Poetry, novels, short stories. These are some of the familiar forms of conventional writing – the printed word. What are the forms of new media, and how do they differ from the forms that preceded them? Answering that question is the aim of media theorist Lev Manovich in the fifth chapter, titled “The Forms,” of his 2001 book The Language of New Media. Plunging into the murky depths of new media, Manovich outlines several of the primary forms of new media, to which many other forms are related to one degree or another. He highlights specifically the contrasting elements of database and narrative, which in many ways illustrate expressions of the computer (database) and cultural (narrative) layers of communication.
As implied by its name, the database is defined by Manovich as a “structured collection of data.” Databases can range from small to enormous, covering virtually any topic imaginable – from the names and years of items in a baseball card collection to the list of open classes from the Florida State College at Jacksonville class listings in Connections. Because of the computer’s ability to store, sort, and quickly retrieve data, the database is naturally suited to computers. To the user working with a database, with its staggering variety of individual data that may be sorted or organized into untold combinations, the experience is sharply different from the traditional media experience. Older media forms usually emphasize narrative – the idea of a beginning, middle, and end, and often a clearly defined cause-and-effect relationship. Moreover, within a database, all objects appear to rest in the database with equal status – no single item is more or less important than any other, at least as far as the computer is concerned.
Despite the essential distinction between database, with its thorough and efficient agglomeration of complicated data sets, and narrative, with its directed, “point A to point B” message and its deep roots in human culture, Manovich finds areas in which the two elements overlap. Manovich observes this phenomenon clearly within video games, among the most radical of all new technological formats to come into existence in the new media era. He links the process of completing a game to the computing concept of the algorithm, a specified process or series of steps needed to solve a problem or accomplish a particular task. These come in different types; the action-themed games popular at the time when Manovich wrote the book emphasize clearing a level of enemies, while the puzzle game Tetris manipulates falling blocks to prevent the screen from filling up to the top. Although computer operations are essentially based on the database concept, the narrative concept remains strong through its historic and cultural significance, and new media forms often superimpose a narrative on the seemingly impersonal database in a way that enhances the data’s meaning to the user.