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

Addressing The Myth of Random Access

See page 51 in The Language of New Media

After Manovich enumerates his Five Principles of New Media, he proceeds to address a number of “popularly held notions about the difference between new media and old media.”  He seeks to discredit these notions as insufficient to distinguish new media from traditional media insofar as they are “not unique to new media, but can be found in older media technologies as well.”

The third such notion that Manovich addresses is the ability of new media to support the “random access” of information.  Manovich formulates this popular notion as follows:

“New media allow for random access.  In contrast to film or videotape, which store data sequentially, computer storage devices make it possible to access any data element equally fast.”

The background of this claim involves an important technical concept in contemporary computer design.  When people talk about how much “memory” their computer has, they frequently refer to Random Access Memory (often called RAM), as opposed to hard disk space.  Hard disk space is where computer programs and user files are kept for long-term storage; RAM is like a scratch pad that a computer uses while manipulating data retrieved from a hard disk.  Although today, hard disks are quite fast, this distinction represents an important development in the history of computing, as data was once stored on magnetic tape.  Historically, for a computer to access a given file, it needed to fast-forward or rewind a large amount of tape in order to retrieve the data requested by a user.  As this could be a time-consuming process, solid state RAM technology was developed in part so that once the relevant data was located on the tape, that data could then be manipulated with less delay.  Cost was among the primary reasons that solid state RAM was not used for all storage.

Thus, distinctions between new media and old media based on the concept of “random access” would draw an analogy between film and the magnetic tape that computers once commonly used to store data.  To view a particular frame in a given film, one must feed the film through a projector and first view every preceding frame — even though one may not be interested in all those other frames.  Under this analogy, new media represent the invention of RAM, and therefore the ability to easily retrieve an arbitrary piece of information without having to review a mountain of unimportant data first.

This analogy is meant to draw attention to an important functional distinction between new media and old media.  The perceived relevance of this distinction is that new media facilitate a unique form of non-linear interaction which was impossible to achieve with previous media technologies such as film.  As Manovich here observes, “once a film is digitized and loaded into a computer’s memory, any frame can be accessed with equal ease.”  Thus, new media are purported to provide unique ways of fragmenting and re-ordering time and space.

Although Manovich (perhaps correctly) denies that “random access” is sufficient to create a unique identity for new media, his argument here fails to directly address why.  One of Manovich’s central objectives in The Language of New Media is to ground the emerging conventions of new media in an existing body of literature on film criticism; to this end, his argument against the relevance of “random access” relies on various precedents in the history of cinema — such as the Phenakistiscope and the Zoopraxiscope — that demonstrate a rudimentary form of “random access” in non-digital motion picture technology.  However, the ability to scan through time “mapped onto two-dimensional space” found in esoteric technologies such as the Phenakistiscope is not really present in cinema as we understand it today; thus, the critique which Manovich would here present is more an observation of a historical coincidence than it is an observation about how the development of cultural and artistic traditions contributed to certain ways of perceiving and ordering experience.

If we abandon Manovich’s assumption that the history of cinema provides the most appropriate way to interpret the emergence of new media aesthetics, we can then see that other, less esoteric examples of “random access” in pre-existing media forms not only make themselves apparent, but also provide more compelling evidence to substantiate claims against the purported importance of “random access.”

Most obviously, the printed book is a traditional media form that readily supports “random access.”  The ability to access arbitrary information in a printed book is what gives reference texts such as dictionaries and encyclopedias their utility.  Moreover, the liturgical function of the Bible relies on the ability to retrieve specific passages — and those passages only — on different occasions.  If we consider that printed books can contain material other than text, we are obliged to acknowledge that books of art reproductions and magazines are frequently browsed in highly non-linear ways.  The “choose-your-own-adventure” book is just one example of the ways in which the non-linear, “random access” features of print can be exploited for aesthetic ends.

In “old media” such as painting and photography, analyses which oppose the purported linearity of traditional media forms to the non-linearity of new media break down.  It makes little sense to speak of an individual painting or a photograph as sequential, since any part of the image can be viewed at any time without first having to review large amounts of irrelevant information.  The cultural values that give rise to different modes of expression or the widespread acceptance of certain modes of expression are more nuanced than presented by Manovich.  While recent history may present researchers with an entertaining menagerie of technological oddities and curious names, there are broader cultural trends that in many cases do better to illustrate the social and cultural dynamics influencing the development of different media.