2019).
In many forms of narrative fiction, however, the tension between narratives and databases is utilized in order to construct their narratives. This showcases that narrative and database should not be characterized as natural enemies, but rather that the database can also be characterized as an aesthetic strategy.
Case study: Seven Digital Deadly Sins
An example of a database rather than a narrative can be found in Seven Digital Deadly Sins. This online exhibition was produced in 2014 by the National Film Board of Canada in collaboration with The Guardian. It is a web documentary that explores online behavior according to the traditional seven deadly sins. According to the standard definition, the sins are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. They are often seen as excessive versions of one’s natural desires and passions. The seven deadly sins is a grouping and classification of vices within Christianity, and especially the Western Christian traditions. Today’s digital world brings us a whole new set of moral dilemmas, and Seven Digital Deadly Sins invites us to take a look at our own behaviours as creatures in the 21st century by using the original sins in a modern way.
The seven digital sins are displayed in a selection menu. It explores our modern-age sense of right and wrong through articles and video confessions of multiple artists/celebrities, but also through anonymous confessions that demonstrate the Internet has changed some aspects of our actions and thoughts. It also puts the user in the judgment seat, as they can absolve or condemn various digital sins. If one absolves a sin, they would declare it free from the guilt that comes with it. But if they would condemn it, they would express their disapproval.
The site’s compiled user-generated answers paint a clearer picture of our collective consciousness, but it also reveals the growing disconnect between our on- and offline lives.
The interactive documentary enables users to choose and select the information they want to receive about the sins. The information is not given through a narrative, as there is no linear progression. It is a database that presents multiple categories that users can simultaneously choose from. Seven Digital Deadly Sins takes on the form of database aesthetics. Users can shuffle through different fragments to receive the information that is given through the documentary, and it fits in our contemporary society where we prefer simultaneity over selection.
Society has progressed by (digital) leaps and bounds, so naturally our concept of attention and our concept of a narrative has too. While society as a whole might prefer simultaneity over selection, this does not mean that narrative and database are sworn enemies, nor that they are mutually exclusive. Artists should be allowed to work with whatever narrative (or the lack thereof) that helps them spread their message to the best of their abilities, and database aesthetics are an addition to the heap of possibilities. “From narrative to database” is an interesting and relatively new phenomenon that is therefore worth discussing.
- Can you think of another example of content that employs database aesthetics?
- Why would an artist prefer to use a database or a narrative based on a database over a regular narrative?
- Do you see the progression from narrative to database in the world around you? Do you think it is a logical progression? What is your opinion on it?
Colomina, B. (2002). Enclosed by Images: Architecture in the Post-Sputnik Age.
Hayles, K. (2005). Narrating Bits: Encounters between Humans and Intelligent Machines.
Manovich, L. (2001). The Language of New Media.
Van de Ven, I. (2019). Big books in times of big data (Media / art / politics). Leiden: Leiden University Press.
Veel, K. (2011). Information Overload and Database Aesthetics.