Automation – Third Principle of New Media

See page 32 in The Language of New Media

The Third Principle of New Media is introduced as follows:

“The numerical coding of media (principle 1) and the modular structure of a media object (principle 2) allow for the automation of many operations involved in media creation, manipulation and access. Thus human intentionality can be removed from the creative process, at least in part.”

Although it is certainly true that many aspects of the new media are facilitated by automated processes on computers, to identify such processes as central features or concerns of new media practices does little to clarify what aesthetic issues come into play when artists make use of the new media. To ground the discussion in what is really a material observation about the behavior of computers obscures more meaningful observations about how artists working with new media behave. It is not unlike discussing a painting in terms of how the paint dries.

The difficulty with Manovich’s approach here can be discerned in the consideration of how and why one might distinguish a new media art object made in part with automated processes on a computer from a painting made with pigments that are manufactured in automated factories; The Language of New Media contains no way to determine at what point the mediation of automated processes becomes sufficient to distinguish the new media from traditional media.

Just as it might seem odd to generalize about painters on the basis of how their pigments were manufactured, it seems odd to generalize about new media artists in terms of the automated processes they employ. While a particular artist might for some reason choose to take such processes as a thematic concern in an artwork, or adjust his or her style to the peculiarities of certain such processes, to generalize that such processes are of central concern to understanding how all other artists use a given medium would seem to generalize too much.

From the perspective of the artist, there is a certain convenience to be found in the ability of computers to automate certain types of tasks; yet in the context of new media, to identify this automation as central to the medium in a sense reduces the new media artist to a button-pusher: a consumer of automated processes rather than a creator of artworks. The effect of the assertion is similar to Truman Capote’s remark about what is perhaps Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel: “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” To diminish human intentionality in an analysis of new media is to diminish the fact that media come into use because they suit certain purposes.

It might well be argued, furthermore, that the way automation affects the behavior of the new media artist is to increase the role of human intentionality: because of the convenience with which many choices of sophisticated manipulations can be presented to a new media artist, there are more possibilities for the artist to deliberately reject. Automated processes on computers are also designed with a great deal of effort and intentionality, and there is a good deal of skill involved in learning how to make use of them – either as an artist or as a consumer.

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

Inference and Historical Analysis

See page 24 in The Language of New Media

In discussing the historical convergence of computers and the media arts, Lev Manovich asserts that:

“the key year for the history of media and computing is 1936. British mathematician Alan Turing wrote a seminal paper entitled ‘On Computable Numbers.’ In it he provided a theoretical description of a general purpose computer”

Manovich observes that the diagram of the machine Turing describes in his paper “looks suspiciously like a film projector,” and then asks provocatively: “Is this a coincidence?”

Absent any documentation to the effect that Turing’s design was directly influenced by the appearance of a film projector, any assertion that such a connection exists would best be treated as conjecture, and the appearance of a connection ought to be treated precisely as coincidence; there certainly is little to be found by way of functional similarity. The hypothetical connection between the diagram of Turing’s machine and the design of a film projector has more to do with a programmatic attempt throughout The Language of New Media to interpret the history of new media in terms of an existing body of literature on film criticism.

While we might be reasonably certain that Turing was aware of cinema, as a mathematician he was probably far more familiar with the mechanics of an adding machine. Moreover, the 1936 paper cited here by Manovich has more to do with esoteric problems of number theory than it has to do with the material properties of practical computers. The machine Turing outlined in his 1936 paper was not intended as a schematic, but rather as something more along the lines of Albert Einstein’s “gedankenexperiments.”

Turing’s machine requires an infinite strip of tape upon which symbols are printed and from which symbols are read; that the machine in this way has access to an infinite amount of memory is at once essential to its conception and also a reminder that it is impossible to physically construct such a device. The machine was meant to help visualize how the act of performing arithmetic calculations transforms information about infinite sets of numbers (such as the set of whole numbers).

Where Turing comes into the text, it is worth noting that the word “computer” in Turing’s day did not refer to machines at all, but rather to people employed for their arithmetic abilities.