Summary

  • One of the earliest systematic attempts at a theory and rhetoric of new media. Manovich draws heavily from cinema and art historical traditions to argue that new media constitute a revolution in production and representation, even as they draw heavily from prior media forms.
  • This book is fundamentally an argument from form: new media structures information (data) in various ways that respond to and shape culture concerns.

Keywords

  • language: by which Manovich signals not a return to semiotics but rather “the emergent conventions, recurrent design patterns, and key forms of new media” (12). (Struck by the emphasis on “design” here, which seems to prefigure design obsessions in contemporary digital studies, e.g. Bratton). For Manovich, “language” is closer to “aesthetics” or “poetics,” but he wanted to avoid either art historical or formalist resonance.
  • “information culture” as the new media version of “visual culture.”
  • object: a way to generalize new media beyond “product, artwork, interactive media” and also to emphasize a “concern with culture at large.” Further resonance w/ object-oriented programming (14). Can we link this to the use of object in speculative philosophy? And further resonance w/ the Formalists.
  • representation: ways of organizing and biasing the world; software interfaces “organize data in particular ways . . . privileg[ing] particular models of the world and the human subject (16).
  • cultural interfaces (69): “a human-computer-culture interface—the ways in which computers present and allow us to interact with cultural data” (70).
  • “illusionism” (177): the tendency in art history to strive for perfect realism, embodied in the computer’s desire to vanish from view in a “reality effect.”

Notes

  • Note that we open with stills from Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Manovich’s new media emerges from cinema first and foremost, and his overall historiographical project is to correct a lack in film history.

Introduction

  • We start with a techno-mimetic moment (cf Morton’s eco-mimesis) of Manovich’s own technical development (3). Liu has a similar gestural rhetorical project in the Epilogue to Laws of Cool: the feeling that the artist or humanist needs to justify his (always his) technical credentials after some fashion.
  • The book’s project is a “theory of the present” (7)—an attempt to write a comprehensive rhetorical account of new media at its emergence in a way that no one was able to for cinema at the turn of the last century. Is this even a possible project? No: and so I think that Language is most useful for a picture of what new media studies looked like in 2001 than for its rhetorical and theoretical interventions, useful as they can still be in some ways. Manovich, to his credit, anticipates this: “Does it make sense to theorize the present when it seems to be changing so fast? It is a hedged bet” (7).
  • Cinema is Manovich’s major interlocutor. It is the “key cultural form of the twentieth century” and new media’s immediate predecessor (9).
  • Section on representation (16–17) is useful for historicizing the project of representation across visual culture. Def. of simulation is useful: “technologies that aim to immerse the viewer completely within a virtual universe—Baroque Jesuit churches, nineteenth-century panorama, twentieth-century movie theaters” (16).

1. What is New Media?

  • This is the chapter that gets assigned in classes all the time b/c it has the five point schema.
    1. numerical representation (object described formally and subject to algorithmic manipulation)
    2. modularity (fractal structure)
    3. automation
    4. variability
    5. transcoding
  • Manovich argues that the “new media revolution” is more profound that previous media revolutions like photography because the computer has the ability to affect a wider range of cultural production and all stages of communication (19).
  • New media is the convergence of “two separate historical trajectories: computing and media technologies” (20). They share a primal scene: the 1830’s w/ Babbages’s Analytical Engine and the daguerrotype. Do we accept this story? The question of how far back computing extends is worth considering, to say nothing of the idea that new media technologies are the convergence of these two techs, which also necessarily privileges the visual over other kinds of mediated access. (E.g. why not the Jacquard loom as already wedding together these two strands?)
  • Manovich argues that the development of modern media and computers “were absolutely necessary to the functioning of mass societies” b/c they allowed for the reproduction and transmission of media capable of unifying a populace on the level of culture and thought (22–23).
  • Argues for formal similarities b/t cinema and computing technologies: cinema records data to tape, producing binary code avant la lettre (24).
  • “The Internet, which can be thought of as one huge distributed media database, also crystallized the baisc condition of the new information society: overabundance of information of all kinds” (35). W/o citing Bush, Manovich is mapping the same problems of production and access w/r/t information.
  • “Transcoding” is the most interesting of Manovich’s five principles. Here he articulates that new media objects exist on two layers, the “cultural layer” (e.g. a film’s plot) and the “computer layer” (e.g. a film’s file size) (46). These two layers “composit each other.”
  • Shoutout to Innis and McLuhan. Movement from media studies to software studies; transcoding is the first step at articulating a theory of software that is on software’s terms alone, rather than through the lens of prior visual/textual media (48).
  • Chapter concludes w/ a section “disproving myths” about new media by referring to cinema. Ex. “new media is analog media converted to digital representation” disproved by cinema’s inherently digital organization of data. Compare moves in this section to Gitelman.
  • Critique of interactivity is useful—the concept is “too broad to be truly useful”—”it simply means stating the most basic fact about computers” (55). The desire to call computers interactive is really part of a modern desire to “externalize the mind,” related to the “demand of modern mass society for standardization” (60). Manovich argues this is a process of interpellation: “we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own” (61).

