L. M. Sacasas in January 2021:

Last summer I argued that, in the context of information superabundance, the Database now precedes the Narrative. Digitization has made possible the dissemination and storage of information at unprecedented scale and speed. To the degree that your view of the world is mediated by digitized information, to that same degree your encounter with the world will be more like an encounter with a Database of unfathomable size than with a coherent narrative of what has happened. The freedom, if we wish to call it that, of confronting the world in this way also implies the possibility that any two people will make their way through the Database along wildly divergent paths.

L. M. Sacasas in June 2020:

In other words, when you read a narrative, for example, you are encountering the product of a series of choices that have already been made for you by the author out of a myriad of possibilities from the database of language. The countless other choices that were possible are present only to the imagination. You see the words the author chose, not the ones she could’ve chosen. You see the path marked out for you as a reader, not the multiple paths that were rejected. When you encounter a database, however, you see the opposite. You see the field of possibility and any number of paths through the database remain hypothetical and potential.

This contrast between Narrative and Database struck me like a bolt of lightning. Not just because it nicely describes the insurmountable difficulty I ran into with social media’s organizing principle of The Feed, but because it describes a fundamental part of my autistic experience.

Years ago, before my diagnosis, a friend of mine asked me to help her pack up her house before she left the country. Tasks such as wrapping up items and packing up boxes were easy: there’s a simple progression of steps: grab an item, wrap it up, find a place for it in the box.

But I’d also been charged with something else. I was pointed at the cluttered piles of her garage and asked to determine what’d be good to keep, what’d be good to donate, and what’d be good to throw away.

This brought only a total mental paralysis, and a sense of the walls closing in on me.

Wrapping and packing items was a simple narrative task, with clear and sequential “story” beats. Sorting the garage was a complicated database task that overwhelmed by cognitive capacity and executive function.

It’s just as Sacasas says. Faced with narrative, much of the cognitive work already has been done for you; faced with database, almost all of that work falls to you.

That “field of possibility” Sacasas mentions? It’s the paralyzing aspect of being asked open-ended questions. It’s the social pressures of small talk. It’s the dramatic failure of jobs where I’d been asked to create new processes out of whole cloth.

Sacasas wasn’t writing about having an autistic brain, but this construction of Narrative vs. Database has given me new language with which to tell people about my experience.