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

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.

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.

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.