The Language of New Media, Chapter Five

by cjcoughlin

Lev Manovich outlines a theory in Chapter Five of The Language of New Media that I hadn’t realized I’d been forming in my own head as I played video games, navigated websites and explored Second Life over the years: modern interactive technology is built upon repositories or databases of information that form the digital backbone of our entertainment and work. Moving through a virtual world filled with objects, texts, pictures and videos its easy to forget that they exist in a digital space, they take up room on a hard drive or external media. I smiled at Manovich’s description of interactive CD-ROM encyclopedias that seem ancient today but brought hours of enjoyment in my younger years. Each encyclopedia had the same structure: a “lobby” scene with a list of subjects to visit. This paradigm can be seen throughout other simulations and games, although it has been skewed to represent a 3D environment.

Navigating these environments calls upon a database of objects that provide information; this information helps complete the narrative that has been designed for us. All of this information, however, threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Manovich states:

If traditional cultures provided people with well-defined narratives (myths, religion) and little “standalone” information, today we have too much information and too few narratives that can tie it all together. For better or worse, information access has become a key activity of the computer age.

Progressing through this narrative and accessing the database in the desired order allows us as users and consumers to solve the puzzle, or underlying algorithm of the media. Manovich brings up the valid point that databases work best when they are following this algorithm in a narrative or structured context; “infodumps” have their place, but a narrative roadmap gives us the tools needed to get what we need and get out.

…Narratives and games are similar in that the user must uncover their underlying logic while proceeding through them – their algorithm.

As I said before, this is something I’ve noticed in my digital travels but I have a feeling I’ll be doomed to notice how I interact with virtual objects and what it means to access the hard drive information behind them.