The Database and Narrative, According to Lev Manovich.

In Lev Manovich’s book “The Language of New Media”, Chapter 5: The Database, Manovich describes the relationship between the database and narrative.

Photo retrieved from
Photo retrieved from

The database, per Manovich is a collection of items used to perform various operations Manovich tells us that the use of these computerized collections is distinct from reading a narrative in that if over time new elements are added to then collections are formed, not a story. Further one finds that a narrative becomes a method of accessing data.

When discussing Data and Algorithm, Manovich mentions that not all new objects are openly databases. He says, a narrative to computer games is a result that can be experienced by users. The narrative is formed when gamers are given a task and reach the last level or the highest score.

In Database and Narrative Manovich tells us that the database and narrative are natural enemies. A narrative creates a cause and effect trajectory and the database as a cultural form simply represents the world as a list of items.

One also finds that Manovich does find that narratives and games are similar because the user must identify the underlying logic when proceeding through them. He tells us that data structures (CD-ROMs and Websites) and algorithms drive different forms of computer culture. So, databases correspond to data structure and narratives and games correspond to algorithm. So the ‘user’ of a narrative transverses a database by following links as established by the database creator. Thus one has an interactive narrative or ‘hypernarrative’ as described by Manovich. However, this does not mean that a random order of database records is a narrative. Manovich elaborates by stating that to qualify as a narrative, a cultural object (not all cultural objects are narratives) must placate a number of measures. It must contain an actor and narrator, three levels of text; the story and fabula (the chronological order of the events contained in the story), and the contents need to be a series of connected events that are either experienced or caused by the actor.

According to Manovich, database and narrative do not have the same status in computer culture. While a database can support a narrative it cannot foster the generation of a narrative.

Montage: According to Lev Manovich

In Chapter three; The Operations of Lev Manovich’s book “The Language of New Media” montage is explained.

Montage is editing and creates fake realities in today’s technology. Under the heading Archeology of Compositing: Cinema, Manovich distinguishes two basic techniques used by digital compositing relating to montage: temporal montage and montage within a shot. In temporal montage consecutive moments in time are formed by separate realities. In opposition, montage within a shot relates to the contingent parts of a single image are formed by separate realities.

Lev Manovich  Retrieved from
Lev Manovich
Retrieved from

Manovich says, “examples [of montage within a shot] include the superimposition of a few images and multiple screens used by the avant-garde filmmakers in the 1920’s (for instance, superimposed images in Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and a three-part screen in Gance Abel’s 1927 Napoléon).”

Vertov theorized that film could present viewers with objects that do not exist in reality by use of temporal montage.

Manovich tells us that spatial montage rather than temporal montage, gives viewers an alternative to traditional cinema by replacing its traditional sequential mode with a spatial one. Cinema followed the logic that the process of production is best broken up into a “set of repetitive, sequential, and simple activities.” Computer programming follows suit by breaking “tasks into a series of elemental operations to be executed one at a time.” Cinema substituted its “modes of narration with a sequential narrative, an assembly line of shots, which appear on the screen one at a time.” As it turns out, sequential narrative is incompatible with a spatial narrative.

Manovich tells us that when digital filmmakers establish a logic that controls the changes and correlation of values through new spatial dimensions the spatial montage is created. He defines spatial dimensions as: “spatial order of layers in a composite, …virtual space constructed through compositing, …2-D movement of layers in relation to the image frame, …relationship between the image and linked information in the adjustment window.” So, spatial montage involves various images of various size and proportion appearing at the same time on one screen so long as the filmmaker constructs the logic to determine what images are to appear together and when.

After The Language of New Media was published, Manovich published in 2002 his writing titled The Archeology of Windows and Spatial Montage. In this writing Manovich states, “When I was finishing the book in 1999, I could not find any examples of spatial montage in contemporary cinema… In the next couple of years, the spatial montages gradually become more present in film and television, from Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) to a TV series “24 hours” and many music videos and commercials.”

