LEV MANOVICH: “THE LANGUAGE OF NEW MEDIA”. A review

The 1990s marked the beginning of a new media revolution. A lot of rapid changes were taking place, such as computerization of culture and the birth of what Manuel Castells called “network society”. The digital computer became the meta-medium. According to Manovich, the last analogous media revolution was the birth of cinema. Sadly, its contemporaries did not recognize the importance of the new medium and there is no comprehensible account of its early emergence. Manovich laments over this lack of an early record of cinema and is determined to create both such an account and the theory of the development of the language of new media.

To begin with, the use of term “language” does not have anything to do with semiotics, but is used to describe “emergent conventions, design patterns and key forms of new media” (p. 38). The ‘Introduction’ of the book gives a good impression of what to expect. Most of the existing publications focused on the future of new media, while this work focuses on new media as it has already developed. Of course, this also provides the basis for the “potential map of what the field [of new media studies]” (p. 36) can be and anticipates how new media itself could develop. The six chapters of the book deal with particular concepts and problems, from the “material and logical organization” (p. 37) of the new medium itself to the effects of the new media outside the field of computer culture. Manovich follows a “bottom-up” approach, and the author calls his method “digital materialism”. He thinks that we cannot understand new media without understanding its technical meta-level, but, most importantly, we should study new media in the light of historical perspective and other visual forms of culture.

The first chapter, ‘What is New Media?’, seeks to show what is new about new media by comparing it to older media. The chapter begins with a historical account of the begining of new media. It goes back to the 19th century, two different developments – that of the modern media and that of computers – began. Only around the 1940s, when these two trajectories finally met, the new media appeared. At the same time, Manovich challenges some of the popular notions about what constitutes the novelty of new media. Among these are interactivity, the possibility of lossless copying and digital representation. Instead, he offers and explains five other principles of new media – numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding. They are not laws, but rather general tendencies, which also reflect the order of post-industrial society. While modern media allowed mass production of images, the new media is based on “individual customization” (p. 51). For example, the variability principle enables the new media object exist in many different versions, which corresponds to the contemporary logic of “production on demand” (p. 56).

The second chapter, ‘The Interface’, focuses on the computer interface. Its first section is dedicated to cultural data that became “interfaced” – transformed into computer objects. Manovich explains the role of principles of cinema, the printed word and a GUI, general-purpose human-computer interface, in shaping the cultural interfaces of the 1990s. All of them structure the interface language. For example, the textual representation is still dominated by the structure of the page, even if some new media designers try to transgress this form. The second section of the chapter seeks the position the computer screen within a longer tradition, dating back to Renaissance paintings. The modern computer screen both continues and challenges the tradition. The proportions of the screen remain the same, the viewing is still frontal and the viewer is usually immobile, but some of the new media, like VR, introduce a new relationship between the body and the image. Here, the screen no longer “screens out”, but the physical reality loses its importance all the action takes place in the virtual space.

New media has a few contradictions within it. In the last part of his fourth chapter, Manovich writes that interactive computer objects constantly shift between creating illusion and revealing the underlying machinery. The new media, contrary to the modern media, does not ask the user to accept the illusion, but puts them in the position of a master and makes a demand for a “cognitive multi-tasking” (p. 189). The fifth chapter, ‘The Forms’, points out yet another contradiction: the opposition of its two characteristics, action and representation. Most of the media works follow one of the two approaches – constructing the interface suitable to access multimedia information database, like the Web, or creating spatial navigation methods, like computer games. Throughout the chapter, Manovich discusses the relationship between the two. Most importantly, Manovich points out that the computer database became a new metaphor “[representing] the human experience, the world, and human existence in this world” (p. 191) and considers the cultural effects of this. Dziga Vertov’s film Man with a Movie Camera, albeit released in 1929, is the best example of an artwork created by “database imagination” (p. 206). The movie does not follow a plot, but arranges a database of images to construct its argument, merging the database metaphor of the new media and the older narrative structure. Such method is something that new media designers still have to discover.

The book is extremely clearly written and structured. Manovich not only gives a lot of meaningful examples, but constantly provides the reader with useful summaries of his point. Furthermore, it covers a wide variety topics and the bottom-up approach lets the author to discuss all the levels on which the new media function, from its purely technical characteristics to its position in a wider culture. But the book is not flawless. The scope of it, exactly because of being extremely broad, is what makes the book to trip up. Some of the topics are not discussed as deeply as they should be. Interactivity, for example, is rejected as a key characteristic of new media very quickly. Manovich is forced to constantly refer to his subject as “new media” and make generalizations without a systematic discussion of the limits of such generalizations. He bases his study on a lot of different scientific fields, such as art history, literary theory, and computer science without a clear distinction. Lastly, in his fifth chapter, he opposes the narrative and the database, but he abandons the viewpoint of the database user, who does not experience its information as a whole, but from a starting point to the end point, in a logical sequence. Consequently, it is questionable whether Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece is such a good example of “database imagination”. Anyway, despite my criticism, the book fulfills its goal of providing a detailed analysis of the early development of new media. It remains one of the most curious existing accounts of the new media revolution.

References:

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. Retrieved April 22, 2012 from http://www.manovich.net/LNM/Manovich.pdf

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