A Review of The Language of New Media

Photo by Matthew Ragan

The Language of New Media. By Lev Manovich. Cambridge, MIT Press, 2001; 354 pp. $16.71 kindle.

What, precisely, is the right term for content that lives with its left foot in a world of traditional gestalts, and its right foot in a mire of experimental methods? How does one characterize the trends that have emerged in the making, distribution, and viewing of media? How does one broadly conceptualize and decode the impact of a digital mechanism as the primary method of cultural expression? These questions frame the narrative in The Language of New Media by Lev Manovich. Heavily constructed around the critical conventions of cinema, Manovich’s perspective works to deconstruct the modalities of today’s media with an “aim to describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of new media” (Manovich 7). 

In his examination of (what Manovich calls) the “new media” this work looks to create “an attempt at both a record and a theory of the present” (7). Manovich helps the reader towards a working definition of new media by stating that “all new media objects, whether created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations” (Manovich 27). In short, his assertion is essentially that any new works created, modified, or distributed by using a computer fall into the category of new media. Further, historical analogue works that have been transferred into a digital representation also bear the title of new media. While his definition seems, at first blush, to be all encompassing, his explanation heavily relies on the concept of numerical representation. “Numerical representation turns media into computer data, thus making it programmable. And this indeed radically changes the nature of media” (Manovich 52). Here Manovich is really stating that that the numerical nature of media stored on a computer is the defining characteristic of new media. The programmable nature of this media is what makes it new. The problem with this newness is that it is not explicitly visible. A painting scanned and stored on a computer carries the same characteristics as the analogue original. How then does one differentiate between the two? Manovich’s distinction about the programmability of the numerically represented copy here becomes the key to understanding his definition. This new copy can be manipulated in a manner that the original could not. As an example: a tool like Photoshop can be used to instruct a computer to replace all of the color values of a specified hue, with a different hue; or, average color values from specified rows or columns could be fed into a synthesizer with the end result being an auditory representation of the painting. The numerically represented version of this painting can now be changed in an infinite number of ways. At the heart of how Manovich characterizes new media is its programmability – its ability to be altered and changed with a computer. In this way Manovich asks the reader to conceptualize the computer as a meta-medium for media. “No longer just an Analytical Engine, suitable only for crunching numbers … it has become a media synthesizer and manipulator” (Manovich 25). It is here, after a lengthy process of defining his terminology, that Manovich starts to push the reader into interesting intellectual territory. He argues that a computer is the mechanism for consuming new media as well as the tool for creating it, transcoding it, and distributing it. “All culture, past and present, came to be filtered through a computer, with its particular human-computer interface” (Manovich 64). It is at this junction that Manovich begins to push the reader to consider that “at the same time, the design of software and the human-computer interface reflects a larger social logic, ideology, and imagery for the contemporary society” (Manovich 118).

While Manovich goes to great lengths to help the reader see that the medium has a bias, this is not a new problem for media. The medium for every work has a bias, so what precisely is it that Manovich is trying to tell the reader? In a linguistic fashion that feels distinctly dystopian, and also strangely inviting, he slowly spells out the real problems of this initially invisible bias. 
Now interactive media asks us to click on a highlighted sentence to go to another sentence. In short, we are asked to follow pre-programed, objectively existing associations. Put differently…we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own. (Manovich 61)
The convention of using hyper-links on the web is one of the underlying principles of a flat network. Unlike hierarchical file structures on a computer that require the user to follow a specified path to locate a file, on the web any artifact can be linked to any other artifact. Manovich reminds us that someone, or something, did the work of creating those connections.  Further, those connections are not arbitrary. The author of a blog makes specific decisions about what links to include, and where to include them. Here Manovich pushes the reader to remember that at some point the relationship between those two highlighted sentences had to be constructed by another party. Another party that, presumably, had a specific agenda for how the user is going to experience that moment. The implications here are tremendously powerful for the reader, but Manovich over-reaches his assertion with a one-up-manship that is logically sloppy. 
Two sources connected through a hyperlink have equal weight; neither one dominates the other. Thus the acceptance of hyperlinking in the 1980s can be correlated with contemporary culture’s suspicion of all hierarchies, and preference for the aesthetics of collage in which radically different sources are brought together with a single cultural object. (Manovich 76)
Correlation is not causation, and without appropriate support the reader is left to question what ideological position they are being asked to adopt.

Perhaps what Manovich is really trying to communicate is the deeply integrated, and partially invisible, impact that this shift towards new media implies. 
Because new media is created on computers, distributed via computers, and stored and archived on computers, the logic of a computer can be expected to significantly influence the traditional logic of the media; that is, we may expect that the computer layer will affect the cultural layer. (Manovich 45) 
The result of this composite is a new computer culture – a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways in which human culture modeled the world and the computer’s own means of representing it. (Manovich 46)
Who then is responsible for this new cultural model that is a blend of traditional and experimental modalities? This work seems to be targeted distinctly towards academics and media historians who are invested in having a sense of the broad strokes that created the new media landscape of the early 1990s. Interestingly, it seems as though an appropriate readership for this work should also include media designers, application developers, cyber-culture artists, and students of new media. This is especially true given his critique of the typical citizen’s daily mode of operation, and the role these individuals might take in reversing this trend: 
Today, the subject of the information society is engaged in even more activities during a typical day: inputting and analyzing data, running simulations, searching the Internet, playing computer games, watching streaming video, listing to music online, trading stocks, and so on. Yet in performing all of these different activities, the user in essence is always using the same few tools and commands: a computer screen and a mouse; a Web browser, a search engine; cut, paste, copy, delete, and find commands (Manovich 65).
Manovich is explicit in his belief that a computer is meta-medium media machine, a cultural transcoder that acts as a mechanism for creation, translation, and distribution. This is perhaps best represented when he says “in short, we are no longer interfacing to a computer but to a culture encoded in digital form” (Manovich 69). He is the most inspiring and the most chilling when he examines the computer as our cultural monolith. His only failing is that the critical language he predominantly adopts is squarely grounded in cinema. While this approach is not without its merits, at times it feels stretched too thinly to make an argument that’s truly compelling. One of his grossest assertions about the reach of cinema comes in his insistence that “cinematic ways of seeing the world … have become the basic means by which computer users access and interact with all cultural data” (Manovich 78). This is true insomuch that the computer interface is a montage of individual actions framed by a screen. However, this opinion seems to deny the reality of reading text as one of the primary acts of interfacing with a computer. Further, it dismisses the fact that not all text wants to be cinema. To belabor the point, not all sound or still images strive to be represented through cinema.  Provided that one accepts Manovich’s bias towards cinema as the dominant cultural form, The Language of New Media provides an inspiring examination of the historical trajectories of mediated culture, as well as a suggestion of what is likely to come. 

Works Cited

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Ed. Roger F. Malina. Kindle Edition. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001.

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