Media Theory for the 21st Century

February 18, 2008

Pattern Extrapolation

Filed under: Discussion — jjpulizzi @ 11:58 pm
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Many of the readings we’ll be looking at tomorrow respond to Manovich’s association of database and narrative (whether affirmatively or negatively), though we may also wish to think about the role that databases, particularly the interfaces, play in aiding the human brain at pattern recognition.

Manovich’s pronouncement that “database and narrative are natural enemies” (44) suggests that two are vying for control over how human beings imagine relationships—whether spatially (database) or temporally (narrative). Professor Hayles instead suggests that despite their differences, database and narrative, like human and computer, exist symbiotically as necessary extensions of one another in a society flooded with information needing organization. We should also remember that brain’s ability to separate relevant and irrelevant information (pattern and noise) quickly is a necessary component of narrative and also an ability that is refined by narrative. If we have a “story” or context for a given situation, then we’ll be better able to mark pattern from noise.

This perspective also allows us to understand visual and auditory interpretations of databases as instances of the same tendency to search for patterns that appears in narrative. We can take as an example the failure of databases and their attendant algorithms to catalog common sense. Much common sense knowledge or know-how is extremely dependent on context (i.e. what came just before and what might come next), which leads to a bewildering proliferation of exceptions and special cases (if anyone is interested I can give references to works that make this argument). Even if these indefinitely proliferating exceptions and cases could be cataloged, the problem of how to efficiently search the records remains.

How then could the human brain possibly learn with ease what cannot be represented explicitly? Terrence W. Deacon in The Symbolic Species attributes the human ability to learn and use a complex natural language, whose grammar and syntactical variations could never be entirely cataloged or put in a database, to the brain’s facility at first discerning high-level patterns and then gradually refining that structure with relevant details, which prevents one from being overwhelmed by obscure exceptions or noise. The fuzzy picture must precede the sharp focus—so children with immature brains, which are easily distracted, learn languages with much greater facility than adults do. Refining the fuzzy picture also requires actually living in and experiencing the language and the society in which it is used.

Computers permit one to explore various data for patterns whether it be with a narrative method of by visualization. Again it is a case of the human and computer collaborating to draw upon the strengths of the other. Excellent pattern recognition and sorting on the one hand, and rapid calculation and manipulation on the other.

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