Topic-Specific Discussion of Analogy in The Language of New Media

Context Dependency in New Media Critique

See page 13 in The Language of New Media

In discussing why the word “Language” appears in the title of his book, rather than some other term like “Poetics,” Lev Manovich cites literary scholar Tzvetan Todorov. The citation implies that “Poetics” would have been undesirable because, according to Todorov, Poetics is “an approach… at once ‘abstract’ and ‘internal.’”

As The Language of New Media is philosophically grounded in the material and mechanistic qualities of new media objects as they exist on computers — as definite objects independent of subjective perceptions — the word “poetics” would in this sense be unsuitable.

Shortly after citing Todorov, Manovich proposes his analysis of new media in terms of the material properties of a computer. To a typical computer user, the material properties of a computer might seem most properly described as objective qualities of physical computing machines.

This description of practical computing is important to the overall argument in The Language of New Media. On page 52, for example, Manovich rejects a distinction between new and traditional media on the basis of whether they involve discrete or continuous modes of representing information; this rejection is grounded in a materialist approach to understanding “concrete computer technologies.”

At the same time, Manovich proposes an analysis of new media in terms of “information culture,” which he admits is his own coinage, and which he defines only by analogy to another concept, which he calls “visual culture.” Analogy involves abstraction, and a vaguely defined coinage has an internal meaning to he who coins the phrase which is not necessarily shared by others.

Contradictory assertions similar to this appear throughout the text, which in the context of poetry might be perfectly acceptable, but in the context of what purports to be a rigorous and systematic analysis, turn out to be quite problematic.

Transcoding – Fifth Principle of New Media

See page 45 in The Language of New Media

The Fifth Principle of New Media describes how:

“the logic of a computer can be expected to significantly influence the traditional cultural logic of media; that is, we may expect that the computer layer will affect the cultural layer.”

This Principle of New Media is the least well-defined, in part due to the unusual technical term used to name it, and in part for how it draws very general cultural considerations into what is otherwise primarily a discourse about the mechanical features of computers.

Transcoding is a technical term in computer science that relates, as Manovich notes, to the translation of information from one format to another; it is an important feature of this technical term, however, that the translation occurs within a computer system. Transcoding is the translation of information from one digital format to another; thus, printing a digital photograph onto paper does not qualify. The use of the word “transcoding” is unfortunate because it deprives readers of linguistic intuitions that might be derived from a more familiar term; the use of the word as a metaphor is also problematic, because culture is neither a “format” nor a product of the types of formal relationships that govern computer formats.

While it might be Manovich’s intent in this case to argue that our experience with computers colors how we view cultural activity — that computers make us see cultural activity in a more “computerized” sense — it is important to understand Manovich’s treatment of this term as an analogy, rather than a statement about formal equivalency, or one that implies a strong causal relationship. Similar analogies have arose in the past: after the invention of the mechanical clock, for example, it became popular in Western science to approach cosmology as though one were studying a clock-like mechanical device.

Although it is undoubtedly the case that computers have had some impact on culture, just how this effect is to be understood as substantially different from the technological impact of more traditional media is unclear. In terms of the linguistic consequences of media on culture, it is worth noting that following the widespread cultural acceptance of television and radio, for example, the English language gained a new colloquialism: “to tune out” what one finds uninteresting. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in linguistics, which asserts that language plays a central role in what features of the world we can readily perceive, suggests that the emergence of such colloquialisms as “tuning out” might have consequences more profound than simply the availability of particular informal expressions. Even outside of a discussion about recording media, one can find in Christianity or Islam a mystical, cosmological significance attributed to the word.

Described as “a blend of human and computer meanings, of traditional ways in which human culture modeled the world and the computer’s own means of representing it,” the cultural effect of “transcoding” is understood as affecting “all cultural categories and concepts.”

Given that computers were designed under considerations of precisely the reflexive relationship Manovich here identifies, it should come as no surprise to discover such a relationship present in new media. Manovich’s description of transcoding, however, privileges the relationship as proceeding from computers to culture, and largely ignores the impetus behind the trend in the opposite direction. The discussion of “transcoding” is problematic insofar as it is held within the context of an analysis philosophically-grounded as though practical computers, in their design and use, could be meaningfully understood apart from the cultural attitudes, beliefs, goals, and habits that produced computers and made their presence commonplace.

In many important respects, computers are modeled on human physiology and the ways our physiology allow us to perceive the world. The RBG color model used by computers to represent images, for example, is successful at reproducing the colors we see in the world because it is modeled on how our physiology recognizes color. Similarly, much of the work that went into designing computers as formal systems derives from Gottlob Frege‘s study of natural language.

The distinction Manovich draws between “the computer layer” and “the cultural layer” may be part of an attempt to structure a dialectic relationship between the mechanical behavior of computers and the cultural uses for computers, wherein “new media” becomes a synthesis of “computers” and “culture.” In such a case, culture would seem to carry the connotation of something organic, while computers would carry the connotation of something artificial; such a dialectic, however, would presuppose an opposing relationship between computers and culture that really does not exist as presupposed.

It is generally assumed that because computers are human inventions governed by well-defined mechanical relationships, they can therefore be more fully understood than something like culture, in which we participate, but never deliberately invented. Despite the well-defined nature of practical computers, there are a number of programmatic difficulties in attempting to formulate a comprehensive theory of computation. The way Manovich relies upon concepts drawn from computer science involves many of these difficulties.

Brian Cantwell Smith, in his essay “The Foundations of Computing” wrote:

“What has been (indeed, by most people still is) called a ‘Theory of Computation’ is in fact a general theory of the physical world — specifically, a theory of how hard it is, and what is required, for patches of the world in one physical configuration to change into another physical configuration. It applies to all physical entities, not just to computers.

“Not only must an adequate account of computation include a theory of semantics; it must also include a theory of ontology… Computers turn out in the end to be rather like cars: objects of inestimable social and political importance, but not in and of themselves, qua themselves, the focus of enduring scientific or intellectual inquiry — not, as philosophers would say, natural kinds.

“It is not just that a theory of computation will not supply a theory of semantics… or that it will not replace a theory of semantics; or even that it will depend or rest on a theory of semantics… computers per se, as I have said, do not constitute a distinct, delineated subject matter.”

The main thrust of Smith’s argument is that the idea of an all-encompasing theory of computation may be as incoherent as an attempt to formulate an all-encompasing “theory of walking.” For Manovich then to ground his theory of new media in terminology from computer science, without carefully delineating in what possible domains his assertions are applicable, presents very fundamental difficulties to the use of The Language of New Media for making valid inferences about individual new media objects.