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

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.

Examples of Variability in New Media

See page 38 in The Language of New Media

Many of the specific examples provided in Lev Manovich’s discussion of new media’s variability suffer from an imprecision that leaves unclear just how the Principle of Variability ought to be properly applied when thinking about new media objects.

The example provided by “branching-type interactivity” overlooks historical continuities between new media and traditional media, while also suggesting philosophical difficulties. The word “branching” in this context has both a phenomenological meaning and a technical meaning; as a metaphor it relates to the way tree branches subdivide along their length, and describes the many possible routes one might take while navigating an interactive artwork (as though one were walking along a tree branch from a single trunk to a random leaf). In a technical sense, systems theory studies this phenomenon in terms of “bifurcation” as a way to describe the net effect of multiple individual events. The same “branching-type” behavior can be found in descriptions of interactions with traditional media objects such as books of photographs or other art prints, choose-your-own-adventure books, architecture, and installation art, all of which are commonly explored in a nonlinear and indeterminate fashion.

It could be argued that branching behavior is “in” a new media object in some structural way that it isn’t “in” traditional media; yet, just how one should most properly distinguish between the mechanical response of a book to having a page turned or a television set to having a channel changed, compared to a remote web server sending a copy of a web page, is unclear.

The example provided by “scaling” is similarly problematic. The word “scaling” has an informal sense, in which an object may be presented as larger or smaller, with more or less detail; and the word has a technical sense, which in mathematics refers to a type of linear transformation. The discussion of Microsoft Word’s “Autosummarize” feature fits neither of these uses: one third of a novel is not a scaled-down version of the novel, but rather, it is incomplete.

Although the types of variability discussed in The Language of New Media may be useful to an extent in describing the experience of interacting with a new media object, the discussion breaks down in a number of ways. Why these types of variability have the cultural value that they do is largely left unaddressed, and therefore, what meaning their application has to new media practices in terms of how new media objects are appreciated — aesthetically or in terms of convenience — remains unresolved.

On Defining a Medium

See page 45 in The Language of New Media

“Beginning with the basic, ‘material’ principles of new media — numeric coding and modular organization — we moved to more ‘deep’ and far-reaching ones — automation and variability.”

The medium-specific analysis in The Language of New Media attempts to philosophically ground discussion in a material sense apart from relatively subjective cultural factors: the medium is understood primarily as the properties and behaviors of a material thing. While the language of the analysis draws upon diverse concepts in computer science and mathematics, history, behaviorist and cognitive psychology, economics, and aesthetics, missing is a definition of what “a medium” actually is, such that one might consider a given object as being properly discussed in the terms of a given medium.

Given the scholarly tradition towards which The Language of New Media is oriented, it might seem natural to assume that Lev Manovich’s understanding of “a medium” falls somewhere near Marshall McLuhan’s; yet two of McLuhan’s important conclusions — that electronic media would make cultural habits more tribal and more aural — are at odds with central features of The Language of New Media, which holds that cultural habits have been becoming more industrially-influenced and more visual.

Although an approximate understanding of “a medium” for the purposes of discussion might be generally acceptable, the task of distinguishing new media from traditional media on the basis of qualities which both, in important respects, hold in common presents certain difficulties. To resolve these difficulties, one might accept a more informal and broadly-defined understanding of “a medium.” To do so would, however, imply a different philosophical grounding than that used methodologically in The Language of New Media.