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.

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.

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.