Modularity – Second Principle of New Media

See page 30 in The Language of New Media

The Second Principle of New Media describes what Lev Manovich identifies as “the fractal structure of new media.” This Principle holds that the resulting objects of new media practices have “the same structure on different scales.” Elaborating on this premise, Manovich observes:

“Media elements, be they images, sounds, shapes or behaviors, are represented as collections of discrete samples … These elements are assembled into larger-scale objects but continue to maintain their separate identities.”

Although there is an element of truth to this observation, the description is inaccurate in important ways: “fractal” typically refers to a type of self-similarity that manifests itself on different scales. While a digital image might be composed of discrete pixels just as a web page might be composed of several discrete JPEG images, an individual pixel resembles neither a web page nor an image file.

The main problem here isn’t with the description of new media objects as modular, but with what inferences might be drawn from Manovich’s particular description of modularity.

A more accurate description might substitute “interoperable” for “fractal.” Even so, while the parts of many industrial products — such as automobiles — are modular and designed for interoperability in a sense similar to that proposed by Manovich, so are parts of language in certain respects.

Moreover, to describe digital images as modular insofar as they are comprised of pixels is to omit an important distinction between how computers typically store visual information and how that visual information is displayed. The JPEG file format, which Manovich mentions in his discussion of new media’s modularity, does not explicitly store information about individual pixels. Rather, the JPEG format uses mathematical models to abstract visual information, then uses these models to generate pixels for display.

Pixels are representations of information, and computer programmers structure the information such that the representation can appear to users as an image. Any information that can be stored on a computer can be represented as pixels on a monitor. The way information is structured in a JPEG image is, however, quite distinct from the way information is structured in a block of text.

The information content of the above text can be interoperably represented as pixels with either of the following two images:

16-Bit Image Generated from ASCII 1-Bit Image Generated from ASCII

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