Delineating Linguistic Contexts

See page 253 in The Language of New Media

In discussing new media’s use of spatialized visualizations for representing computer data, Lev Manovich observes that:

“The very first coin-op arcade game was called Computer Space. The game simulated a dogfight between a spaceship and a flying saucer. Released in 1971, it was a remake of the first computer game, Spacewar, programmed on a PDP-1 at MIT in 1962. Both of these legendary games included the word space in their titles; and appropriately, space was one of the main characters in each of them.”

Although the discussion prior to this passage uses the word “space” in a topological sense, as in “that which might be filled with objects,” the word “space” is here used to denote “that region beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.” The word “space” is spelled the same in each context, but makes reference to distinct concepts in each context. This conflation of otherwise distinct conceptual vocabularies makes two unrelated discussions appear to be connected in a way they really are not.

The argument that follows from the discussion of “space” is similarly unclear. Manovich observes that “in the original Spacewar, the players navigated two spaceships around the screen” while noting later in the same paragraph that “the space of Spacewar and Computer Space was not navigable.”

It might be supposed that the discrepency surrounding the use of “navigation” in these two cases is meant to point out that it is the spaceship rather than the environment that one manipulates while navigating; but to privilege space in the second instance as that which is manipulated while navigating would be at odds with the conventional usage of the word. To suppose then that the intent is to draw attention to new media’s potential to offer new conceptions of one’s relationship to space, it would be difficult to justify the use of these particular video games as new media objects while elucidating the properties of new media.

What conclusions a reader might draw from this argument is as unclear as the use of terminology, or furthermore how the discussion of “navigable space” relates to the Five Principles of New Media. The problem in part has to do with confusions that arise from an imprecise delineation of context, but also involves matters of interpretation.

If Spacewar was programmed in 1962, the prominence of “space” as a theme in the game might relate in some way to cultural attitudes influenced by the launch of Sputnik and the start of the “space race” five years earlier. As more computers came into use at the academies, their novelty was surely appreciated by those studying them. “Space” in this context might be understood as signifying novelty and to invoke an aestheticized vision of the future. To then contextualize this video game in a more general context of art history, one might appeal to novelty as a central feature of Modernism.


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