2. The Interface

  • Manovich then moves quickly on the interface, particularly the GUI. The GUI has a structuring visual logic that conditions the production and reception of all media within it (64–65). Its proliferating logic through the technology of operating system also merges “work and leisure activities,” all now “converg[ing] around the same interfaces” (65).
  • The human-computer interface as a “metatool” (66). “Cinema, the printed word, and HCI are the three main reservoirs of metaphors and strategies for organizing information which feed cultural interfaces” (72).
  • Re: text in interfaces: “[Text] plays a privileged role in computer culture. On the one hand, it is one media type among others. But, on the other hand, it is a metalanguage of computer media, a code in which all other media are represented” (74).
  • Weirdly, Manovich argues that the predominance of hyperlinking is the decline of rhetoric: “hyperlinking has privileged the single figure of metonymy at the expense of all others” (77).
  • Cinema’s aesthetic strategies as a unifying language for computing: “Cinematic means of perception, of connecting space and tiem, of representing human memory, thinking, and emotion have become a way of work and a way of life for millions in the computer age” (86).
  • On a history of simulation in art: “While the representational tradition came to dominate post-Renaissance culture, the simulation tradition did not disappear. In fact, the nineteenth century, with its obsession with naturalism, pushed simulation to the extreme with the wax museum of the diaromas of natural history museums. . . . We think of such sculptures as part of a post-Renaissance humanism that puts the human at the center of the universe when in fact they are aliens, black holes united our world with another universe, a petrified universe of marble or stone that exists in parallel to our own” (113).

3. The Operations

  • Chapter on application software. Manovich is interested in operations common to a range of software, e.g. “copy, cut, paste, search, composite, transform, filter.” (Unsurprisingly, these are all heavily imagistic operations, even as he claims these techniques are not “media-specific”) (118). “Operations should be seen as another case of a more general principle of new media—transcoding. Encoded in algorithms and implemented as software commands, operations exist independently of the media data to which they can be applied. The separation of algorithms and data in programming becomes the separation of operations and media data” (121).

4. The Illusions

  • Chapter on appearance.

5. The Forms

  • Most interested in this chapter for its focus on the database as a primary vector of burgeoning new media aesthetics. “After the novel, and subsequently cinema, privileged narrative as the key form of cultural expression of the modern age, the computer age introduces its correlate—the database. Many new media objects do not tell stories; they do not have a beginning or end; in fact, they do not have any development thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are colelctions of individual items, with every item possessing the same significane as any other” (218).

Archive and Impact

  • Manovich is part of that polymathic crowd of New York techies-cum-artist-cum-theorists in the 1990’s and early 2000’s—Galloway is another member of this crowd. Think . *The Language of New Media* was profoundly influential in constituting new media studies as a field, alongside similar definitional projects as Monfort and Wardrip-Fruin's *New Media Reader* (2003).
  • That being said, this text is now more than fifteen years old, and it’s showing its age. Manovich’s archive is cinematic and art historical; it defines new media along the axes of visual studies and so engages no small amount of screen essentialism.
  • “I analyze the language of new media by placing it within the history of modern visual and media cultures” (8). How does this method differ from the predominate techniques of literary-inflected digital studies? What are the methodological bases of early digital studies? Given the computer-as-metaphor-machine discourse that proliferates, do we always need to start somewhere else when developing a “language of new media”?
  • Manovich calls his method “digital materialism” (even as it pre-dates the media archaeological turn inaugurated around 2008 with Kirschenbaum); an attempt to “build a theory of new media from the ground up” (10). (Also, this book is one of the earliest I’ve found to use the term “digital studies,” which then goes out of vogue for a while before looping back around today.)