The Interface and the Screen

In Lev Manovich’s boimagesok “The Language of New Media”, Chapter 2: The Interface, Manovich uses the term human-computer interface (HCI) to describe the ways users interact with computers. Under the heading, The Language of Cultural Interfaces he further mentions that the HCI is inclusive of both physical input and output devices. These devices are the monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

Interfacing of cultural data refers to text, photographs, film, music, and virtual environments. The language of cultural interfaces according to Manovich, are cinema, printed word, and general-purpose human-computer interface.

It is emphasized that the screens frame is separated into two spaces of different scales. These spaces are the physical and virtual. The screen functions as a window into an illusionary space and also as a flat screen that carries text labels and graphical icons. Manovich says the screen provides “depth and surface, opaqueness and transparency, images as illusionary space and image as instrument for action.” Manovich also tells us that screens can be interactive, real-time, and dynamic. According to Manovich screens are used by data-entry clerks, doctors and pilots, and are used at store checkout counters, and dashboards in cars. Of course there is also the computer screen. Manovich defined the screen, “a window into the space of representation that itself exists in our normal space.”

The human interface and representation refers to the spectator as having double identity in that the spectator simultaneously exists in “physical space and the virtual space that continues it.” Manovich elaborates on this idea and tells the reader that because of the double identity, there is a “tradeoff for new mobility of the image as well as for the newly available possibility to represent an arbitrary space, rather than having to simulate the physical space where an image is located.”

My biggest impression from this chapter is the realization that the screen itself is what enables one to posses the illusion that are able to navigate through virtual spaces. The best example of this can be seen in the movie Johnny Mnemonic.

What Did Lev Manovich Say About New Media?

Lev Manovich, a theorist of digital culture, offers insight regarding new media in his book The Language of New Media. In chapter one, “What is New Media?” Manovich answers two questions.

Lev Manovich.
    Lev Manovich

First, What is New Media in relation to how culture is affected by computerization? According to Manovich, all stages of communication reap the effects of computer media including acquisition, manipulation, storage, and distribution. The effects of computer media stretch out to include the following types of media: texts, still and/or moving images, sound, and three-dimensional construction.

Second, What are the ways in which the use of computers to record, store, create, and distribute media makes it new? Manovich’s take on this is that new media represents a convergence of computing and media technologies.

Manovich then reveals the five principles of new media as numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and cultural transcoding. If all existing media is translated to numerical data that is accessible for the computer then graphics, sounds, shapes, spaces, moving images, and texts are computable. This is where media becomes new media because the computer has become a media processor.

Numerical representation as described by Manovich is all new media objects composed of a digital code regardless of it was initially created on a computer or converted from analog media sources resulting in individual customization not mass standardization.

Modularity according to Manovich is a new media object such as: images, sounds, shapes and behaviors that are represented by discrete samples. These collections of discrete samples (pixels, characters, and scripts) have the same modular structure. Thus, they maintain their separate identities when assembled into larger-scale objects. This means they can be accessed, modified, and substituted without having an effect on the structure of an object.

Automation being both numerical representation and modularity allows for manipulation and access. Manovich mentions that accessing and reusing existing media objects is just as essential as creating new ones.

Variability for Manovich also is composed of numerical representation and modularity, and holds the position that a new media object is not fixed, but rather can exist in different and potentially infinite versions. So size, format, color, shape trajectory, duration, and point of view can all be defined as variables.

Cultural transcoding according to Manovich is the most substantial consequence of computerization. Cultural transcoding then is two separate layers, which are the “cultural layer” and “computer layer” being compounded together. So just as human culture modeled the world and the computer represents it, together a new computer culture is formed and an example of that is databases.

Manovich then concludes the chapter with “What New Media Is Not.” New media according to Manovich is not cinema because cinema as sampled time but preserved in linear order is a “human-centered” representation calling for one to identify with another’s bodily image. It is also not digitization because it is characterized by loss of data, noise, and degradation. New media is not interactivity (hyperlinking) because it calls for one to identify with another’s mental structure.