On Defining a Medium

See page 45 in The Language of New Media

“Beginning with the basic, ‘material’ principles of new media — numeric coding and modular organization — we moved to more ‘deep’ and far-reaching ones — automation and variability.”

The medium-specific analysis in The Language of New Media attempts to philosophically ground discussion in a material sense apart from relatively subjective cultural factors: the medium is understood primarily as the properties and behaviors of a material thing. While the language of the analysis draws upon diverse concepts in computer science and mathematics, history, behaviorist and cognitive psychology, economics, and aesthetics, missing is a definition of what “a medium” actually is, such that one might consider a given object as being properly discussed in the terms of a given medium.

Given the scholarly tradition towards which The Language of New Media is oriented, it might seem natural to assume that Lev Manovich’s understanding of “a medium” falls somewhere near Marshall McLuhan’s; yet two of McLuhan’s important conclusions — that electronic media would make cultural habits more tribal and more aural — are at odds with central features of The Language of New Media, which holds that cultural habits have been becoming more industrially-influenced and more visual.

Although an approximate understanding of “a medium” for the purposes of discussion might be generally acceptable, the task of distinguishing new media from traditional media on the basis of qualities which both, in important respects, hold in common presents certain difficulties. To resolve these difficulties, one might accept a more informal and broadly-defined understanding of “a medium.” To do so would, however, imply a different philosophical grounding than that used methodologically in The Language of New Media.


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