Data without Context

The debate on whether databases should contain narrative or just raw data cannot be easily answered without some type of existing context or narrative. Manovich questions why an arbitrary sequence of database records should result in a series of connected events, and argues that while database can support narrative, there is nothing inherent in raw data that fosters narrative’s generation. Kirschenbaum makes the point that a user interface cannot be necessarily separated from its end use and describes that the function of an interface is built in layers that are inseparable. In a sense, the existence of raw data cannot be divorced of its social and cultural context or for its end purpose. While the consumption and acquisition of narrative free data is possible, it is hard to imagine a way in which data serves a function that is free of narrative or not tightly intertwined with multiple layers of interaction.

I found Manovich’s piece on narrative free databases difficult to digest. Perhaps because it is a concept so foreign to my own academic training, it is hard to imagine a scenario where data can be divorced from narrative completely even if the narrative isn’t imbued on the data while it is being consumed or recorded. There are additional layers beyond data’s existence. Under what conditions were these data recorded or produced? What is their purpose in being collected in to one space? How can we separate the information available to us from some type of narrative? Manovich used the example of a cultural object as a narrative, but argues that not all cultural objects are narratives. This concept is difficult to comprehend as an archaeologist because our entire body of theory relies on the argument that no cultural object exists separate from a human actor, and that looking at an object without context or narrative is detrimental to our field.

In the same group of readings, Simon, Brennan, and Kelly present differing opinions on how many voices should have authority over the way historical data is presented. Simon’s idea of a physical realm of feedback, multivocal dialogue, and interaction is fascinating, but it also highlights that human actors and voices are the root of data collection, organization, and presentation. While I personally end up agreeing with Brennan and Kelly’s idea of Web 1.5 – a perspective that allows for more interaction but imposes limits – the idea that museums can benefit from more consumer and human feedback supports the argument that historic data cannot necessarily be divorced from human voices. When dealing with a subject that is the product of human actors, how can we compile data without a narrative voice?

-Sarah Love


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