Discussion of Conclusions

Five Principles of New Media

See page 27 in The Language of New Media

The analysis offered in The Language of New Media is built around Five Principles of New Media. In introducing these Five Principles, Lev Manovich proposes that:

“the last three principles are dependent on the first two. This is not dissimilar to axiomatic logic, in which certain axioms are taken as starting points and further theorems are proved on their basis.”

The use of the word “axiomatic” here implies that the first two principles are self-evident observations, and the last three principles are consequences that follow directly from the interaction of the first two; so “principle” is here used to refer to two distinct categories of logical assertions: assumptions and conclusions.

After establishing his analytical methodology as such, Manovich states in the following sentence: “Not every new media object obeys these principles.” If it is the case that not every new media object obeys these principles, then the relationship of the principles to new media is incompatible with, and therefore quite dissimilar to, axiomatic logic.  The approach Manovich proposes is perhaps more appropriately described as reductionist.

It is the very essence of axiomatic logic that it can be used to uniquely and definitively distinguish and identify logical forms. Just as one never finds a rooster that is not a chicken nor a triangle with more or less than three sides, one ought not reach conclusions using axiomatic logic that conflict with one’s axioms.

Furthermore, the formulations of the Five Principles themselves are deeply problematic, often involving contradictory implications, and at times relying upon the deductive conclusions of incompatible philosophies for evidence.

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.

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.