Examples of Variability in New Media

See page 38 in The Language of New Media

Many of the specific examples provided in Lev Manovich’s discussion of new media’s variability suffer from an imprecision that leaves unclear just how the Principle of Variability ought to be properly applied when thinking about new media objects.

The example provided by “branching-type interactivity” overlooks historical continuities between new media and traditional media, while also suggesting philosophical difficulties. The word “branching” in this context has both a phenomenological meaning and a technical meaning; as a metaphor it relates to the way tree branches subdivide along their length, and describes the many possible routes one might take while navigating an interactive artwork (as though one were walking along a tree branch from a single trunk to a random leaf). In a technical sense, systems theory studies this phenomenon in terms of “bifurcation” as a way to describe the net effect of multiple individual events. The same “branching-type” behavior can be found in descriptions of interactions with traditional media objects such as books of photographs or other art prints, choose-your-own-adventure books, architecture, and installation art, all of which are commonly explored in a nonlinear and indeterminate fashion.

It could be argued that branching behavior is “in” a new media object in some structural way that it isn’t “in” traditional media; yet, just how one should most properly distinguish between the mechanical response of a book to having a page turned or a television set to having a channel changed, compared to a remote web server sending a copy of a web page, is unclear.

The example provided by “scaling” is similarly problematic. The word “scaling” has an informal sense, in which an object may be presented as larger or smaller, with more or less detail; and the word has a technical sense, which in mathematics refers to a type of linear transformation. The discussion of Microsoft Word’s “Autosummarize” feature fits neither of these uses: one third of a novel is not a scaled-down version of the novel, but rather, it is incomplete.

Although the types of variability discussed in The Language of New Media may be useful to an extent in describing the experience of interacting with a new media object, the discussion breaks down in a number of ways. Why these types of variability have the cultural value that they do is largely left unaddressed, and therefore, what meaning their application has to new media practices in terms of how new media objects are appreciated — aesthetically or in terms of convenience — remains unresolved.

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