Variability – Fourth Principle of New Media

See page 36 in The Language of New Media

In describing the Fourth Principle of New Media, Manovich observes that:

“A new media object is not something fixed once and for all, but something that can exist in different, potentially infinite versions.”

This observation would seem to relate more to the experience of somebody interacting with a new media object than to an artist creating a new media object; the implications for the artist are, however, relatively straightforward. A graphic designer working with a piece of graphic design software might be given some text and images, and might then try out a number of possible fonts for the text and visual arrangements of images. The text, during such a process, is not fixed, but highly variable in its appearance. Before the advent of computerized graphic design, such a design process was much more difficult.

It would seem that a large part of why the new media attract so much critical attention relates to the dynamic nature of online content. For example, in both design and distribution, visual text is no longer a static enterprise confined to the monolithic bound book, but has become a new sort of fluid event on computer screens: electronic text can easily be resized or rearranged. Yet the identification of this variability as a central feature of new media reveals at once a contemporary cultural bias towards that which is perceived as new, as well as the continuation of a historical trend that informs how, for example, the fluidity of electronic text ought to be perceived.

That the last quarter of the 20th Century brought with it some change in cultural attitudes towards mass media seems clear; that electronic computers continue to play some part in this change also seems clear. Something, then, is new; but to then say whatever properties are found in the new media are also new, or therefore fundamental to the perception of newness, is a deeply problematic approach. The problem might stem in part from the cultural value Modernism placed on novelty, but the perceived novelty of dynamic text (be it in terms of online syndicated or database-driven content, the market for branded plain-language neologisms such as “google,” or the proliferation of commonplace semantic conventions with plain-language vocabularies such as HTML or CSS or BBCODE), for example, is not strictly a recent cultural phenomenon. In thinking about why this cultural perception exists, it might be worthwhile to consider that the history of modern typography began with Gutenberg’s invention of movable type.

Among the early effects of Gutenberg’s movable type was a decrease in the cost of obtaining printed material, and an increase in the accessibility of printed material. Much of what we see in the effects of dynamic online content is in many respects similar: computers make it more convenient to access and manipulate media objects. To assert, then, that computers have introduced fundamentally new types of manipulations might reveal useful observations in a certain context, but the overall impact of computers in practical respects relates more directly to matters of convenience.

The discussion of new media’s variability, if it suffers from being too specific in its cultural scope, is perhaps too general in its technical analysis. In asserting that “instead of identical copies, a new media object typically gives rise to many different versions,” Manovich neglects one of the fundamental reasons for the utility of digital computers: be it in copying digital video from a camera to a computer, or in copying text from one computer to another, a contributing factor to the widespread success of digital computers has been their ability to make exact copies of things in a way that is impossible with many traditional media. A reproduction of a chemical photograph changes the image being reproduced because the reproduction introduces an additional amount of grain into the image; duplicating a digital picture file neither requires such a change in the product, nor do the economics of mass production and distribution imply greater costs for this increase in the accuracy of replicability.

It could be argued here that the replicability of new media objects encourages their modification, in virtue of the fact that such modifications to the product as the “customization” of a product’s use and behavior are made more convenient to the “audience” of end-users by digital computing (in virtue of the fact that products can be reproduced accurately enough to contain a great many reliable “moving parts” as well as a great degree of synchronous interoperability with other devices that similarly involve many “moving parts”); this convenience as a cultural value, however, would be an anthropological observation not directly addressed in the text. The variability of new media objects is an observation Manovich makes about the medium rather than about culture, and which he derives from his observations about the new media’s Numerical Representation and Modularity.

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