I quite agree with Mr. Pasker’s sentiment that a life without narrative – a life whose information universe is populated solely by the database – is not a life that I would want to live. However, I see no reason for any of us to fear such a future, for the simple reason that it is not possible. Humanity will never rely completely on the database for its intellectual existence because it is incapable of doing so.
I posit that the human intellect is incapable of processing meaning from information in any way other than through narrative. N. Katherine Hayles observes that information within a database “requires interpretation – and interpretation, almost inevitably, invokes narrative to achieve dramatic impact and significance”. Hayles is almost correct in her statement, but for one caveat: “almost inevitably”. Data inevitably requires narrative interpretation to have any use or significance to the human mind. We humans are temporal creatures: our everyday existence is defined by three special dimensions and one dimension of time. Any collection of data that is able to be processed and used by the human mind must include a dimension of time, or be fit into a temporal framework. Everything must fit into a story – the story of the universe, the story of your life, or the story of how a certain piece of data came to be. The image below illustrates an understanding of time known as the “loaf of bread theory”. This theory imagines an infinite number of temporal “slices”, from the past to the future. In each slice of time, the universe is a little different than in the last.
Without the temporal element of narrative, data alone is devoid of meaning. We must know which “slice” of time the data occupies, and how it got there. Databases, as we discussed in class, are organized spatially. To gain any meaningful information from data, we must be able to fit that data into a temporal framework, i.e. a narrative. Hayles is on the right track in saying that database and narrative have a symbiotic relationship, as opposed to an antagonistic one. Databases are useless without a narrative by which to interpret them, while narratives have little meaning if they are not backed up by data. Databases are useful only insomuch as they support narrative, and narrative has no weight without supporting data.