Topic-Specific Discussion of Context 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.

Delineating Linguistic Contexts

See page 253 in The Language of New Media

In discussing new media’s use of spatialized visualizations for representing computer data, Lev Manovich observes that:

“The very first coin-op arcade game was called Computer Space. The game simulated a dogfight between a spaceship and a flying saucer. Released in 1971, it was a remake of the first computer game, Spacewar, programmed on a PDP-1 at MIT in 1962. Both of these legendary games included the word space in their titles; and appropriately, space was one of the main characters in each of them.”

Although the discussion prior to this passage uses the word “space” in a topological sense, as in “that which might be filled with objects,” the word “space” is here used to denote “that region beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.” The word “space” is spelled the same in each context, but makes reference to distinct concepts in each context. This conflation of otherwise distinct conceptual vocabularies makes two unrelated discussions appear to be connected in a way they really are not.

The argument that follows from the discussion of “space” is similarly unclear. Manovich observes that “in the original Spacewar, the players navigated two spaceships around the screen” while noting later in the same paragraph that “the space of Spacewar and Computer Space was not navigable.”

It might be supposed that the discrepency surrounding the use of “navigation” in these two cases is meant to point out that it is the spaceship rather than the environment that one manipulates while navigating; but to privilege space in the second instance as that which is manipulated while navigating would be at odds with the conventional usage of the word. To suppose then that the intent is to draw attention to new media’s potential to offer new conceptions of one’s relationship to space, it would be difficult to justify the use of these particular video games as new media objects while elucidating the properties of new media.

What conclusions a reader might draw from this argument is as unclear as the use of terminology, or furthermore how the discussion of “navigable space” relates to the Five Principles of New Media. The problem in part has to do with confusions that arise from an imprecise delineation of context, but also involves matters of interpretation.

If Spacewar was programmed in 1962, the prominence of “space” as a theme in the game might relate in some way to cultural attitudes influenced by the launch of Sputnik and the start of the “space race” five years earlier. As more computers came into use at the academies, their novelty was surely appreciated by those studying them. “Space” in this context might be understood as signifying novelty and to invoke an aestheticized vision of the future. To then contextualize this video game in a more general context of art history, one might appeal to novelty as a central feature of Modernism.

Discrete and Continuous Modes of Representation

See page 29 in The Language of New Media

“The most likely reason modern media has discrete levels is because it emerged during the Industrial Revolution… Not surprisingly, modern media follows the logic of the factory.”

The argument here suggests that the way new media objects implement computer code is a product of the industrial mindset, with the implication that the values of industrial division of labor, specialization, and standardization led to the modern computer. This suggestion involves a complex set of interrelations between the thought processes introduced by industrialization, the structure of computers, and how these thought processes interact with the structure of computers when people create new media objects.

New media objects are conceived of as collections of discrete, indivisible units, such as pixels; and this conception presupposes a contradistinction to traditional media — such as sculpture or chemical photography — where surface properties vary with continuous and arbitrary degrees of detail.

The use of “discrete” here connotes precision, while “continuous” connotes imprecision: however accurately one attempts to measure the height of a bronze sculpture, for example, changes in temperature will cause the metal to expand or contract slightly on different days, contributing to an inherent imprecision in one’s measurement; a digital picture file, however, will always have the same number of pixels no matter on what day one decides to make a tally.

As it is a central feature of industrial mass production that one be able to manufacture large numbers of precisely identical objects, there are a number of superficial reasons why computers might seem to be the product of an industrial mindset: industrial fabrication techniques facilitated computers coming into widespread use, the individual components of computer hardware are in many respects both standardized in their construction and specialized in their function, and the binary code used by computers very much resembles an idealization of industrial order and production.

These congruences aside, however, the aforementioned argument as presented in The Language of New Media involves a number of substantial problems. Most obviously, the written alphabet is a system of discrete symbols: letters came into use long before industrialization, are just as indivisible as pixels in a digital image, and type set in a monospaced font falls into a grid not unlike the arrangement of pixels on a computer screen. Moreover, letters can be assigned numerical meanings: Hebrew is one example of an alphabet that does this.

There are also historical problems with attributing the discrete operations performed by computers to an industrial mindset. The history of computing machines reaches back to antiquity, and its early history can be found in such relics as the Antikythera mechanism. It could be argued that it was “the logic of the factory” that spawned the invention and design of digital computing machines, but it was, rather, a theological motivation that compelled Gottfried Leibniz in the late 1600′s to formalize the system of binary code used by today’s computers; Leibniz furthermore envisaged machines that would perform calculations using his binary system. Although it may be the case that industrialization substantially helped such computing machines in becoming a material reality, their conception lies very much apart from the industrial mindset.

While consumer use of computerized media might in many respects seem to follow “the logic of the factory” — especially as numerous commercial websites profit from user-generated content, which transforms the consumer into a type of specialized producer — the formal and material qualities of modern computerized media follow from a quite different logic.