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From Author to Reader to User

December 28, 2005 | How Databases Created the User

Last weekend I finished several fixes and additions to this website, and now, with the exception of the Notes section, Whiskey and Aspirin is complete. The Notes section will feature a searchable database of design-related quotes, so today I began reading Build Your Own Database Driven Website Using PHP & MySQL, a how-to programming guide written by Kevin Yank and published by Sitepoint. While I’m looking forward to using this book to study databases in practice, in many ways I’m even more excited about studying databases in theory. It may sound geeked out and soulless, but over the next few years I expect databases to fully transform our art and culture and, in the process, become the subject of a large body of critical work. So before I start delving into technical details of databases, I thought I would take one last opportunity to write about the subject as a non-programmer.

Some of the best critical writing I’ve read about databases actually appears in an introductory book to typography, Ellen Lupton’s Thinking with Type. It may sound odd that a typography book would include a discussion of databases, but it’s a testament to the breadth and intelligence of Lupton’s writing that it does just that. I plan to write a full review of Thinking with Type later, but for now, I want to focus on a single claim of hers, that “the reader, having toppled the author’s seat of power during the twentieth century, now ails and lags, replaced by the dominant subject of our own era: the user. ”

I should quickly give this statement some context, but since I’m sure to butcher Lupton’s explanation, I encourage you to read pages 63-76 of her book as well. Twentieth century art and culture were dominated by Modernism and Post-Modernism, and whereas Modernism deified authors and consecrated artistic works as acts of creation, Post-Modernism deposed the “work ” and replaced it with a “text ” to be interpreted not as the author intended, but from the critical framework of the reader. As dramatic as this transfer in agency from author to reader was, however, Lupton’s quote identifies an even larger transfer —our as-yet-unnamed digital age has introduced the user, a new agent capable of not only interpreting a text, but reassembling it into an original work as well.

So why does Lupton make this point in a book about typography and what does this have to do with databases? As explained in the chart (figure 1) and paragraphs below, advances in the technology of typography have enabled each of these transfers in agency.

Fig. 1 Modern Post-Modern Digital
Agent Author Reader User
Technology Mass Production Indexes Databases
Action Create Interpret Create and Interpret
Consumption Linear Contingent Hyperlinks

1. Under Modernism, mass production and mass commerce lead to popular novels and the celebration of the author. Works were read from front to back as the linear transcriptions of the author’s spoken word.

2. Under Post-Modernism, typographic innovations such as page numbers, headers, tables of contents, and most importantly, indexes, all grew in sophistication and provided additional entry points for the reader, separating the text from the work, circumvented linearity, and empowered the reader.

3. During our current digital age, databases and hyperlinks allowed text to be navigated like never before, enabling the consumer to not only create new relationships between texts, but also to record these acts of creation. This is the essential point—by recording these acts of creation, databases created the user.

It might be helpful to look at a couple real world examples, and a good place to start is the database-driven website Visitors to this website are good examples of users, because to navigate content they must rate photos, and by rating photos they contribute to the database. Of course, the value of these contributions as works of art is debatable, but as a less controversial example, consider contemporary DJs. DJs are also clearly users, taking samples from existing songs (i.e. taking text of original works) and reassembling them into original music. Again, by the act of using the database (in this case, all of recorded music) they are creating new music and adding to that same database. For me, the most exciting implication of database enabled users is not DJs (whom I generally loathe), but the idea of collective expression and wisdom. A book is largely the effort of one author, but a database can be the product of literally millions of people and therefore much smarter than any one individual. (Look for a future post on James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds for more on this subject.)

I’d like to conclude this post by mentioning the danger in all this, that in addition to becoming raters of photos or musicians, users can also become their own news editors. In other words, by simply setting a few preferences, a user can filter website content so that it provides only the news and opinion he or she wants to hear. Unfortunately, this only creates an echo chamber. If nothing else, the linearity of books and newspapers force readers to occasionally come across an opinion different from their own. Uninformed, ignorant users are bad for democracy and, more than anything, this consequence of databases would seem to be responsible for the divisive state of American politics. Frankly I’m surprised this isn’t mentioned more. Digg Furl Reddit StumbleUpon Technorati


On December 29th, 2005 at 5:30 pm, Judy wrote:

What a fantastic thesis! You should turn this into a full-length article.